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 Radcliffe as a novelist have decided that she is important chiefly for her use of the supernatural, and for her emphasis upon landscape.
Monsieur Pierre de la Motte and his wife, Madame Constance de la Motte, are fleeing Paris in an attempt to escape his creditors. Pierre, Madame, and their two domestic servants, Peter and Annette, are waylaid when the path they’re on becomes too dark to follow any longer. Pierre exits the carriage and continues on foot toward a light he notices some distance away from the carriage. Upon knocking on the door of a small and ancient house, Pierre is admitted into the house by a stranger. He is given a bed and promptly locked in the room. Sometime later, the door to Pierre’s room is unlocked and a beautiful young lady, Adeline, is being dragged behind the stranger who admitted Pierre to the house. The stranger states that “if you wish to save your life, swear that you will convey this girl where I may never see her more; or rather consent to take her with you”. Upon agreement to take Adeline with him, Pierre and Adeline are conveyed to the carriage by the ruffian stranger with Madame still inside.
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The family, with the addition of Adeline, proceeds into the darkened interior of a forest, hoping to elude discovery and heeding the warnings of the stranger to not come back on the land they just left. Eventually, they find refuge in a ruined abbey after their wagon wheel breaks. Initially, everyone in the group except Peter is afraid of what lies in waiting behind the abbey walls; however, closer inspection by Peter shows the only inhabitants are mice, owls, bats, and the like. Still afraid of being pursued by creditors, the family and Adeline stay close to the abbey. Peter is sent into the town of Auboine for supplies to fix their broken wagon wheel. After returning to the family, Peter confides to Pierre that while he was in town he got in a fight and was unable to procure the necessary supplies for fixing the wheel, but he did purchase some food to tide them over.
The family and the servants settle into the rooms of the abbey, making each one more inhabitable the longer they stay. After some time passes, while in town, Peter comes across a gentleman who inquires about the La Motte family. Thinking the people inquiring about the La Motte family are creditors, the family, Adeline, and the servants all go into hiding through the trap door Pierre has found in one of the bedrooms. They spend the night in the dark and terrifying rooms, where unbeknownst to everyone else, Pierre discovers a skeleton in a chest. The next day, everyone agrees to send Adeline out to check if anyone is at the abbey since she is the only one who would be unrecognisable to creditors. Upon greeting one of her woodland animal friends, a young male stranger approaches her. Soon Adeline discovers that this stranger is actually Pierre and Madame’s son, Louis. They left Paris without giving notice to his regiment, and he had come searching for his parents. Soon after, Madame confides to Louis her jealous fears that Adeline seeks to have an affair with her husband. Louis is supposed to find out the truth of where Pierre has been spending his days, but is unable to do so after losing sight of his father in the dense forest. Madame stays hostile to Adeline, believing the worst of her in relation to her supposed affair with Pierre. At the same time, Louis has fallen in love with Adeline and pines for her saying “I should esteem myself most happy, if I could be of service to you.”
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Meanwhile, “Louis, by numberless little attentions, testified his growing affection for Adeline, who continued to treat them as passing civilities. It happened, one stormy night, as they were preparing for rest, that they were alarmed by a trampling of horses near the abbey”. The riders introduce themselves as the Marquis de Montalt, who is the owner of the abbey, and his attendants, one of which is named Theodore. Pierre becomes more distressed after the appearance of the Marquis. Louis notes this distress, but must soon leave to return to his regiment. During this time, Theodore attempts to warn Adeline that he fears she has been deceived and danger is upon her. Before he can formally speak with Adeline, he is sent to return to his regiment as well.
Pierre and the Marquis, at this same time, have been speaking in private to one another. After Theodore’s departure, Adeline fears her father will return for her when overhearing a conversation between Pierre and the Marquis. She relates her fears to Pierre, and he allows her to believe that is what the conversation’s subject consisted of. Throughout this time period, as well, Adeline also finds a manuscript written by someone who had been held captive inside the abbey during 1642. The writer of the manuscript relates his dire circumstances and impending death at the hands of an unknown perpetrator. Adeline notes when reading the manuscript that it “is in a barely legible and fragmented condition. It suggests much more than it can say”. Adeline ultimately informs Pierre of the manuscript once she reaches particularly terrifying point while reading it.
