“The Romance of the Forest” a Novel by Ann Radcliffe

Words: 2301
Topic: Literature

Despite being set in a particular time and place, Radcliffe’s story actually transpires in a space of imagination and feeling; it is the moral and emotional state of her characters that form the focus of the author’s attention, with a Cinderella plot underpinning their journey of towards discovery and reward. Radcliffe offers readers an archetypal tale of the orphan heroine who finds both their true parentage and adult love over the course of the story. While the setting is supposed to be European, and the characters French, the descriptions of the landscapes are so vague as to be locatable anywhere, especially in England, Radcliffe’s country of birth and upbringing. The characters, as well, are not obviously French in their speech, and indeed, in some places, the dialogue seems to skilfully capture the patterns of speaking of uneducated British common folk1.

Additionally, Radcliffe’s development of her characters is irritatingly vague for a modern reader. However, for the modern reader, the setting and even the specifics of each character’s personality are less important. This is because the novel instead reveals, via in its assumptions and apparently trivial details, much about contemporary expectations of women. The landscapes and settings of the book’s actions are, instead, reflections of what mental and spiritual struggles and victories the characters are undergoing, or triggers for some emotional state that the author wishes the characters to experience.

The characters are types, almost stock characters, meant to provide opportunities for Radcliffe to demonstrate one or another idea. The author’s purpose seems to be to show that a woman can get the man of her dreams without having to compromise, despite many misfortunes along the way. Thus, Radcliffe presents readers with a non-magical fairy tale, set in 17th century locales of her imagination, peopled by stereotypes, but with a hopeful message that a woman can overcome abandonment and friendlessness by means of her looks and her feminine manners to attain marital happiness.

The tale of the orphaned hero has been familiar in many literary traditions. The protagonist is usually male, of course, given that the storytellers have also usually been male. These youthful orphans include examples going back as far as the Biblical tale of the Israelite Moses. To protect him from mass infanticide, Moses was laid in a basket as a nursing infant, and set in the waters of the Nile to be found and raised up in the court of his people’s captor.

He grew up to later to vanquish this captor and liberate his true family and wider extended family and community. Theseus is another such character, hidden from his true parentage until such time as he was able to lift a gigantic stone and find, wear, and wield his father’s arms and armor. He went in search of his parentage, with mixed results, but he did end up as king himself. Harry Potter is a modern literary example of the phenomenon of the orphaned protagonist who overcomes adversity to find his true heritage and achieve happiness and love, while avenging the death of his parents and making the world safe for mixed blood wizards.

Female examples of such characters have always existed as well, although they do not necessarily engage in the sort of heroics that their male counterparts pursue or have thrust upon them. Snow White, an example from European fairy tales, flees a hostile stepparent into the wilderness. She makes a home for herself amidst an unfamiliar group of people, stooping to housework in spite of her real status as a princess. Her lovely manners endear her to both her would-be assassin (her stepmother’s woodsman), as well as her hosts (the dwarves). She finds in them some protection, until the magic mirror betrays her.

Cinderella, another orphaned girl (this time it is her mother who has passed on), is consigned to housework to begin with, but shows her noble attributes when she is gowned and transported like a princess, to the prince’s ball. Here, too, her goodness and charity to others less fortunate is her heroic action, and she is rewarded for being kind to animals and wandering beggars. Even the story of Rapunzel follows the same model. A child is separated from her family by someone who exploits her. She escapes because her beauty attracts the attention of a strong manly man, and she is brave and clever about getting away to find her true family.

In all these instances, there is a pattern. The child or young person does not know the full details of how they were deprived of or separated from their parents. They are separated from their family in some way, whether by exclusion or geographically. Their true identity and rank are hidden to some degree, from themselves as well as the world. They must struggle to get away from a bad situation, whether with uncaring relatives, or risky circumstances. Their personalities and comportment are such that people treat them well, if they do not have a pre-existing animus against the protagonist. They win out in the end because the truth percolates to the surface and people come to their aid. The female heroes that must find their own true identity and claim a happy future are also, traditionally chaste. Unfortunately, they are often also rather irritatingly feeble or long-suffering, without a great deal of spark. To modern readers, they seem to need a session of consciousness-raising.

Many of these features are present in the story that Radcliffe tells in The Romance of the Forest. Thus, this is a sort of 18th century fairy tale, but told with a good deal more skill and descriptive detail. However, as in many fairy tales, the characters could use a great deal more development and depth.

We find out that Adeline is an orphan, whose appearance and manner is appealing to the tastes of the time. Her physical characteristics are presented as indicators of her character, for example, as follows: “the captivations of her beauty were heightened by the grace and simplicity of her manners, and confirmed by the intrinsic value of a heart.” (Radcliffe) 2

However, beyond her appearance and manners, we get very little insight. We learn that she was immured in a convent against her will before being abandoned to bad men and cast off to La Motte. Thereafter, she is a major protagonist, making friends and then exciting jealousy in Madame La Motte, attracting the unwelcome attention of Montalt, appealing to Louis de La Motte, falling for Theodore, finding another family substitute in the La Luc household, coincidentally encountering distant relatives, and finally reconnecting with her true love. She eventually discovers her own true identity and is permitted to marry Theodore.

