When it is located in her own home, the secret passage can serve as an invaluable escape for the heroine in the Gothic tale. Isabella, for example, in Castle of Otranto manages to slip away from Manfred using a secret passage: "...she recollected a subterraneous passage which led from the vaults of the castle to the church of St. Nicholas. Could she reach the altar before she was overtaken, she knew even Manfred’s violence would not dare to profane the sacredness of the place; and she determined, if no other means of deliverance offered, to shut herself up for ever among the holy virgins whose convent was contiguous to the cathedral. In this resolution, she seized a lamp that burned at the foot of the staircase, and hurried towards the secret passage." Because Castle of Otranto anticipates the separation of domestic spheres championed by the Victorians, Isabella has abilities as a woman in the home that she would not have if she were in a public place. She not only knows the location and terminus of the passage, but she also has the key and knows how to operate the spring-loaded lock to open it.
After Walpole, authors found ways to use the secret passage as a plot device for resolving mysteries. For example, in Isaac Crookenden's chapbook The Mysterious Murder; or, the Usurper of Naples, the lovers Estaphana and Belfoni only discover Estaphana's mother before her death when they find a secret passage to her cell.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Ellis, Kate Ferguson. The Contested Castle : Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology . Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989. Print.
Books from 1808
The Mysterious Murder; or, the Usurper of Naples: An Original Romance. To Which is Prefixed, The Nocturnal Assassin; or, Spanish Jealousy., Isaac Crookenden
Books from 1805
THE NUN, OR MEMOIRS OF ANGELIQUE; A TALE [Transcript], Unknown
Books from 1801
The Gothic Story of Courville Castle; or the Illegitimate Son, a Victim of Prejudice and Passion: Owing to the Early Impressions Inculcated with Unremitting Assiduity by an Implacable Mother Whose Resentment to Her Husband Excited Her Son to Envy, Usurpation, and Murder; but Retributive Justice at Length Restores the Right Heir to His Lawful Possessions. To Which is Added the English Earl: or the History of Robert Fitzwalter, Unknown