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Horace Walpole: Books & Letters

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

From your favorite horror stories to one of the funniest-sounding words in our language, the Right Honorable Horace Walpole changed the horizons of English literature forever. Find out how in this lesson.

Life of Leisure: A Brief Historical Note on Horace Walpole

The Right Honorable Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717-1797), English author, socialite, and legendary letter writer
Portrait of Horace Walpole

Horatio (often Anglicized as 'Horace') Walpole, Earl of Orford, led a long and productive life in the inner circles of British high society. His father, Sir Robert Walpole, was prime minister to both King George II and III, and during his lengthy career he managed to secure independent incomes for his sons. Like today's 'trust fund kids,' this financial stability and independence with practically no actual responsibility enabled Horace to devote himself entirely to his passions. These ran from art and politics to social commentary and gossip.

Though he produced several larger works, such as Anecdotes of Painting in England -- a review of local art history in four volumes -- Walpole is perhaps best known for his enormous contribution to English epistolary literature, a genre comprised of collections of letters (epistles) to friends and family.

With a total output estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 individual letters, the Earl of Orford is by far one of the most prolific epistle writers in the English language. As such, he's had a tremendous impact on the amount of first-hand historical information available from this tumultuous period in British history. Take a look at the selections below to get a taste of just a very few of the works that Walpole's long life of leisure allowed him to produce.

Books by Horace Walpole

The Castle of Otranto

You probably wouldn't think to associate grim tales like Frankenstein or The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with an English epistle writer, but they and many others owe much of their character to Horace. He was obsessed with romanticized Medieval accounts of the ghastly and supernatural and wanted to reintroduce those elements into both literature and architecture.

While residing in a Gothic castle of his own design (called 'Strawberry Hill'), Walpole wrote his chilling novel, The Castle of Otranto (1765). The book is one of the earliest pioneers in contemporary Gothic literature -- a genre dedicated to tales of the horrific, the macabre, and the supernatural. It helped lead to the genre's widespread popularity in the 19th century with authors like Mary Shelley and Washington Irving.

Thanks to Walpole, the name of Strawberry Hill (above) became synonymous with Gothicized architecture of the late 18th century.
Photo of present-day Strawberry Hill

Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third

The passion of Walpole's artistic pursuits was matched only by that for politics. Though supposedly an historical record of the monarch's rule, Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third also contains a considerable amount of Horace's own personal views on the period's major issues. For instance, as a member of the Whigs -- a politically and socially conservative party in British Parliament -- Walpole is particularly concerned in these memoirs about the relationship with the American colonies and lets his censure of the king's policies regarding them be known.

The Letters of Horace Walpole

Just as we might have very specific outfits for certain types of weather or occasions, it's said that Walpole -- the quintessential English 'man of letters' -- carefully selected each of his correspondents depending on the subject matter of his correspondence. For instance, letters written to his friend and former schoolmate, the English poet Thomas Gray, frequently concerned literary matters. Though just a very small representation of the incredible mass of epistles Walpole wrote (enough to fill around 40 volumes!), these two might help you get a feel for what it would be like to get some mail from the Earl of Orford.

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