The Uses of Enchantment

In Chapter Four of “The Gothic Revival” (Phaidon, 1999), Chris Brooks tells us that Horace Walpole’s House, Strawberry Hill, became the best known product of this 18th Century movement partly through “Horry”‘s own vast correspondence and tireless propaganda. Walpole’s stated aim was “to build a little Gothic castle”. As Brooks comments, “The house became a palimpsest of architectural quotations.”.

I am here for a Murder Mystery Evening, complete with three course dinner, in this sumptuous setting, and we have been invited to dress in 1920s style. As Strawberry Hill was bought by St Mary’s College, a Vincentian seminary, in the 1920s, the women have assumed that the organisers were thinking rather of Flapper style. Indeed, there is jazz of the era playing in the background as participants arrive. Some of the men appear to have dressed as gangsters, others have opted for black tie.

Famously, Walpole wrote “The Castle of Otranto”, widely regarded as the first Gothic novel, in his study here. The atmosphere he wanted in his home, he said, was one of “gloomth” – gloom touched with warmth – and this points up the enigma of how the horror of murder can inform an entertainment.

In his review of Bettelheim’s 1976 work, “The Uses of Enchantment”, John Updike notes: “The wicked stepmothers and fairy godmothers he translates as, all, Mother, and the kings and hunters and even wolves as, simply, Father.” In this evening’s entertainment, Father is already deceased and there is a Stepmother who, if not wicked, is at least vulgar. The solution, involving arsenic, barely matters; the fun lies in provoking the actors into ever greater heights of improvisation.

Horace’s parents were estranged before he was born. His mother Catherine, to whom he was close, died when he was 19, and his father Sir Robert Walpole, who served as Prime Minister, died less than a decade after her.

Lavishly though Walpole entertained his guests, he was sparing in his own diet, and when their company became too much for him, he would retire to his “Cottage in the Woods” across the way. He was a far from unthinking individual, and was one of the first to question the morality of the slave trade. He observed: “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”

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