From Strawberry Hill Gothic to the Surreal: Horace Walpole and Jan Švankmajer

Posted by Brigid Cherry on October 02, 2010 in Dr Brigid Cherry, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

As a scholar in the field of horror cinema I consider myself fortunate to work in a most Gothic environment, for my (admittedly rather mundane) office at St Mary’s University College looks out over Horace Walpole’s Little Gothick Castle in Strawberry Hill. In a further example of propitious fate (I am even tempted to call it serendipity), just as I was being invited to contribute this guest blog to Gothic Imagination the newly-restored house was being unveiled from behind scaffolding and plastic sheeting, with the Friends of Strawberry Hill gearing up for its reopening.

To begin this post on a confessional note, the restoration has left me with mixed feelings however. For almost eighteen months now, whenever I have looked up from my work, it is not to glimpse the faded glory of a Gothic house crumbling into disrepair—the ruin that as Eugenia DeLamotte evocatively puts it is forever “decayed and decaying, fallen and falling”—but rather the workmen’s carapace of white plastic which has symbolized, to my mind, both a shroud and a chrysalis. The marker of death is simultaneously the shell from which the new ‘thing’ will emerge. This veiling, and the thing which the veiling conceals, in itself draws out feelings of horror, the dread of what might be revealed, as the bridal veil worn in play by the young child in The Others (2001) is lifted to reveal the dreadful sight of the old woman’s wizened features, as the heroine who gives in to her curiosity by snatching away the Phantom’s mask in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is exposed to his gaunt, disfigured face. It is the recollection of such moments of horror that co-exists alongside an anxiety that the Gothic palimpsest that Strawberry Hill had become with its layers of Gothic Revival, Victorian Gothic, and the later marks of its occupation by the Vincentian Fathers, would be expunged in remaking the building over anew, as it was in Walpole’s day. My confession here is that I rather adored the shabby Gothic chic of the crumbling plaster, frayed silk and peeling paper. Yet clearly the building needed saving, and thus my moments of loss and trepidation. What scarred or twisted visage might emerge from behind the plastic sheeting to haunt us once again?

Indeed, to gaze upon the recently pupated, newly exposed form is for a moment unsettling, uncanny. Like the return of the repressed, it is at once unfamiliar and yet strangely familiar. The house, its freshly-limed facade shining bright-white like a tiered and pinnacled wedding cake, seems detached from its surroundings, the greens and browns of the garden, the tan and yellow masonry of Lady Waldegrave’s Victorian Gothic additions appear mundane in contrast. The newness of the house seems both all too solid and at the same time spectral. What is clear upon the unveiling of Strawberry Hill is that the crumbling palimpsest is still in the process of becoming; a museum piece, frozen in time, preserved in aspic – yes, but it is still being written over with contemporary additions to the stained glass and the opening up of the site for educational visits or afternoon tea. It is now more than simply a ghostly presence from the past haunting our present. As Fred Botting informs us: ‘Gothic […] resonates as much with anxieties and fears concerning the crises and changes in the present as with any terrors of the past’. No wonder the restoration of the house could arouse conflicting and ambiguous emotions.

The Gothic elements within any text, be it novel, film or architecture, should evoke feelings of unease, of course. Strawberry Hill House remains both marvelous and, to my own Gothic sensibilities at least, unsettling. But it also reminds us that the Gothic contains elements of playacting. To borrow from Botting again: “The literary and fictional background to the Gothic revival is clearly manifested as an artificial or fabricated aesthetic phenomenon”. Indeed, Walpole himself saw Strawberry Hill as a plaything, the prettiest bauble, a gingerbread castle, a Gothic mousetrap, a paper house. As Jerrold Hogle points out, all forms of the Gothic are counterfeit. Even in Walpole’s day, his Gothick castle was inauthentic, a theatrical performance of papier-mâché, sharrawaggi, and an atmosphere he called gloomth. Both Strawberry Hill and Walpole’s other great project, his novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), as Hogle reminds us, are invested with layers of fakery. This suggests that we should not take either house or novel too seriously. A rather different example of Gothic adaptation reminds us of this: the short film version of The Castle of Otranto by the Czech artist and animator Jan Švankmajer.

Widely referred to as an “alchemist of the Surreal”, and a member of the Czech Surrealist Group, Švankmajer and Walpole, Surrealism and Gothic, hold more in common than a shared interest in the Cabinet of Wonders. Much of Švankmajer’s work relies on images of the uncanny and the grotesque that sit just as easily in the Gothic. Indeed, he has made several films which have originated in Gothic texts, including Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (Zánik Domu Usheru, 1980) and The Pit and the Pendulum (Kyvadlo, Jáma a Nadeje/The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope, 1983), and notably what is possibly the only film version of The Castle of Otranto (Otrantský Zámek, 1979).

