Updated: Feb 14, 2022
This year, for Austen's birthday, Jane Austen & Co. is celebrating with another talk! We're so excited that Peter Sabor (McGill University) will be talking about China in the English imagination through the works of Horace Walpole.
If you've never read Walpole before, he's one of eighteenth-century England's most interesting writers. We can't wait to introduce you to his wonderful and whimsical works, so we're going to spark things off with some interesting facts about Walpole's life and writings.
1. He wrote the first gothic novel.
Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764) is famous for inventing the genre of gothic novels that Catherine Morland loved so much in Northanger Abbey. The book opens with a giant helmet falling from the sky and crushing a man—a portent of the terrifying curse that Manfred seeks to avoid. The book was an inspiration for Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, which in turn inspired Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
2. His first published work was from the perspective of a Chinese philosopher.
Walpole often used Chinese perspectives to critique English society at a distance. His early political pamphlet “Letter from Xo Ho to his Friend Lien Chi at Pekin” talks about London politics from the perspective of a Chinese visitor who is baffled by English government.
"In France, they have a high notion of their king; they will stab him, but they will not hate him. An Englishman loves or hates his king, once or twice in a winter, and that for no reason, but that he loves or hates the Ministry in being.”
3. He built his own medieval castle.
Beginning 1749, Walpole began constructing a villa in the style of old Gothic medieval castles called Strawberry Hill. With its bold white façade and lavish interiors, the building housed Walpole’s large antiquarian collections that inspired his gothic writings. Strawberry Hill's unique architecture sparked the Gothic Revival trend that lasted through the nineteenth century. You can still visit Strawberry Hill today!
4. He wrote his own fairy tales.
Well known for his wit and humor, Walpole enjoyed writing short satirical pieces. His collection of internationally inspired fairy tales, published as Hieroglyphic Tales in 1785, contain acerbic and absurd critiques of English society. "Mi Li: a Fairy Tale" tells of a prince of China who must marry a woman who shares the same name as her father; his journey leads to him to the British Isles, where comical misadventures ensue.
"He had been too well educated to put the question to his godmother, for he knew when she uttered an oracle, that it was with intention to perplex, not to inform; which has made people so fond of consulting all those who do not give an explicit answer, such as prophets, lawyers, and any body you meet on the road, who, if you ask the way, reply by desiring to know whence you came."
5. He coined the word "serendipity"
Ever fond of fairy tales, Walpole found inspiration for the neologism in the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which came into England through an Italian translation. Serendip itself is an old Persian name for Sri Lanka. In a letter to Horace Mann, he defined the term as “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.
6. He was the son of a Prime Minister and a politician in his own right.
The son of the first Prime Minister of England, Robert Walpole, Horace became a member of parliament in 1741. As a Whig politician, Walpole was skeptical of absolute monarchy. Walpole was so critical of the monarchy that he was said to have hung a copy of the execution warrant of Charles I on his wall at home.