I was sitting in the public library in Thurmond Street just now, skimming
through Rogue Herries by Horace Walpole, when suddenly I came
over all peckish.
I were all 'ungry, like!
WENSLEYDALE: Oh, hungry.
MOUSEBENDER: In a
nutshell. So I thought to myself "a little fermented curd will do the
trick." So I curtailed my Walpolling activities, sallied forth and infiltrated
your place of purveyance to negotiate the vending of some cheesy comestibles.
MOUSEBENDER: I want
to buy some cheese!
-- "Monty Python's Flying
a tribute to Horace Walpole exactly (in fact, as Tim Dixon of Edmonton,
Alberta, has reminded me, Rogue Herries is not by Horace Walpole
at all but rather by Hugh Walpole). Yet the eighteenth-century earl
would probably not have felt out of place in this sketch, for the Pythons
continue a peculiar strain of British tradition distinguished by absurdity,
ridicule, wordplay, wit, wickedness, and plain madness (not to mention
cheesiness) that unquestionably reached one of its peaks in these extraordinary
(and virtually unknown, even in England) Hieroglyphic Tales.
In a word: fermented curd. Herewith a few field
notes for going Walpolling.
He was about as odd as you would expect.
He lived (comfortably, thanks to a variety of sinecures--his
father, Robert, had been prime minister of England under King George
1) in a house on the banks of the Thames near Twickenham; he called
the house Strawberry Hill and made it into "a little Gothic castle"
decked out with fake pinnacles, battlements, ornamental facades, and
gargoyles of lath and plaster and crammed to overflowing with all manner
of antiquities, curiosities, and objets d'art. Toward the end of his
life and for some time thereafter (at least until a famous auction of
its contents in 1842), Strawberry Hill was a tourist attraction. According
to his memorandum book, Walpole personally ushered some four thousand
visitors through it (complaining all the while of the inconvenience).
Often criticized as a cheap, slipshod sham, it has also been lauded
as a "subjunctive" edifice, an "architecture of the 'as if,'"(FN1)
and as a creation that overturns conventional "rigid and stately rules
of architecture ." (FN2)
Besides being an extremely prolific writer ("When
will it end?" wrote a reviewer in 1851 of Walpole's posthumous letters,
well before they had attained their present mass of forty-eight volumes),
he was a publisher (depending on your point of view, his publishing
was "simple and restrained" (FN3) or characterized
by "rather indifferent printing";(FN4) in any case,
his Strawberry Hill Press stands as the first privately held printing
press in England). Yet Horace Walpole, publisher, had a peculiar attitude
to being published:
In August 1796, six months before his death, Horace
Walpole wrote a memorandum requesting his executors to "cord up strongly
and seal" a large chest containing his memoirs, a vast, unpublished
manuscript of some three million words. The box was to be opened only
by the "first son of Lady Waldegrave who shall attain the age of twenty-five
years," the key to be guarded by Lady Waldegrave herself. This oblique
form of publication--a key to a box containing manuscripts in search
of an editor--is emblematic of Walpole's authorial career. His most
famous work, The Castle of Otranto, was first published spuriously
as a translation from the Italian of "Onuphrio Muralto." His other
principal imaginative writings, The Mysterious Mother and Hieroglyphic
Tales, were issued only to a few close friends in private editions
at Strawberry Hill. Walpole arranged for his collected works to be
published only after his death; his collected correspondence has taken
until 1983 to reach complete publication in the forty-eight volumes
of the Yale Edition; while the memoirs, duly recovered from the sealed
chest, were mangled by incompetent nineteenth-century editors and
have not vet been published in full. (FN5)
He had a diabolical (and at times rather infantile) sense
of humor, demonstrated in his passing off The Castle of Otranto,
as a translation from the Italian and in the evil comedy of one
of the Hieroglyphic Tales, "The Peach in Brandy." He once faked
a letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau that purported to be from the King
of Prussia, precipitating a heated public dispute in which Rousseau,
Jacob Grimm, and others participated.