Throughout, she retains a tendency to faint, although towards the end of the book, she avoids this with difficulty when in court, an effort described as follows: “She endeavoured, however, to arrest her fleeting spirits while the man proceeded in his confession.” (Radcliffe) 3 Throughout, as well, her appeal to others is enhanced by her childlike behavior, for example, “When she appeared before the tribunal…. soft timidity, and… a sweet confusion… rendered her an object still more interesting” (Radcliffe) 4 She also has a recurrent tendency to fall into reverie, which also persists through Chapter 25, when, “Adeline pressed the picture to her’s, and again gazed in silent reverie. At length, with a deep sigh, she said, “This surely was my mother. Had she but lived, O my poor father! You had been spared.” (Sic) (Radcliffe).

The deficiency of character development is not confined to the heroine. La Motte is described at the outset as “follows:

“Pierre de la Motte was a gentleman, descended from an ancient house of France. He was, “a man whose passions often overcame his reason, and, for a time, silenced his conscience; but, through the image of virtue, which Nature had impressed upon his heart, was sometimes obscured by the passing influence of vice, it was never wholly obliterated.” (Radcliffe) 5

At the end of the book, having been more than repaid for any kindness he might have shown Adeline by her intervention on his behalf and her financial generosity that permitted him to endure banishment comfortably, “his character gradually recovered the hue which it would probably always have worn had he never been exposed to the tempting dissipations of Paris.” (Radcliffe) 6 La Motte, thus, does experience some change and redemption over the course of the novel.

The other most complex male character, La Luc, remains the same throughout the story as he was described at his first appearance, “equally loved for the piety and benevolence of the Christian as respected for the dignity and elevation of the philosopher” (Radcliffe).7 Other male characters are one dimensionally bad, like the Marquis, or one dimensionally good, like Theodore.

Only Clara is portrayed in any detail among the few female characters, and her character seems to mainly an excuse to discuss female upbringing and present a contrast with Adeline. Clara has a loving father who takes a personal interest in her education every day, with her brother.8 Her character spends many days contemplating whether playing her lute is permissible to a young woman who has household and charitable obligations. This reveals just how constrained the actions of women were, even in an enlightened household such as Lu Luc’s.

The plot is, as noted previously, basically a fairy tale. Adeline’s ideal outcome for Radcliffe is summed up at the end of the tale as follows: “here, in the very bosom of felicity, lived Theodore and Adeline La Luc.” (Radcliffe) 9 This is a rather wordier version of ‘they lived happily ever after, but means much the same. However, unlike Cinderella, who knows her prince only from several nights of dancing with him, or Snow White, who barely knows her prince at all, except for an awakening kiss, Adeline at least, has lived Theodore through both struggle (Adeline’s stalking by Montalt, and Theodore’s execution sentence, for example) and periods of living close together in relative serenity.

Despite the basic simplicity of the plot, Radcliffe gives us a window into the way that women lived in via small details that reveal her assumptions about life and behavior. For example, in arriving at Paris to testify, “Adeline, for whom a residence at a public hotel was very improper, gladly accepted the offer” of lodgings with Madame Le Motte (Radcliffe) This reminds modern readers that women in Radcliffe’s era could not travel or stay alone without criticism. Adeline’s behavior with her various admirers reveals how strictly limited permitted physical contact between men and women was.

When the Marquis first expresses his lust for her, “Adeline continued to move towards the door, when the Marquis threw himself at her feet, and, seizing her hand, impressed it with kisses. She struggled to disengage herself” (Radcliffe). She does the same for her other suitors, although with less vehemence. Only when she is literally about to lose Theodore, does she lay her head on his chest.10 Thus, Radcliffe presents Adeline as conforming to the expectations of her era in controlling her sexual passions, and those of her intended’s until marriage.

The scenery is described in terms that seem vague. The reader learns that places are “grotesque” that today’s eye views as beautiful, for example, when Adeline first sees the home of La Luc in the Alps. “His chateau stood on the borders of a small lake that was almost environed by mountains of stupendous height, which, shooting into a variety of grotesque forms, composed a scenery singularly solemn and sublime.” (Radcliffe)11 Places that today would merely be considered sad are presented as frightening, for example, the abbey as they first encounter it. “The partial gleams thrown across the fabric seemed to make its desolation more solemn, while the obscurity of the greater part of the pile heightened its sublimity, and led fancy on to scenes of horror.” Rather than actually portraying real places, Radcliffe uses the scenery to symbolize the various perils that Adeline must overcome.