Adeline is then warned of danger again, but this time Peter is the person who warns her. He attempts several times to tell her the issue at hand, until finally he is able to relate his findings. Adeline finds out the reality of the conversations between the Marquis and Pierre: The Marquis wants to make Adeline his wife and was discussing the matter with Pierre. However, Adeline discovers through Peter that the Marquis actually already has a wife and she would have really had a “fake marriage” and became the Marquis’ mistress. At no point, however, is Adeline inclined to become either the Marquis’ wife or mistress. Peter and Adeline concoct a plan to help her escape the abbey and a potentially reputation ruining situation. Unfortunately, when making her escape, Adeline is tricked, and instead she is taken to the Marquis’ residence. Adeline soon attempts to escape the Marquis by climbing out the window where she runs into Theodore, who is there to rescue her. The two leave in a carriage and the Marquis quickly follows once he realises what has happened.
Adeline and Theodore stop at an inn where the Marquis finds them. Theodore, who initially is ailing but eventually recovers, wounds the Marquis. Now instead of him being in trouble for just deserting his regiment, he also must face the consequences for wounding a superior officer. Prior to all of this commotion, Adeline realises she is in love with Theodore while he is sick. Theodore is imprisoned, and Adeline is returned to Pierre de la Motte at the abbey. The Marquis informs Pierre that he wants to kill Adeline, not marry her, now. Pierre finds that he is “entangled in the web which his own crimes had woven. Being in the power of the Marquis, he knew he must either consent to the commission of a deed, from the enormity of which, depraved as he was, he shrunk in horror; or sacrifice fortune, freedom, probably life itself, to the refusal”. Pierre finds he is unable to allow Adeline to be killed, thus he sends Adeline with Peter on horseback to Peter’s sister’s house in Leloncourt.
When Peter and Adeline finally reach Leloncourt, Adeline is taken ill and is nursed to health first by Peter’s sister and later by Clara la Luc. Here, “Adeline, who had long been struggling with fatigue and indisposition, now yielded to their pressure… But, notwithstanding her fatigue, she could not sleep, and her mind, in spite of all her efforts, returned to the scenes that were passed, or presented gloomy and imperfect visions of the future”. After her illness, Adeline is essentially adopted by Arnaud la Luc, Clara’s father, and spends the remainder of her time with the family. Clara also has a brother, but he currently is not present. Yet, soon Monsieur la Luc’s health is failing (he is taken with consumption), and the family must relocate to a different climate for a time. Eventually, Louis de la Motte finds Adeline and brings her news of Theodore. He informs her that he is imprisoned and his death is imminent because of the assault he made on his general officer. Here, Monsieur la Luc finds out that the Theodore in reference is actually his son that he has not seen for many years.
Meanwhile, Monsieur and Madame de la Motte are facing their own troubles. Pierre de la Motte is placed on trial for a robbery he previously committed against the Marquis before he knew who the Marquis was. The Marquis would not have pressed any charges had Pierre assisted the murder of Adeline. Presently, however, Monsieur and Madame de la Motte are in Paris. Pierre is imprisoned and Madame is with him.
Unaware of this, Adeline, Clara, and Monsieur la Luc travel to Paris to be with Theodore prior to his execution. While Pierre is on trial, witnesses come forward, and it is discovered that the Marquis is not who he claims to be; he had previously murdered Adeline’s father, and stole his inheritance. Because of these recent developments, Theodore is released from his imprisonment while the Marquis poisons himself, but not before he confesses all his wrongdoings. “It appeared that convinced he had nothing to hope from his trial, he had taken this method of avoiding an ignominious death. In the last hours of his life, while tortured with the remembrance of his crime, he resolved to make all the atonement that remained for him, and having swallowed the potion, he immediately sent for a confessor to take a full confession of his guilt, and two notaries, and thus established Adeline beyond dispute in the rights of her birth, also bequeathing her a considerable legacy”.