He is supposed to have composed "The Peach in Brandy,"
in which an archbishop accidentally swallows a human fetus, for a young
girl of his acquaintance: "The preference exhibited by Walpole in his
old age for the society of ladies had its corollary in his life-long
preference for little girls over little boys," Dorothy Stuart assures
us. "He was always a courteous knight to virgins of five; and for the
delectation of one of them, Lady Anne Fitzpatrick, he wrote in 1771
the fable of the Peach in Brandy. This fable formed one of a
series of five Hieroglyphic Tales.... The whimsicality of these
tales," she adds uncertainly, "is such that the intended parable or
satire sometimes becomes a little difficult of detection." (FN6)
It is indeed hard to imagine the effect of this story on its original
We may wonder too about the reaction of Lord Ossory,
to whom Walpole sent a copy of the story on the occasion of Lady Ossory's
miscarriage of twin sons.
In this context Kenneth Gross notes that "Walpole's
tales start to take on the qualities of a nightmare." (FN7)
Besides The Castle of Otranto, the other
major literary work Walpole published during his lifetime was his tragedy
in blank (at first I inadvertently wrote black) verse, The
Mysterious Mother. Byron admired it, calling it "a tragedy of the
highest order, and not a puling love-play." It concerns a young man
who, through a series of mistaken identities and unfortunate misunderstandings
(no fault of his own), ends up marrying the daughter he has fathered
by his mother (a bewildering set of relationships outdoing Bill Wyman).
Dorothy Stuart, always charmingly sympathetic to Walpole, remarks, "It
is, indeed, a little curious that his imagination--though in The
Castle of Otranto he had toyed with the theme of incest--should
have been allured by a story so sombre and so revolting." (FN8)
In a contemporaneous review (1797), William Taylor rhapsodized that
the play "has attained an excellence nearly unimpeachable" and that
it "may fitly be compared with the Oedipus Tyrannus of Sophocles." Few
modern readers would value it quite so highly.
Walpole was blamed by his contemporaries for the
suicide of the poet Thomas Chatterton, who wrote a bitter poem addressed
to Walpole before perishing in romantic despair (he drank arsenic).
Walpole had concluded that the claims of the youth (Chatterton was sixteen
when he wrote to him) to have discovered a collection of medieval poems
by a certain "Rowley" were fraudulent. Ironically, this was, as Chatterton
insinuates in a poem, just the sort of deceit one might have expected
from Walpole himself-.
Walpole! I thought not I should ever see
So mean a Heart as thine has proved to be:
Thou, who in Luxury nursd behold'st with Scorn
The boy, who Friendless, Penniless, Forlorn,
Asks thy high Favour,--thou mayst call me Cheat-
Say, didst thou ne'er indulge in such Deceit?
Who wrote Otranto? But I win not chide,
Scorn I will repay with Scorn, and Pride with
Still, Walpole, still, thy Prosy Chapters write,
And twaddling letters to some Fair indite,
Laud all above thee,--Fawn and Cringe to those
Who, for thy Fame, were better Friends than Foes
Still spurn the incautious Fool who dares --
Had I the Gifts of Wealth and Lux'ry shard
Not poor and Mean--Walpole! thou hadst not dared
Thus to insult, But I shall live and Stand
By Rowley's side--when Thou art dead and damned.
The Castle of Otranto is the work by which most
people know Walpole (it has been published in more than a hundred and
fifty editions), because of its historical significance as the first
Gothic novel. It is hard now to appreciate how innovative a book this
was, since countless other works have been patterned after it. Walter
Scott admired the book, praising its "Pure and correct English" as well
as its status as 'the first modern attempt to found a tale of amusing
fiction upon the basis of the ancient romances of chivalry." In contrast,
the writer of Walpole's obituary in Gentlemen's Magazine (1797),
though finding much to praise in Walpole's writings, flatly dismissed
The Castle of Otranto as miserable trash." The book had its genesis
in a dream in which Walpole found himself in an ancient castle, facing
an enormous hand encased in armor. The novel is filled with ghosts,
giants, mysterious appearances, and violent emotions. "I gave rein to
my imagination," Walpole said, "Visions and passions choked me." In
this classic work Walpole began to develop his taste for the Gothic
and the grotesque and, more fundamentally, to tap the turbulent world
of his unconscious in a manner shocking for his time, to take us closer
to the terrifying psychological substrata that have become a major literary
subject in our own century. Nonetheless, The Castle remains a
rather mechanical and distanced work. It was not until the Hieroglyphic
Tales that Walpole began to discover a more radical way of writing
that anticipated a direction taken in modern fiction.
