The Mysterious Mother

The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy

Author: Horace Walpole
Publisher: John Archer, William Jones, Richard White
Publication Year: 1791
Language: English
Book Dimensions: 10cm x 20cm
Pages: 102
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.W35 M 1791a

Material History

The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy appears in excellent condition. On the exterior, this play looks quite banal: the front cover lacks the title, and appears as a worn yellow color with no inscriptions. This book is approximately 20cm tall and 10cm wide with 102 pages of text. On the spine of the book, there is a small square about a centimeter long that notes the shortened title, Mysterious Mother. On the title page, the full title—The Mysterious Mother,  A Tragedy—is printed on the top half of the page, and underneath the title reads, “Dublin, 1791.”

Upon looking through the text, there is no printed name of the author, only the name “Walpole” handwritten in the top left corner of the third page. Although the author is Horace Walpole, the average reader in 1791 could not identify that through just the text in this specific copy of the play, so authorship was identified either through a separate copy of The Mysterious Mother where Walpole’s authorship was printed.’

Upon first impression, the book seemed to have well preserved pages, and minimal damage to the spine and cover. The binding appears to be sewn together, with the pages sewn into the spine to provide extra durability. One unexpected characteristic that catches the reader’s eye is the gilding around the text’s pages. Gilding is when the edges of each page are painted gold, and appear to be entirely gold when the book is closed. This small detail gives the play an elegant, expensive feel. The pages themselves are thick, yellowed, and brittle, and some seem to have a few stains and slight tears. Unlike the average chapbook, this hardcover play even had its own ribbon bookmark sewn into the spine aside the pages.

Opening the play, the reader is greeted with a beautiful marbling effect on the innermost and outermost two pages. The beautiful white and blue marbling design is traditionally achieved by submerging the pages in floating ink—making no two copies alike. This technique creates intricate patterns that transfer onto the book and are left to dry. There are no illustrations, except one image on the book plate that has been adhered to the very first page of this copy: on top of the marbling is a drawing of a broken pillar and shield, and underneath is a name; “Kath. Maria Tisdall.” It appears to be a stamp of ownership. Interestingly, a few pages later contains only one line of handwritten text, a signature of “Catherine Maria Tisdall, 1794.” This suggests that this copy was owned by Catherine Maria Tisdall (née Dawson); in 1798 she married Charles William Bury, first Earl of Charleville, and became Catherine Maria Bury, first Countess of Charleville.

Textual History

The author of The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy is well known: Horace Walpole, an English writer born in London, is often considered to be the father of Gothic literature. His earliest work, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764 and is frequently considered the first Gothic novel. The Mysterious Mother is often considered the first gothic drama, and one of the most grotesque and horrifying works of its time. Walpole’s literature was written and printed in his very own home, Strawberry Hill House. Walpole used inspiration from medieval tombs and ancient gothic architecture from around Europe to design the house in 1749. The Strawberry Hill House is currently home to his publications and original prints.

In a letter to William Cole in 1765, Walpole reveals that The Castle of Otranto was inspired by a nightmare (quoted in Riely 2). There is no indication of a similar inspiration for The Mysterious Mother, but Walpole did record notes about his composition of the play. Shortly after publishing The Castle of Otranto, Walpole began to write The Mysterious Mother on Christmas Day of 1766 (Walpole Journal of the Printing-Office 51). Walpole’s notes from Short Notes of Horatio Walpole reveal he had “laid it aside for several months. . . . The two last acts were not now as much finished as I intended” (quoted in Walpole Journal of the Printing-Office 51; Walpole’s full notes can be found in the manuscript of his Short Notes on page 16/image 17). The first edition of The Mysterious Mother was published June 14, 1768, and the first fifty copies of this tragedy were printed at Strawberry Hill House (Walpole Journal of the Printing-Office 13). After over a decade, the first public edition was published in 1781 for Dodsley, an eighteenth-century publisher and bookseller in London (Summers 437). The second edition was published in 1789, and the third edition was published in Dublin, in 1791 (Summers 437). The specific copy at the University of Virginia Library is the 1791 Dublin edition, which is printed without the name of Horace Walpole as the author on the title page. Hordern House, a rare book dealership, suggests that this 1791 Dublin edition is a reprint of a 1790 Dublin edition and that both are pirated.

