The Romance of the Forest is a Gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe that was first published in 1791. It combines an air of mystery and suspense with an examination of the tension between hedonism and morality. The novel was her first major, popular success, going through four editions in its first three years. Furthermore, "this novel also established her reputation as the first among her era's writers of romance. There is surprisingly little essential difference in characterization, Gothic décor, or plot outline to distinguish this novel from its predecessors. Its superior merit lies in the expansive and subtle use which the author makes of these elements so that the characters are relatively well realized, the Gothic décor is blended into the sensibility of the reader rather than imposed upon it, and the plot is an intricate and often dramatic series of congruent incidents and living tableaux, not a congeries of barely related and stillborn scenes and surprises." Most critics who have given any attention to Mrs. Radcliffe as a novelist have decided that she is important chiefly for her use of the supernatural, and for her emphasis upon landscape
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About the Author
Ann Ward, an only child, was born in 1764, in London, to moderately respectable parents with Unitarian connections, her father a haberdasher; she was still a child when her parents moved to Bath to manage a Wedgwood showroom. At twenty-three she married William Radcliffe, publisher of the English Chronicle. Encouraged by her husband to write, Mrs. Radcliffe (as she became known to generations of readers) published her first and shortest novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, in 1789, anonymously and to little acclaim. A year later, A Sicilian Romance received some favorable notices, but it was her third novel, The Romance of the Forest, in 1791, that quickly became a huge success, encouraging her to add her name to the title page for the second edition. The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) was even more a sensation with the public, making her the best-selling English writer of the 1790s. Success permitted travel to the sort of romantic places her heroines would have effused upon: a journey up the castled Rhine to Switzerland, followed by a tour ofEngland's Lake District, soon to be immortalized in the verse of Wordsworth and Coleridge. She published a travel journal the next year, and her fifth novel, The Italian, in 1797. At the height of her fame she ceased to publish, though she lived until 1823. Speculation has long been that she recoiled from the publicity that came with celebrity - not least the printed gossip that she had gone insane and died of "the horrors" as if her mind had overheated from her Gothic imagination. (In fact, she died of complications from asthma.) Though praised in her lifetime by Walter Scott and many others - she was even compared to Shakespeare, and not unfavorably - her reputation suffered greatly as Gothic fiction, or more precisely, the sort of Gothic she practiced, went out of vogue in the 1820s. Still, she was a significant influence on Dickens and Thackeray (as she had been on Scott and most of the Romantic poets), and her reputation remained high in France. Today, with renewed popular and scholarly interest in Gothic fiction, she is recognized as one of the most important novelists after Henry Fielding and before Jane Austen, even if the critical establishment does not place her on their level.
It is generally acknowledged that Horace Walpole's 1765 The Castle of Otranto was the first Gothic novel (actually a novella), and that Clara Reeve's The Old English Baron (1777) was the next important work. (Both were subtitled A Gothic Tale.) But The Romance of the Forest and the two novels to follow set a new standard. "Gothic," originally a derogatory word referring to a "barbaric" Medieval Europe (the derivation was from those tribes of Goths who helped bring down the Roman Empire), gradually became a more neutral term, settling upon a style of architecture. As eighteenth-century historical interests shifted from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, as tastes turned from the sharp wit and satire of Enlightenment England to the teary Sentimental novel of Samuel Richardson and others, and from gentle pastoral landscapes to wilder Alpine scenery, a new kind of fiction combining sentiment with more intense emotions of fright began to prevail. The Gothic tale typically had a medieval setting (though Radcliffe's are the seventeenth century); a Gothic castle or abbey at the center of the action; moments of supernatural terror, or horrific apparitions which only appear supernatural; a victimized, usually kidnapped woman, often with the threat of incest in the background; a love relationship ("romantic" in our contemporary sense); and from Radcliffe on, a prominent role for landscape and weather. Since the 1970s critics often distinguish "female Gothic" from the "male Gothic" of works like Matthew Lewis' The Monk (1795) with its more explicit sex and violence and somewhat different themes; but recent Radcliffe scholars stress how greatly oversimplifying these terms are.
