This is certainly a strange way to begin a book about giant ghosts and spooky castles. The idea that one should preface a book with a disavowal of authorship is, of course, an old one; Cervantes himself did it. But this opening gambit is generally taken as an opportunity to reinforce--not to undermine--the tone and setting of the work. After all, the European imagination had more than its share of mysterious Moors and manuscripts found in Saragossa, and could have provided the text with a more fitting backdrop.
The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear. The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.
If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first Crusade, and 1243, the date of the last, or not long afterwards. There is no other circumstance in the work that can lead us to guess at the period in which the scene is laid: the names of the actors are evidently fictitious, and probably disguised on purpose: yet the Spanish names of the domestics seem to indicate that this work was not composed until the establishment of the Arragonian Kings in Naples had made Spanish appellations familiar in that country. The beauty of the diction, and the zeal of the author (moderated, however, by singular judgment) concur to make me think that the date of the composition was little antecedent to that of the impression. Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators, and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.
- Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764), preface to the first edition
Instead, we get an "ancient family" and a few pages of vague textological speculation--what amounts to a parody of a scholarly apparatus. (Perhaps, as the introduction notes, this could be an echo of the heated debates over the Ossian poems.) At issue here is the gap between the story's actual date, its date of writing, and its date of printing; what establishes it as literature is the separation of the first from the second and third. If the style is the "purest Italian," it cannot be the Sicilian dialect of a medieval chronicle of events--which means that the text, in the messy world of pretend authorship, was composed with intention.
In fact, by rearranging these dates, Walpole is able to make the book into a foil for the familiar Enlightenment narrative of printing driving out ignorance and superstition. (Hence the reference to "turning their own arms on the innovators.") If the Gothic is really about things rather than characters or events (as, it seems, many people have argued), then the preface is about a physical object challenging the deterministic causation implied by the printing narrative. Printing leaves room, it seems to say, for dreamlike fantasies as well as the moralistic realist fables left behind by the withdrawal of superstition from literature.
It seems somehow crucial that the very end of the play contains two references to written documents:
Jerome blushed, and continued. “For three months Lord Alfonso was wind-bound in Sicily. [blah blah blah]. What could a friendless, helpless woman do? Would her testimony avail? - yet, my lord, I have an authentic writing - ”On the one hand, an "authentic writing" is unnecessary to establish a legal claim founded ultimately on the dream-logic of the Gothic novel. On the other, an abdication needs to be signed anyway! The introduction to my Oxford Classics edition claims, rather fancifully, that The Castle of Otranto is actually about English bourgeois anxiety over entailed property. Scenes like this make the interpretation look plausible.
“It needs not,” said Manfred; “the horrors of these days, the vision we have but now seen, all corroborate thy evidence beyond a thousand parchments. Matilda’s death and my expulsion - ”
.... In the morning Manfred signed his abdication of the principality.
So how do we reconcile this fascination with handwritten authenticity with the book's interventions in the debate over the nature of print? One way is to interpret the former as a parodic way of affirming the claims of the materialists: the signed abdication links the universe of fantasy to that of verifiable, evidence-based historiography, completely muddying the waters between superstition and science. Yet it may still be a question of oppositions. The parchment and the authentic document belong to the Gothic era. They are of a piece with the castle, while the printed "translation" belongs to the neoclassical and the modern. These two interpretations don't seem to be reconcilable--as with so many things in this frustrating and convoluted novel.