Walpole feared publicly publishing the play because of its obscenity. He felt this play was “so horrid, that I thought it would shock, rather than give satisfaction to an audience” (“Author’s Postscript” 84). In a letter toGeorge Montagu from April 15, 1768, Walpole provides his friend’s review of the play as well: “Mr. Chute, who is not easily pleased, likes it, and Gray, who is still more difficult, approves it. I am not yet intoxicated enough with it, to think it would do for the stage, though I wish to see it acted” (Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence 10: 259). Due to the play’s incest, suicide, death, and betrayal, the tragedy was not seen fit to ever be acted out. In a letter written to Walpole from Reverend William Mason on September 21, 1771, Mason references his own previously recommended changes to The Mysterious Mother, possibly to make it suitable for the stage, and gestures towards Walpole disagreeing with the proposed alteration: “I know you will make me the same answer to this which you did when I talked of a certain alteration before in a greater work” (Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence 28: 21).

The most recent staging of the play was presented by Yale University in 2018: Yale held a year-long celebration called the “Walpolooza” that concluded with a staged reading of and conference on The Mysterious Mother (“‘The Mysterious Mother’ Walpolooza”).

Narrative Point of View

The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy is a play. There are stage directions and character descriptions at the beginning of each act, and the scenes proceed with abundant dialogue among characters, all presented in verse. Much of the dialogue focuses on characters’ feelings and how their actions reveal the fate of the play. The story of this play unfolds through the exchanges between characters rather than one specific narrator.

Sample Passage:

The SCENE continues.
Count Edmund, Florian.
Edm. Doubt not, my friend; Time’s pencil, hard? mips, war, Some taste of pleasure too, have chas’d the bloom
Of ruddy comeliness, and stamp’d this face With harsher lineaments, that well may mock
The prying of a mother’s eye—A mother,
Thro’ whose firm nerves tumultuous instinct’s flood Ne’er gush’d with eager eloquence, to tell her,
This is your son! your heart’s own voice proclaims him.
Flor. If not her love, my lord, suspect her hatred, Those jarring
passions spring from the same source: Hate is distempered love.
(Walpole Mysterious Mother 24)

In this tragedy, each character has their own distinct personality and Walpole provides richness and depth to each character’s tone. The variety of their voices provides clarity, leaving little room for confusion. While reading the scenes, the interactions become more suspenseful and nuanced between characters. This style of narration engrosses readers into the perspective of each character. Through this narrative approach, Walpole invites the reader (or the play’s viewer) to experience the consequences of incest and betrayal in real time, rather than being told by a narrator.


The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy opens with a Dramatis Personae, which introduces the characters, and then proceeds to the first act. Edmund, the son of the Countess of Narbonne, is returning to the castle of Narbonne from his sixteen years long banishment. He is accompanied by his close friend, Florian. Peter, the porter of the castle, is introduced and is not welcoming to the idea of Edmund’s return. Edmund was considered too much in the image of his deceased father, and had a reputation of being lustful. Two friars, Benedict and Martin, reveal that Edmund’s banishment was a result of his arrangement to sleep with Beatrice, a maid of the castle. This attempt was made the night following the death of his father. The death of the Count of Narbonne left the Countess grieving with her two maidens; she is angry and frustrated by his loss. She consults Benedict about her sadness, and is encouraged by him to regain her peace through God.

The second act begins with Edmund’s confusion as to why his mother still hates him. Edmund has not yet revealed that he has returned, but in conversation with Florian he attempts to give his mother the benefit of the doubt because he wants to reconcile with her. Florian, being a good friend to Edmund, disagrees with Edmund’s perspective on his mother. Florian deviates from the conversation and mentions Adeliza, the young servant of the Countess of Narbonne. Edmund believes that this relationship could bond him back to his mother. Still in hiding, Edmund hears the sound of voices and disguises his face. A group of singing orphans enters the scene with friar Martin, who begins to question Edmund as if he is a regular civilian, not knowing it is secretly Edmund. Friar Martin’s questions are about Edmund and his whereabouts, leading Edmund to lie and claim that he is in the grave. After they finish their conversation, both leave the scene and the Countess and Peter re-enter. They hear Florian approaching from a distance, and hide to observe what his conversation could be about. They overhear him speaking about Adeliza, and are intrigued by this new love interest. The scene concludes with Florian alone, adamant to unite Edmund and Adeliza.

