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               The Literature and Culture of the Closet
                         in the Eighteenth Century
                                                    Danielle Bobker

Gothic Collections, Gothic Chambers

Reading: ➢ Horace Walpole, Castle of Otranto

Strawberry Hill, the Seat 
Fig. 21. Edward Dayes, Strawberry Hill, the Seat of the Honourable Horace Walpole. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Gallery at Strawberry Hill

Fig. 23. Gallery at Strawberry Hill.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Strawberry Hill Library

Fig. 24. Library at Strawberry Hill.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The Cabinet

Fig. 25. The Cabinet.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

Strawberry Hill, Before and After

Fig. 22: Strawberry Hill, Before and After
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.



In our last week of the course we explore the influence of Horace Walpole’s eclectic tastes on the genre of the Gothic novel he invented. Walpole’s continual renovations of his estate, Strawberry Hill (Figures 21 and 22), reflected his passion not only for feudal architecture but also for his own eccentric collections of antique coins, old and contemporary paintings, and antiquarian curios including Mary Tudor’s hair in a gold locket, Cardinal Wolsey’s red hat, and an ivory comb from the twelfth century. Walpole was not interested in the empirical systems of classification privileged by many eighteenth-century collectors. Instead he was concerned with immediate affective and imaginative charge of medieval material culture—especially its delightful dreariness, or “gloomth” as he called it—and he went to great lengths to create interior settings appropriate for the display of the things he loved (Figures 23, 24, 25, and 26).

In the introduction to Castle of Otranto, Walpole writes that his inspiration for the novel came from a dream he had had about the medieval suit of armor he kept in the main staircase at Strawberry Hill (Figure 27). We approach the novel as the literary corollary of Walpole’s unorthodox antiquarianism. In particular, we pay close attention to moments where the very modern immediacy of characterization and dialogue bump up against the romantic plot, settings, and “properties”—such as Mathilda and Isabelle’s late-night exchange about their shared attraction for Theodore, for example. Ultimately, we focus on the ideological complexity of Walpole’s Gothicism. How is the novel’s melodramatic resolution a reflection of this ideological complexity? It seems clear that Walpole’s nostalgia is for the surfaces and style of Europe’s feudal past, rather than its top-down political and religious institutions. Does he succeed in showing his appreciation for the former but not the latter? Another favorite topic of conversation for students is the relationship between Walpole’s homosexuality and his taste, which we might now label as campy or kitschy.



Suggested Presentation Topics:


Gothic architecture
Strawberry Hill and/or Walpole as collector
Cynthia Wall, “Writing Things” in The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century
Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp” from Against Interpretation and Other Essays
Walpole’s closet drama, The Mysterious Mother

 

GBR Stawberry Hill

Fig. 26. Beauclerk Closet, Strawberry Hill.
© World Monuments Fund.

Strawberry Hill Staircase

Fig. 27. Staircase at Strawberry Hill.
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

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