Orphans. Villains. Mysterious forests. Ruined abbeys haunted by bats, owls, and other creatures of the night. Conspiracies. Bloodstained daggers. Illegible manuscripts. Betrayal. Ancient murders. Convents. Oppressed virgins in peril. Incarceration. Are we talking about Lemony Snicket and the ongoing trials of the Baudelaire children? No! Teresa and I read Ann Radcliffe’s wonderful, cobwebby, gloriously melodramatic 1791 classic The Romance of the Forest for this round of the Gothic Literature Classics Circuit.
Jenny: This is not the first Gothic novel I’ve read — years ago (perhaps 25 years ago) I read The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho. So I am familiar with the genre, and of course I’ve read many Gothic descendants. But this time — oh, Teresa! No matter how hard I tried, I could not read this book with a straight face. Adeline, the heroine, was constantly either weeping or fainting, or else inventing execrable verse. I kept seeing her as Marianne Dashwood, a total annoyance to anyone with a lick of common sense. How would you have liked to be the one picking her up off the floor all the time, or offering fresh hankies? And the descriptions were delicious. When we found our way to the ruined abbey, I kept thinking of Young Frankenstein. “What knockers!” “Oh, thank you, Doctor.”
Teresa: I took a course on the Gothic novel in college, and we studied Otranto, Udolpho (in an abridged version), The Monk, and several others. I found it just about impossible to take any of them seriously—at least until we got to the books that built upon the conventions of the genre, like Northanger Abbey and Jane Eyre. But what larky fun they were to read. So. Much. Drama. So. Much. Fainting. And this book is no exception! Your comment about Marianne Dashwood is right on point. I could just see how this book would influence Marianne. Think about it. The older, wealthy man who’s beguiled by Adeline turns out to be a cad, and the lover of nature and poetry turns out to be her heroic defender. Adeline’s first encounters with Theodore took me right back to Marianne’s romance with Willoughby. Their conversations could have come right out of Radcliffe!
Jenny: Oooh, you’re right — and I notice that Austen’s heroines never faint, except when Louisa Musgrove physically knocks herself out at Lyme. But getting back to Radcliffe — it struck me that she might have been writing this with a touch of irony, herself. 1791 is quite late in the Gothic novel stakes, since Otranto, the “first” one, was written in 1764. She’d have been very much aware of the tropes. Surely she couldn’t have written something so funny, totally unintentionally?
One of the things that really impressed me about this novel was the strong sense of sexuality it exuded. Adeline seemed to be in constant danger of being either unsexed — in the convent — or violated. (The description of the villa of the Marquis de Montalt was like someone’s idea of the most depraved harem imaginable. Pictures from Ovid!)
Teresa: I don’t think she was intentionally being funny, but I do think she was being deliberately outrageous. In the course I took, we read the novels pretty much in order of publication, and from what I recall it seemed like every author was trying to up the stakes. I’ll see your abandoned orphan and raise you an incestuous rape. Every book was more outrageous than the last, until we got to the books that used the tropes to do something more serious, as in Frankenstein.
I did wonder if Radcliffe was trying to get at some bigger ideas, beneath the scandalous story. You mention the sexual imagery, which is pervasive in so many books of the period. By making the threat always a sexual threat, was she trying to illustrate the problems that come with treating women as sexual objects? Adeline, for all her fainting, is a woman of strong principles who wants to choose her own course but cannot. How many women in her day were in similar situations, even if not so extreme? How many less outrageous Marquis de Montalts were out there, taking sexual pleasure or gaining fortunes by treating women as chattel? Even Adeline’s supposed protector, Monsieur de la Motte, falls into the trap of using her for his own gain.
Jenny: That’s a good point. The characters (such as they are — most of them are flat) do seem to fall into categories of strong and weak. Adeline, as you point out, ought to be weak, but she’s strong: she refuses a suitor she doesn’t love, she escapes from several grave perils, and despite the weeping, fainting, and paralysis along the way, she more or less triumphs. This is because of her strength of character — her piety, sweetness, forgiveness, and resolution, if not sense. Other characters ought to be strong — they have wealth, position in society, profession, or sheer masculinity on their side — but they are weak. And that weakness seems to be chiefly a weakness of character. Monsieur de la Motte is cowardly, greedy, selfish, rude, and vain. Madame de la Motte is jealous and lacks discernment or loyalty. Peter is foolish. The Marquis, of course, is simply vile through and through; name a flaw and he’s got it! And that’s what puts them on the losing side. Whether or not that’s realistic… well, but none of this is really realistic. That has to wait for another century.
Teresa: No, not realistic at all, but that’s part of the fun. I prefer the sensation novels that descended from the gothics because the characters feel more authentic, even when the situations are not. Still, I can’t deny that silly stories like this, populated with silly people, are fun to read. Some of the longer passages about Adeline’s joy in nature were tedious, and the resolution was too convenient and mostly reported second-hand (argh!), but there were more than enough twists and turns to make up for those problems. I couldn’t make a steady diet of Radcliffe, but I could read her again and with pleasure.
Jenny: Oh, I agree. I told you this while we were reading it, but I think the best way to read Radcliffe would be alongside someone else like-minded, trading commentary as we read. That must indeed be the way many of her readers did it: reading didn’t turn into a solitary pursuit almost until modern times. Share the perils of sweet Adeline! Slide into unconsciousness with her! Shudder at the Marquis’s perfidy! Wipe away a single crystal tear! Oh, dear, this was marvelous fun, and I am so grateful for all the light it shed on books I really do love, from Jane Eyre to Northanger Abbey to Rebecca, and far beyond.