Walpole wrote in his postscript to the Hieroglyphic
Tales that the tales were an attempt "to vary the stale and beaten
class of stories and novels, which, though works of invention, are almost
always devoid of imagination. It would scarcely be credited, were it
not evident from the Bibliotheque des Romans, which contains the fictitious
adventures that have been written in all ages and all countries, that
there should have been so little fancy, so little variety, and so little
novelty, in writings in which the imagination is fettered by no rules,
and by no obligation of speaking truth. There is infinitely more invention
in history, which has no merit if devoid of truth, than in romances
and novels, which pretend to none."
This is an attitude with which many editors and
publishers will sympathize, for we know that fiction manuscripts are
distinguished more than anything else by their striking similarity to
one another. How hard it is to be truly imaginative! In the Hieroglyphic
Tales Walpole worked out a number of ways of breaking from the mold.
First, he structured his stories on a firm "fairy
tale" foundation. Kenneth Gross calls the tales representatives of a
tradition of "oriental fables" that also found expression in such works
of the period as Voltaire's Zadig, Crébillon's Le Sopha,
and Johnson's Rasselas. "Judged for themselves, however,"
he adds, "the tales are a small miracle. The best of them distill from
the Bible, the Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, French romances, English
politics, and antiquarian lore a comic fantasy of an urbane, hard-edged
strangeness such as it is hard to find anywhere else...." (FN9)
The familiarity of this form enabled Walpole to
make bold innovations in other aspects of his narrative. "Music rots
when it gets too far from the dance," Ezra Pound admonished in
ABC of Reading, and "poetry atrophies when it gets too far from
music." By the same token, narrative fiction atrophies when it gets
too far from the foundations of storytelling: myths and folktales. Walpole
was wise to graft his grotesque elaborations on a sturdy folktale rootstock.
(We might add that typography atrophies when it
gets too far from handwriting. This book is set in a version of the
typeface designed by and named for the eighteenth-century English typographer
William Caslon. It is the last of the original Old Style typefaces derived
from the Renaissance scribal tradition, and it is the face in which
Walpole set his first edition of the Hieroglyphic Tales.)
Among the most innovative of Walpole's narrative
effects was his radical subversion of the representational fallacy.
He strewed impossibilities through the stories (choses absurdes et
hors de toute vraisemblance, as the epigraph has it), leaving the
reader to puzzle over the ability of narrative and of language itself
to confound our understanding of the relation between language, storytelling,
and reality. The tales are opaque, calling as much attention to the
telling as to the stories themselves. They were written, he tells us
in the preface, compounding impossibilities one upon another, "a little
before the creation of the world, and have ever since been preserved,
by oral tradition, in the mountains of Crampcraggiri, an uninhabited
island, not yet discovered." He peopled the stories with dead suitors,
daughters who were never born (or, being born, are proven not to exist),
and such fancies as goats' eggs sought as a cure for freckles.
In addition, Walpole disrupted the narrative continuity
of his stories with detours, denials, false starts, solipsisms, and
asides. In part this probably derived from a private symbolism in which
characters and incidents cloaked catty personal allusions to political
or society figures, allusions now largely lost; but the result was a
narrative that delights and perplexes with its off-center unpredictability.
Walpole created an existential narrative, remarkable for its age, existing
simply to be and not to refer. Kenneth Gross crafts a subtle paragraph
on this theme:
A constitutive intellectual drama underlies the most
outlandish projects of Swift's imperturbable madmen, such as the idea
of finding capable politicians, preachers, and journalists in the
lower reaches of Bedlam. But Walpole's brief narratives tend to liberate
the fantasies of satire from the bondage of ideas. That is to say,
his tales make use of the exaggerated, ironic fictions of satire as
much as the more self-consistent magical devices of fairy tales, but
their bizarre, mannerist surfaces seem continually to deny the possibility
of a concealed intellectual skeleton. Despite a wealth of literary
and historical allusion, and many moments of sharp, ironic
criticism, Walpole's hieroglyphics do not invite us to read them as
ciphers of an integrated satiric argument. (FN10)
In one modern vocabulary we might say that Walpole, surprisingly
for such a seemingly intellectual, cynical, satiric character, somehow
transcended his own gravest limitations to succeed as much as any writer
of his time in freeing the story from the restraints of the ego (while
maintaining a profoundly ambivalent attitude to the whole undertaking).
