a horace reading

an introduction to the Mercury House edition
of Horace Walpole's Hieroglyphic Tales

      By Thomas Christensen


homeward bound

      MOUSEBENDER: 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.
      WENSLEYDALE: Peckish, sir?
      MOUSEBENDER: Esurient.
      MOUSEBENDER: Eee, 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.
      WENSLEYDALE: Come again?
      MOUSEBENDER: I want to buy some cheese!
            -- "Monty Python's Flying Circus"

Not 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 intended audience.
      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 Pride.
      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 activities.

            Tbomas Christensen

. . . . . . . . . .


      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), 464.
      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.

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Above is the cover of the Mercury House edition. A very cool Russian edition has also recently been published.


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