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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

III. Sterne, and the Novel of His Times

§ 11. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Clara Reeve’s Old English Baron

From the novel of sentiment to that of terror, or of the far past, is a startling transition. And the harvest in this field is so poor that our account of it may be brief.

The fountainhead of both streams of romance is to be found in The Castle of Otranto, which was struck off at feverheat by Walpole in the summer of 1764 and published at the end of the year, or the beginning of the next. The execution is weak in the extreme. The “history” is one vast anachronism, and the portents are absurd. Yet, in spite of these glaring defects, of which it is hard to suppose that the author was not in some degree aware, an entirely new turn is here given to the novel, and elements are brought into it which, at a later time and in hands more skilful, were to change it out of all knowledge. The book, as Walpole himself tells us, was written in conscious reaction against the domesticities and the sentiment of Richardson. It was a deliberate attempt to divert fiction from the channel along which it had hitherto flowed; to transport it from the sphere of close observation to that of free invention; to substitute for the interest of the present that of the past, for the world of experience that of the mysterious and the supernatural. The performance is bungling; but the design is in a high degree original and fruitful. It was, in fact, so original that, as sometimes happens in such cases, Walpole himself took fright at his own boldness. He is at the pains to explain that, all appearances to the contrary, his heart is still half with the novel of every-day life. “It was not so much my intention to recall the glories of ancient romance as to blend the wonderful of old stories with the natural of modern novels.” And he appeals, in proof of his sincerity, to Matilda’s avowal of her passion for Theodore. We are not bound to take him at his word. He may, with more kindness, be regarded as a whole-hearted rebel, who led the forlorn hope in a cause which, years after, had its day of triumph. It is that which makes The Castle of Otranto a marked book—even more marked perhaps for its ultimate bearing on foreign literature than on our own.

Clara Reeve, to whom we now pass, led an entirely uneventful life (1729–1807), marked only by the publication of various tales, of which The Old English Baron has alone survived, and by her friendship with Mrs. Brigden, Richardson’s daughter, who revised that work in its earlier shape, The Champion of Virtue.

If there is some doubt about the intentions of Walpole, about those of Clara Reeve, his successor and disciple, there is none whatever. The Old English Baron (1777)—it had been published earlier in the same year as The Castle of Otranto professes to be, “an attempt to unite the merits and graces of the ancient Romance and of the modren Novel.” There is “a sufficient degree of the marvellous,” in the shape of a ghost, “to excite attention; enough of the manners of real life,” or what passes for such, “to give an air of probability; and enough of the pathetic”—in the form of a love-story, with an interesting peasant, who turns out to be son and heir of the ghost (a murdered baron), for hero—“to engage the heart in its behalf.” It is quite true that the ingredients of Otranto, including the irresistible young peasant, were much the same. But they were differently mixed. In Walpole’s book, the chief appeal was to “terror” and to the romantic past. In The Old English Baron, these have sunk into little more than trimmings. The main stress on the part of the author lies upon a tale of righteous vengeance and of love. About the use of the marvellous, she is manifestly nervous. She reduces it, therefore, to the presence of an ordinary ghost, who contents himself with groaning beneath the floor, by way of instituting proceedings against his murderer. Even the medieval is a source of some alarm. And, considering what she makes of it, we can hardly be surprised. Walpole, absurd as novelist of the crusades—his scene is laid with delightful vagueness during the century and a half which covered them—at least contrives to give some faint flavour of the later middle ages to his characters and their setting. Clara Reeve can boast of no such success. A trial by combat, her supreme effort in this direction, is conducted with all the flourishes of forensic etiquette. The manners of the eighteenth century are transplanted straight into the fifteenth. The scene may be labelled “A Feudal Castle”; in reality, it is the cedar parlour of Miss Byron and Sir Charles. The Gothic element and the element of terror being thus disposed of, nothing is left but that which “engages the heart on its behalf”: the eternal theme of “virtue rewarded,” of injured innocence triumphant over treachery and crime. In the compromise which the authoress strove to effect, the “modern Novel” carries off all the honours; the “ancient Romance” is represented by little beyond garnish and appurtenance.

How far can it be said that the works comprised in the above group did anything to prepare the way for the historical and romantic novel, as it was subsequently shaped by Scott? The answer is: only in the vaguest and most rudimentary sense. The novel of terror—if by that we understand the terror which springs from the marvellous and supernatural—has never taken kindly to English soil. And it is manifest that Scott fought shy of the marvellous as an element of prose fiction. In appealing to terror, accordingly, neither Walpole nor Clara Reeve did much more than enter a claim that the borders of the novel might without treason be enlarged; that the novel was not bound down by the charter of its being to the presentation of current life in its most obvious respects—of buying and selling, of marrying and giving in marriage. That, if judged by the permanent results, was all; but it was enough. The appeal to history told in the same direction; but it was far more fruitful of results. Walpole, it is true, did not make much of it; Clara Reeve still less. But they pointed the way which, with a thousand modifications suggested by his genius, Scott was triumphantly to follow. And the very defects of The Old English Baron may have aided him in the discovery, so often missed by his successors, that, in the historical novel, the history is of far less importance than the human interest and the romance. The earlier and greater Waverleys, in fact, can be called historical only by a stretch. It was not until Scott had worked for years upon the near past—a past which still made itself felt as a living force upon the present—that he plunged into the middle ages. Moreover, in spite of its stirring adventure, Ivanhoe has always counted for less with the English reader than with those of Germany and France.