Finally, Walpole played with tone in an extremely
innovative and sophisticated way. His habitual skepticism played against
the fairy-tale suspension of disbelief and his own wild flights of fancy
(thus he began Hieroglyphic Tales with an inverted Scheherazade
story--"whose own tales might be said to represent the power of fantastic
narrative at its purest"--in which the captive princess bores her husband
to sleep and then kills him.)" (FN11) Likewise,
his wicked, at times unpleasant wit played against the faux naïveté
of the fairy-tale narrative to create an unusually rich style, full
of color and texture.
Walpole, as we have seen, was as a rule skittish
about publication; this was particularly true of the Hieroglyphic
Tales. Perhaps this was due in part to a rumor that he was in possession
of tales of an unprecedented strangeness, which he had written in the
throes of delirium. "I have some strange things in my drawer, even wilder
than The Castle of Otranto," he allowed in a letter to the Reverend
William Cole in 1779, "but they were not written lately [the Tales
were composed between 1766 and 1772], nor in the gout, nor, whatever
they may seem, written while I was out of my senses." (FN12)
Six years later he printed six or seven (counting a proof printing)
copies, all of which he kept in his own possession until his death.
Until the twentieth century, this was the only publication of this extraordinary
work. (FN13) (Tongue in cheek, Walpole estimated
that "it will be treated with due reverence some hundred ages hence.")
In 1926 a small limited edition was published in England by Elkin Matthews.
In 1982 another small edition (a facsimile of the original 178S printing)
was published by the Augustan Reprint Society of the University of California,
Los Angeles. This edition included a helpful introduction by Kenneth
Gross (from which I have quoted), and to it was appended an additional
tale, "The Bird's Nest," first brought to light by A. Dayle Wallace,
which had once been intended by Walpole for the collection but was not
included in his original printing. (FN14)
This Mercury House edition is thus the first publication
ever for the general trade of this strange, innovative, singular work,
still funny and still disturbing--and still particularly provocative
to anyone interested in the art of storytelling--after more than two
centuries. We have included "The Bird's Nest," and we have followed
Walpole's somewhat eccentric spelling, punctuation, and styling but
have replaced the eighteenth-century long esses of the Strawberry Hill
printing with modern ones. We are pleased to present the Hieroglyphic
Tales in a handsome paperback edition with a second interior color
and beautiful, witty illustrations, remarkably sensitive to the tone
and spirit of the text, by Jill McElmurry of Dunsmuir, California.
Altogether a suitable edition for your Walpolling
. . . . . . . . .
1. Diane S. Ames, "Strawberry Hill: Architecture of
the 'as if," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 8, ed.
Roseann Runte (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979) citd
in Peter Sabor, Horace Walpole: A Reference Guide (Boston:
G.K. Hall & Co., 1984), 230.
2. "Strawberry Hill," Builder 41 (August
13, 1881), cited in Sabor, 76.
3. Douglas McMurtrie, The Book: The Story
of Printing and Bookmaking (London: Oxford University Press, 1943),
4. Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing Types:
Their History, Forms, and Use, vol. 2 (1937; reprint, New York:
Dover Publications, 1980), 140.
5. Sabor, 1.
6. Dorothy Margaret Stuart, Horace Walpole
(New York: MacMillan, 1927), 191.
7. Kenneth, W. Gross, in Hieroglyphic Tales,
Horace Wapole (Los Angeles: University of Ca1ifornia Augustan Reprint
Society, 1982), x.
8. Stuart, 181.
9. Gross, iii.
10. Gross, v.
11. Gross, ix.
12. Gross, iii.
13. I have encountered a reference to an 1822
edition but have not been able to verify it. No such edition is listed
in Peter Sabor's comprehensive Horace Walpole: A Reference Guide
(Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984), which asserts that the 1926 edition
was the first since the original printing.
14. A. Dayle Wallace, "Two Unpublished Fairy
Tales by Horace Walpole," in Horace Walpole: Writer, Politician,
and Connoisseur, ed. Warren Hunting Smith (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 1967), 241-53.
. . . . . . . . .
top of page
is the cover of the Mercury House
edition. A very cool
Russian edition has also recently been published.