Hero of his own Gothic romance

HORACE WALPOLE: The Great Outsider by Timothy Mowl John Murray pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
Horace Walpole was the Gore Vidal of the 18th century. Born into the elite (his father was Sir Robert Walpole), wealthy, arrogant, scabrously witty, with a talent for satire and exposing the absurdities of the society around him, Walpole was a man whose tongue and pen were feared alike. The American scholar Wilmarth Lewis spent his life collecting Walpole memorabilia and, with the assistance of Yale University, produced a 48- volume definitive edition of his letters.

Surely, then, we know all there is to know about Horace Walpole? Not so, as Timothy Mowl demonstrates. The most Vidalian aspect of Walpole was his homosexuality, evidence of which Lewis, a New England puritan, straighter than straight, systematically suppressed.

In this excellent biography Mowl puts three aspects of Walpole under the microscope: his political reportage, his supreme talent as a propagandist, and his sexuality. Walpole was an arch-conservative but despised all existing political reactionaries. He loathed the Pelham brothers, who ran England for the Hanoverians in 1745, but detested Prince Charlie and the Jacobites even more. Walpole is valuable as an eye-witness of events like the trial of the Jacobite peers in 1746 or the Gordon Riots in 1780, but is otherwise unreliable: his de haut en bas comments on political matters are so spiced with malice and hyperbole that they must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Yet because he wrote so entertainingly he is taken far more seriously than he deserves. It is thanks to Walpole's influential books and letters that we think of Sir Robert Walpole as the salient figure in the Whig/Hanoverian ascendancy, whereas sober history would grant the accolade rather to the Duke of Newcastle, who was at the apex of power from 1724 to 1766. I think, however, that Mowl overrates Walpole's influence in creating the received opinion of Newcastle as a moronic buffoon. This was common currency at the time, and in Humphry Clinker Smollett portrays Newcastle as a man who was supposedly controlling a worldwide military struggle with France yet was unaware that Cape Breton, then the cockpit of that struggle, was an island.

Walpole's writing on politics is simply the cartoonist's technique served up in prose or, as Mowl puts it, Gillray anticipated. He was a propagandist and self-publicist of genius. It is widely believed that Walpole created both the English Gothic style in architecture and the Gothic novel. Although there had been earlier Gothic "castles", Walpole's "folly" at Strawberry Hill was the one that stuck in the public's imagination. Likewise, Walpole did not originate the Gothic romance: his 1764 production The Castle of Otranto was a blatant crib of earlier French work (by Alexandrine Tencin and Abbe Prevost) and its only superiority to The Monk and The Mysteries of Udolpho lay in its brevity and economy.

Mowl is at his very best in the treatment of Walpole's sexuality. Just as Sukarno in Indonesia used to believe in "guided democracy", so Wilmarth Lewis, keeper of the Walpole flame, believed in "guided biography". The best-known life hitherto, by Ketton-Cremer, was "directed" by Lewis. That is to say, Ketton-Cremer submitted his manuscript to Lewis and Lewis struck out whatever "could not have been" the case - ie that Walpole was homosexual. Mowl now sets the record straight by detailing his subject's numerous same-sex encounters, notably with the 9th Earl of Lincoln. Lewis's feat in keeping this aspect of Walpole under wraps is remarkable, for he was actually "outed" in a contemporary pamphlet in 1764. As against Lewis's absurd refusal to face up to his hero's homosexuality, Mowl positively revels in the subject, claiming that Walpole was a "size queen" - obsessed with male potency and genital dimensions.

There was plenty of circumstantial evidence for Walpole's deviancy even before this careful study. Given Walpole's gay orientation and his cruel wit, a better subtitle for Mowl's first-rate book might be "A great master of side outed."