The Romance of the Forest is patently as much "romance" as Gothic novel, and this term too requires some definition. To a reader of Radcliffe's generation a romance could have been either a genuinely medieval poem of chivalry, like The Romance of the Rose or the extravagant tales that Don Quixote enjoyed so much, or a modern prose narrative with a medieval or otherwise exotic setting, a series of adventures, and a love interest - in short, a fanciful tale rather than a realistic or satirical portrayal of contemporary life. A "Gothic romance" of course features terror, even horror, in the mix. At the opening of The Romance of the Forest, when the pursued Pierre de la Motte first meets Adeline, our heroine, in a spooky, isolated farmhouse (on a "dark and tempestuous" night), he sees a lovely but disheveled and distraught young woman, kidnapped by ruffians who tell him that he must take her off their hands or die along with her. For La Motte, this nightmare is "like a romance of imagination, rather than an occurrence of real life," and a page later, "it appeared like a vision, or one of those improbable fictions that sometimes are exhibited in a romance." These are exactly like the remarks often found in other genre literature, like science fiction and detective thrillers. They wink at the reader and also serve as challenges that authors like to set for themselves: their novel must be much more intensely "real" than an ordinary romance or thriller. Later, when Adeline shows La Motte a mysterious prisoner's diary she has found in a secret passage of the abbey to which they flee, he dismisses it as a "strange romantic story." (Radcliffe scholar Robert Miles suggests that La Motte is reacting like those male critics of Radcliffe's day who dismissed the Gothic tales of women writers as incoherent or irrelevant trifles.) The term also is used in a mildly derogatory way when the venerable La Luc tells his daughter Clara, "You are young and romantic" - meaning immature, starry-eyed, if not foolish.
Of course, nothing could be more Romantic - and here the capital R should be applied - than the ruined abbey and the haunting landscapes that play a central role in The Romance of the Forest - one of the first novels, by the way, to elevate detailed description of settings to such prominence. The abbey's "Gothic remains," like the deep forest surrounding them, have a "romantic gloom," giving a melancholy pleasure to Adeline which her companions - the self-involved La Motte, his long-suffering and now jealous wife, and the comic servant Peter - are incapable of feeling. A central "character" in the novel, the abbey is refuge, prison, and house of mystery: an ideal hideaway from Adeline's supposed father and La Motte's creditors; a trap when the elegant but vicious Marquis de Montalt has designs upon her; and a terrifying place in its labyrinthine design (a Kafka castle long before the fact), with rooms within rooms, cellars below cellars, locked or hidden thresholds to transgress. Exploring those underground passages, described in wonderfully dreamlike prose, Adeline finally discovers signs of a kindred spirit, another prisoner, the ultimate source of the novel's mystery.
But whatever its terrors, the abbey is also at one with the forest surrounding it - literally so in its ruined portions, and of course, Gothic architecture is famously organic, with its columns and arches suggesting the rising and branching of trees. Adeline takes great joy in walking alone through the adjoining woods with their "sweetly romantic" vistas, her mind "delicately sensible to the beauties of nature." Here she composes poetry and sees Theodore, her future beloved, for the first time. In the last third of the novel, when she flees Montalt for the last time, her journey takes her away from the forest and abbey to the more rugged landscapes (and political refuge) of Savoy: "up the Rhone, whose steep banks, crowned with mountains, exhibited the most various, wild, and romantic scenery," and finally to the Alps, where one vista beside a lake prompts her to exclaim, "The stillness and total seclusion[. . .], those stupendous mountains, the gloomy grandeur of these woods, together with [a ruined castle] awaken sensations truly sublime." Here the influence of Edwin Burke's mid-century writings on "the Sublime" (in contrast to the merely Beautiful and picturesque) is especially evident, as it is in other products of the Romantic Age.
With such an aesthetic sensibility, Adeline is the perfect Romantic heroine, just as her sensational first appearance as captive makes her the ideal Gothic heroine. Significantly, she is not merely a pathetic victim, a pawn in the hands of men, waiting for a hero to rescue her. The Radcliffe heroine must typically fend for herself, and Adeline, though frequently collapsed in fear or grief, manages remarkably. When the man she believes is her father wishes to imprison her for life in a convent, or perhaps murder her, she declares to Madame La Motte that "the bond of filial and parental duty no longer subsists between us - he has himself dissolved it, and I will yet struggle for liberty and life." Terrified by the dark stretches of the abbey, she seeks yet darker recesses that might afford her some escape from others' designs. For Adeline, as for many another Gothic heroine, "the way out is to burrow below," as Robert Miles suggests. During a later imprisonment, in Montalt's decadent pleasure palace, she simply leaps through a window to safety at her first opportunity. To be sure, Theodore does lead her out of the palace garden on this occasion, and nearly succeeds in bringing her to safety. But soon he is captured, and for more than half the novel he is a prisoner awaiting trial and then execution, while Adeline grieves over the thought of him in chains (when she is not distracted by sublime scenery and a variety of kindly characters in Savoy and later along the Mediterranean). As feminist scholars have noted, this spectacle of a woman dwelling upon her enthralled lover reverses the usual pattern of the male hero dreaming of a damsel to rescue.