In keeping with the Gothic as counterfeit, Otrantský Zámek is presented to the viewer in the form of a fake documentary (what we might now refer to as a mockumentary) intercut with paper cutout animations of events from the novel. This inscribes yet another counterfeit layer over what is already several levels of fakery drawn from the novel—as Hogle says, Walpole’s tale is a fake translation of a fake manuscript by a fake Renaissance priest. Furthermore, the story itself is populated by the ghosts of objects already artificial (an effigy and a portrait), and the presence of Walpole’s own fake Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill is ever-present. Švankmajer’s film lays this fakery bare. “The scene is undoubtedly laid in some real castle”, Walpole writes in his original preface, and Švankmajer goes along with the conceit (or ‘fib’ as Hogle refers to it). The documentarian in the film, Milos Rýba, reads from what he refers to as an old novel set in Italy: “According to an old prophecy, the Otranto estate and castle will cease to belong to the present noble family as soon as the original owner becomes too big for it.” Thus he begins an interview with his subject, Jaroslav Vozáb, about the connection between this quote and the ruins of the “typical Czech castle” that form the backdrop to the interview. Through Vozáb, Švankmajer extends Walpole’s fib into satire on Czech politics and culture, as well as the Gothic itself.

Vozáb claims Walpole’s preface is “knowledgeable”, he “cannot but believe” the story is founded on truth. But even if it is historically authentic, it is not geographically so. He, Vozáb, is one of the “curious people, according to Walpole, [who] will seek to uncover the foundation on which our author has built”. The description of the castle (“the most tangible part of the novel”) is read as a plan and as a map: the edifice, the large hall at the end of the corridor on the right, Matilda’s chamber up in the tower, the underground passage where Isabella hides, the cavern on the nearby mountainside where she seeks refuge from Manfred. These are directions that have led him to the ruins of a castle in the village of Otrhany, a simulacra, a doppelganger, a ghosting of the castle in the novel in both description and name.

Švankmajer’s animation, however, signals that this is anything but real. His pan across the yellowed pages of the novel and an engraving of the castle from the book cross-fade smoothly into shots of the actual castle ruins. This is a castle made of paper, just like Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. This provocatively undercuts the rich account of history and evidence of the supernatural that Vozáb provides, his hypothesis for Walpole’s confusion between Bohemia and Italy, his archeological finds which include giant ostrich feathers and rivets from an enormous suit of armour, the patterns of fallen stones on the ground “as if some gigantic force lifted the castle walls”. As Švankmajer cuts back and forth from his mockumentary footage to his animated engravings, the boundary between novel and archeology becomes increasingly blurred. As the paper Manfred chases after the fleeing Isabella, fast cutting shows Vozáb running through the ruins of the real castle. When the giant paper knight appears, two paper cut-out eyes rove back and forth between the paper arches in the engraving; a match cut depicts Vozáb’s eyes looking through the windows of his model castle (beside which he too is a giant, monstrous presence).

Vozáb is thus both Manfred and the knight, a Gothic doubling that Švankmajer satirises further when the interviewer declares himself a “born realist” and reads the signs of the supernatural as “prosaic”: a cow’s horn, a part from a water pump. Photographs of jolly workers on the archeological dig are also interspersed with animated engravings from the novel, marking the whole as parody. The viewer, too, is invited to laugh. As the interviewer presses his interpretation of the novel as a “product of the human imagination” on behalf of himself and his viewers, the castle walls begin to fall down around him. A giant hand emerges from the top of the tower behind him. But this is not revenge. In what is a typical humourous touch found in Švankmajer’s work, it is revealed as Vozáb’s hand emerging from the tower of his model, but not before a caption informs the viewer that: “This film is dedicated to researcher’s whose activities are founded on bafflement”. This is, of course, a knowing nod to the counterfeit, and if we do continue to live in Gothic times, as celebrated in the present moment by the reopening of Strawberry Hill House and the recent Walpole exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, this should not only fill us with dread and terror, but with a sense of humour and the wry knowledge that we are only playing in a papier-mâché castle.

  • Fred Botting, ‘In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture’. In A Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Wiley-Blackwell, 2001).
  • Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Perils of the Night: A Feminist Study of Nineteenth-Century Gothic (Oxford University Press, 1990).
  • Jerrold E. Hogle, The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
  • Jan Švankmajer, The Complete Short Films (BFI, 2007).

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