Act three opens with the countess speaking to herself. She cannot believe the fate of her son. Adeliza enters and is greeted fondly by the Countess. Adeliza proclaims her passion for an as-yet unnamed man. The Countess has no idea that Edmund is the man pursuing her maid, Adeliza; rather, the Countess is under the impression that Adeliza’s admirer is Florian. Adeliza is in complete awe of Edmund and continues to share her adoration with the countess. Adeliza is then excused from the scene, and Benedict enters. Benedict shares in detail how Edmund had been found “dead,” and the countess demands they assure that Edmund is actually deceased. A “stranger” with a veil is introduced in the scene, hiding his true identity. This stranger is actually Edmund. He joins the conversation between the Countess and Benedict and proceeds to take his hood off, revealing that he is alive. The Countess faints, and believes that she has hallucinated the sight of her husband. In complete shock, she remains convinced that she has seen the Count of Narabonne, not Edmund. Still, Edmund requests the embrace of his mother and declares his love for Adeliza.

Benedict and Martin enter the scene at the beginning of the fourth act. Benedict is scheming and becomes more and more aware of the Countess’s guilt and shame towards Edmund. He attempts to extract the truth of her guilt, yet the Countess feels that her relationship with Edmund is too far gone to consider reconciliation. Adeliza enters and requests a private conversation with the Countess. She does not understand the restriction on her marriage, and is also questioning who her real parents are. The Countess becomes overwhelmed and delusional, and begins to lose her mind and wish for death. Adeliza departs to request help, and returns with Benedict. Yet upon their return, the Countess has fled. Benedict uses this as an opportunity to warn Adeliza that the Countess is not a good woman of the church. Edmund enters the scene, pronounces his love for Adeliza, and marries her with Friar Benedict’s blessing.

The final act concludes with Benedict joining the hands of Adeliza and Edmund in marriage. Florian enters and is frustrated at how Benedict has deceived Edmund, declaring he is an untrustworthy monk. While Edmund perceives the marriage as holy, it is revealed that father Benedict united the two in marriage as an act of revenge towards the Countess, in order to overcome her power. The Countess enters the scene, declaring that Father Benedict enticed her to sin; Benedict shames her and leaves. The Countess comes to the realization in a conversation with Florian that it was Edmund who had married Adeliza, not Florian. The Countess becomes overwhelmed and frustrated, leaving Adeliza and Edmund confused. The Countess cannot take her guilt and suffering any longer: she confesses that the night after her husband’s death, she disguised herself as Beatrice, a maid, in order to have sex with Edmund. Edmund, unaware that it was not Beatrice, slept with his own mother and conceived Adeliza. Now, after sixteen years in exile, the woman Edmund thought he should marry has now been revealed to be both his daughter and sister, a product of incest. In complete shock and frustration, Edmund draws a dagger but cannot bring himself to hurt his mother. The Countess insists on her own death and commits suicide by stabbing herself. Adeliza faints and this tragedy ends with the separation of Adeliza and Edmund.


“The Mysterious Mother. A Tragedy.” Hordern House, Accessed 16 April 2024.

“‘The Mysterious Mother’ Walpolooza.” Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University, 20 July 2018, Accessed 16 Apr 2024.

Riely, John. “The Castle of Otranto Revisited.” The Yale University Library Gazette, vol. 53, no. 1, 1978, pp. 1–17.

Summers, Montague. A Gothic Bibliography. Russell & Russell, Inc, 1964.

Walpole, Horace. “The Author’s Postscript” to The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy. London, 1791.

Walpole, Horace. Journal of the Printing-Office at Strawberry Hill, edited by Paget Jackson Toynbee. Constable and Company Limited and Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

Walpole, Horace. The Mysterious Mother, A Tragedy. Dublin, John Archer, William Jones, and Richard White, 1791.

Walpole, Horace. Short Notes of the Life of Horatio Walpole [manuscript], 1746–79, Accessed 16 April 2024.

The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, 48 volumes, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1937–1983.

Researcher: Samantha Grace Reynolds

How to cite this page:

MLA: “The Mysterious Mother.” Project Gothic, University of Virginia, 2024,