- From Chinese to Goth: Walpole and the Gothic Repudiation of Chinoiserie
In a letter to his friend Horace Mann on 14 April 1746, Horace Walpole comments on an unusual case at the Old Bailey of which he has just learned. An elderly widow who for many years, it seems, had been minting coins in an attic room, appeared in court to denounce her maid for the crime of counterfeiting. It soon became clear that the accuser herself was the guilty party, and the maid at worst an unknowing accomplice. On being asked by the incredulous judge whether she had no scruples about accusing an innocent employee of a capital offense, the widow replied that she had trusted the maid’s innocence would be perfectly evident to the court, and that she had made the charge only to save herself from prosecution. The judge, Walpole reports, was furious with her ruse, and made clear that he wished he could stretch the law to hang her. Walpole’s own response is more ambivalent. “I think I never heard,” he writes, “a more particular instance of parts and villainy.” 1 While he condemns the widow for her cynical indifference to principles of justice and the neck of her servant, he also plainly admires the shrewdness and intellectual acumen she displayed both in her remarkable success as a counterfeiter and in her ingenious manipulation of the law to her own advantage.
Walpole’s ambivalence toward the widow’s masterpiece of duplicity is typical of his response to the forgeries that also proliferated in the eighteenth-century literary world. On the one hand, he had little patience for frauds of which he found himself the dupe. Still smarting, perhaps, at having been taken in by Macpherson’s Ossian poems in 1761, Walpole rebuked Thomas Chatterton with such violence on discovering that he had been deceived by the sixteen-year-old’s imitations of medieval writing that he could be plausibly accused in the pages of The Monthly Review of contributing to the youth’s desperation and suicide. 2 Twelve years after his ill-fated encounter with Chatterton, Walpole was still fuming about the mischief wrought by such literary sleights of hand in their erosion of public standards of taste. He writes to Lady Ossory in 1781, “When there is nothing so foolish and absurd that is not believed and adopted, what matters whether Ossian or Rowley or Mother Goose’s Tales are canonized as classics?” (34:15). Yet ingenuity, as in the widow’s case, often seems to compensate for the villainy of deceit. Once recovered from the sting of his own initial gullibility, Walpole fulsomely acknowledges the genius of Chatterton’s Rowley poems and “the amazing prodigy” of their production, placing them in the same category as the notorious deceptions of the self-styled native Formosan George Psalmanaazar, who by the age of twenty-two, as Walpole gleefully reminds his readers, had created “a language, that all the learned of Europe, though they suspected, could not detect.” 3
The mastermind of Strawberry Hill, one of the greatest architectural impostures of the period, could hardly afford to be too censorious of deception in the [End Page 46] name of art. Walpole had purchased the villa at Twickenham in 1747, only one year after the counterfeiting trial he had reported to Horace Mann. Seventeen years later followed the first edition of The Castle of Otranto, with its widely credited preface asserting the tale’s origin in sixteenth-century Naples. Though he had no doubt forgotten about the audacious widow by this time, surely his pleasure in these creations partook of the same roguish sensibility, attuned to the delightfully subversive possibilities of clever knavery, that had led him to an appreciation of her parts and...