- Adeline, the heroine. Initially believed to be the daughter of Louis de St. Pierre; revealed as the only daughter of Henry, Marquis de Montalt.
- Pierre de la Motte, a fugitive from the law. Madame de la Motte’s husband and Louis’s father.
- Madame de la Motte, Pierre’s wife and Louis’s mother.
- Louis de la Motte, an officer in the army. Pierre and Madame de la Motte’s son.
- Peter, coachman for the de la Mottes.
- Annette, servant to the de la Mottes.
- Theodore de Peyrou, Adeline’s love interest. An officer in the Marquis’s regiment. Revealed to be Arnaud la Luc’s son.
- Phillipe, Marquis de Montalt, a dissolute nobleman and Adeline’s enemy. Murderer of Adeline’s father (his half-brother), and owner of the abbey where she takes refuge.
- Arnaud la Luc, a clergyman living at Leloncourt, in Savoy. Clara and Theodore’s father.
- Madame la Luc, Arnaud la Luc’s sister and housekeeper.
- Clara la Luc, Arnaud la Luc’s daughter and Theodore’s sister.
- Jacques Martigny, an accomplice of the Marquis.
- Du Bosse, an accomplice of the Marquis.
- Louis de St. Pierre (alias Jean d’Aunoy), an accomplice of the Marquis. Initially thought to be Adeline’s father.
In 1765 Horace Walpole published The Castle of Otranto, widely regarded by modern literary historians to be the first occasion of Gothic fiction. A decade later, Clara Reeve wrote The Old English Baron, the first “Gothic” novel to be penned by a woman, and in 1783 Sophia Lee produced The Recess, a story set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. These works prefigured much of the material and themes that Radcliffe would synthesise in her novels, most particularly ideas of the supernatural, terror, romance, and history.
The Romance of the Forest was praised by the poet Coleridge, who wrote “the attention is uninterruptedly fixed, until the veil is designedly withdrawn” . The first volume was published anonymously in its first edition.
Although The Critical Review saw it as her finest work, it is not generally regarded in the same league as The Italian and The Mysteries of Udolpho; however, the Romance of the Forest was hugely popular in its day and remains in print after over two hundred years. It is the subject of much critical discussion, particularly in its treatment of femininity and its role and influence in the Gothic tradition Radcliffe did so much to invent. .
- ^ Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1972, p. 90.
- ^ McIntyre, Clara Frances. Ann Radcliffe in Relation to Her Time. Oxford University Press, 1920, p. 77.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 5.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 85.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. In Three Volumes. 5 ed. 1 vol. London: Printed for Hookham and Carpenter, 1796, p. 218.
- ^ Murray, E. B. Ann Radcliffe. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1972, p. 99.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. In Three Volumes. 5 ed. 2 vol. London: Printed for Hookham and Carpenter, 1796, p. 251.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. In Three Volumes. 2 ed. 3 vol. London: Printed for Hookham and Carpenter, 1792, p. 47.
- ^ Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest: Interspersed with Some Pieces of Poetry. In Three Volumes. 2 ed. 3 vol. London: Printed for Hookham and Carpenter, 1792, p. 322.
- ^ Gamer, Michael (2001). “Introduction”. In Walpole, Horace (ed.). The Castle of Otranto. London: Penguin Books. pp. xiii–xiv. ISBN +1.419.926.8437.
- ^ Spender, Dale (1986). Mothers of the Novel. London. pp. 230–233.
- ^ Baker, Ernest A. (1929). The History of the English Novel. Volume 5: The novel of Sentiment and the Gothic Romance. New York. pp. 175–195.
- Cotton, Daniel (1985). The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott. New York.
- The Romance of the Forest available at firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Romance of the Forest public domain audiobook at LibriVox