The Romance of the Forest

by Ann Radcliffe

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

When Ann Radcliffe (née Ward) began publishing at the end of the 18th century, the novel was just becoming established as a standard genre. What would become known as the Gothic novel was likewise in its infancy. Radcliffe played a key role in advancing this sub-genre of fiction. Similarly to her other works, The Romance of the Forest has a moralistic tone and is more sentimental than Gothic novels by contemporary male writers. While she dwells on terrifying aspects of the settings, typically gloomy castles in dark forests, and the monstrous characters, the intended contrast with purity and beauty is intended to inspire the reader’s appreciation of the sublime.

Adeline, for example, lives in a quintessential Gothic, romantic setting: a ruined abbey. Dreams blur with reality, as her fears of pursuit by a dark figure turn out to be true. Discovering an abandoned manuscript in a secret dungeon, Adeline learns that the formerly imprisoned author was none other than her now-deceased father and thus understands why he had abandoned her to be raised by strangers. Adeline maintains unflagging virtue in the face of adversity as she escapes the abbey and flees to temporary safety in France.

The values of the equally upright Theodore, who ultimately rescues and marries Adeline, are shown in his initial desire to join the clergy and then his military service. However, after the trials he faces at the hands of the evil Marquis de Montalt, he slips into violence. While he must do penance in the form of imprisonment, his innate virtue means he will be released and reunited with his beloved.

The Marquis, who not only abducts Adeline but schemes to defraud her, ultimately must acknowledge that she is his niece and restore her inheritance. He does so, however, under duress, not out of beneficence. The La Mottes initially befriend and aid Adeline, then betray her out of self-preservation; both husband and wife display such vices as avarice and envy. Thus, as Ward’s good characters are almost always entirely virtuous, the evil ones have few if any redeeming qualities.

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