For good reasons Adeline and the other Radcliffe heroines have attracted important feminist critiques in the last decade. Of prime interest is that "struggle for liberty and life," their unwillingness to wait passively for rescue, their living through a succession of terrifying situations. For Miles and some others, Radcliffe's heroines search for answers to mysteries as much as they flee, and display a kind of self-assertion; love is secondary to self-discovery. The woman at the window or crossing a threshold is the archetypal Gothic figure, poised to explore. Another focus of recent critics is the involvement of these women with a succession of father figures, occasionally kindly, more often sinister. In the case of Adeline, she first endures the hard-hearted treatment of a man pretending to be her father; finds herself in a sort of stepdaughter role with La Motte, a weak and egotistical man who fluctuates between savior and destroyer; is nearly forced to become the mistress of Montalt, who, when he realizes that the woman he lusts after is really his niece, decides to have her murdered; and finally is taken in by the avuncular La Luc, whose daughter Clara becomes a sister to her. There is obviously much to explore here from a psychoanalytic perspective, especially when we add a number of Adeline's strange dreams, including one where her supposed father holds up a mirror for her to see herself bleeding, and another in which a man who may be a psychic manifestation of her actual father seizes her to drag her into a pit.
As for Radcliffe villains, Montalt is less satanic than some other Gothic evildoers: he even falters - momentarily - in the face of Adeline's eloquent pleading. His most memorable scene is his attempt to get La Motte to rid him of the troublesome Adeline without actually uttering the command to murder: he "reasons" that self-preservation and self-interest are the sensible motives of all mankind. La Motte - who is being blackmailed by Montalt and who almost comically takes awhile to even conceive what Montalt is asking - is a much more unusual antagonist. The most prominent character besides Adeline in the first half of the novel, La Motte is portrayed partly as a figure of fun because of his vanity and addiction to comfort, which, added to his irritability and some cruel speeches to his son Louis (who is in love with Adeline), make him very close kin to Orgon in Moliere's Tartuffe. Indeed, as "a man whose passions often overcame his reason," whose "conduct was suggested by feeling, rather than principle," La Motte seems altogether a figure out of pre-Romantic literature, a warning against immoderation. Still, it is impulsive "feeling" (or human decency) that leads him finally to save Adeline's life.
Though her novel is set in French-speaking lands, Radcliffe makes no effort to hide her own English sensibility. Adeline sees convents as nothing less than prisons for body and soul, and Louis disapproves of monks who live a life of "negative virtue" rather than letting "reason" dictate a life of "active virtues"; but their sentiments are very relevant to a novel essentially about freedom. Much more tangentially, La Luc, who is "partial to the English," guides Adeline to appreciate "their character, and the constitution of their laws," while her taste in poetry "soon taught her to distinguish the superiority of the English from that of the French." As for the court system of seventeenth-century France, it may not be English but it does, as Robert Miles points out, provide justice at the end of the novel, counter to the "feudal" arrogance of Montalt.
The modern reader seeking entertainment, as opposed to the specialist in Gothic fiction, may have some reservations about The Romance of the Forest, perhaps like the generation of the 1820s that found Radcliffe old-fashioned. Adeline may be a little too constantly prostrate -- in terror in the first half and in weeping over Theodore in the second half -- for, say, a lover of Jane Austen, who wittily satirized Gothic excesses in Northanger Abbey (completed 1803), and has a character of mediocre taste in Emma (1816) reading The Romance of the Forest. There are conventions which the modern reader must accept, like Adeline's prayer to her supposed father which Theodore overhears. Moreover, most of the poetry quoted frequently by Adeline - often Radcliffe's own, representing Adeline's extempore effusions - is all too typical of later eighteenth-century verse, the sort of poetry denounced by Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Lyrical Ballads of 1798 for being blandly general and stilted. Yet Radcliffe's flexible prose is more truly Romantic, with foreshadowing of Wordsworth or Byron in almost every description of landscape (even if Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey is altogether less haunted than the one inhabited by Adeline). The Romance of the Forest stands perfectly poised between the eighteenth century and the oncoming Age of Romanticism, offering moral lessons, pure thrills, and a new kind of fiction with more prominence given to atmospheric setting and sustained suspense than ever before.
Joseph Milicia (Ph.D., Columbia University) is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Sheboygan. He has published articles on Henry James, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), John Steinbeck, science fiction, and film directors, actors, and composers. He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Science Fiction and Multicultural Review.