The convent suggests complete control of her sexuality and fecundity. The forest, which figures in the title but is really only one among many settings, can symbolize the dangers of animal passions and lusts, such as those of the Marquis. The abbey itself, a place of supposed spiritual purity, shows up as both a haven, and a prison for the murdered father of Adeline. The chateau, by contrast, with its elaborate and luxurious decorations and comforts (particularly after the sparse comforts of living in an abandoned building) represents a sort of temptation of the flesh. The river seems to symbolize transition from the darkness of the forest into another phase of Adeline’s life. The mountains can represent clarity of thought and enlightenment, reinforced by the character of La Luc and his well-educated children. The ocean suggests the great unknown, entirely different from anything that Adeline has previously experienced.

The time period of the novel, although specified as the 16th century, could be any time since the Reformation, based on the fact that a clergyman has children legitimately. The discomforts of daily life (no plumbing, for example), and the power of the government to imprison someone over debts, or take a person’s life on trivial grounds, were still features of life in most places in the 1700s. Radcliffe may be commenting more on her own century than on the 17th in her portrayal.

The novel’s main theme of this Cinderella story seems to be a young woman’s escape from inappropriate relations with men to the only appropriate one – marriage. In allowing Adeline to choose her own husband, Radcliffe shows modernity. However, the persistent childlikeness of Adeline, and the fact that her repeated illnesses and depressions make her more interesting to others keep this novel in a pre-feminist space.

Works Cited

Radcliffe, Ann. The Romance of the Forest. [email protected], 2014. Web.


1 ““Why then, Sir, as I was standing in the blacksmith’s shop, comes in a man with a pipe in his mouth, and a large pouch of tobacco in his hand” — “Well — what has the pipe to do with the story?” “Nay, Sir, you put me out; I can’t go on, unless you let me tell it my own way. As I was saying — with a pipe in his mouth — I think I was there, your Honour!” “ Yes, yes.” “ He sets himself down on the bench, and, taking the pipe from his mouth, says to the blacksmith — Neighbour, do you know any body of the name of La Motte hereabouts? — Bless your Honour; I turned all of a cold sweat in a minute! — is not your Honour well, shall I fetch you any thing?” “ No — but be short in your narrative.” “ La Motte! La Motte! Said the blacksmith, I think I’ve heard the name.” — “Have you?” said I, you’re cunning then, for there’s no such person hereabouts, to my knowledge.” “Fool! — why did you say that?” “Because I did not want them to know your Honour was here; and if I had not managed very cleverly, they would have found me out. There is no such person, hereabouts, to my knowledge, says I,” — “Indeed! says the blacksmith, you know more of the neighbourhood than I do then.” — Aye, says the man with the pipe, that’s very true. How came you to know so much of the neighbourhood? I came here twenty-six years ago, come next St. Michael, and you know more than I do. How came you to know so much?”

“With that he put his pipe in his mouth, and gave a whiff full in my face. Lord! your Honour, I trembled from head to foot. Nay, as for that matter, says I, I don’t know more than other people, but I’m sure I never heard of such a man as that.” — Pray, says the blacksmith, staring me full in the face, an’t you the man that was inquiring some time since about Saint Clair’s Abbey?” — “Well, what of that? says I, what does that prove?” — “Why, they say, somebody lives in the abbey now, said the man, turning to the other; and, for aught I know, it may be this same La Motte.” — “Aye, or for aught I know either, says the man with the pipe, getting up from the bench, and you know more of this than you’ll own. I’ll lay my life on’t, this Monsieur La Motte lives at the abbey.” — “Aye, says I, you are out there, for he does not live at the abbey now.”” (Radcliffe)

2 Adeline is described as follows:

“The observations and general behaviour of Adeline already bespoke a good understanding and an amiable heart, but she had yet more — she had genius. She was now in her nineteenth year; her figure of the middling size, and turned to the most exquisite proportion; her hair was dark auburn, her eyes blue, and whether they sparkled with intelligence, or melted with tenderness, they were equally attractive: her form had the airy lightness of a nymph, and, when she smiled, her countenance might have been drawn for the younger sister of Hebe: the captivations of her beauty were heightened by the grace and simplicity of her manners, and confirmed by the intrinsic value of a heart.” (Radcliffe)

3 “On hearing this Adeline grew faint; she remembered the MS. she had found, together with the extraordinary circumstances that had attended the discovery; every nerve thrilled with horror, and raising her eyes she saw the countenance of the Marquis overspread with the livid paleness of guilt. She endeavoured, however, to arrest her fleeting spirits while the man proceeded in his confession.” (Radcliffe)

4 “When she appeared before the tribunal, Adeline’s emotion surpassed all the arts of disguise, but adding to the natural dignity of her air and expression of soft timidity, and to her downcast eyes a sweet confusion, it rendered her an object still more interesting; and she attracted the universal pity and admiration of the assembly. When she ventured to raise her eyes, she perceived that the Marquis was not yet in the court, and while she awaited his appearance in trembling expectation, a confused murmuring rose in a distant part of the hall. Her spirits now almost forsook her; the certainty of seeing immediately, and consciously, the murderer of her father chilled her with horror, and she was with difficulty preserved from fainting.” (Radcliffe)

5 He was, “a man whose passions often overcame his reason, and, for a time, silenced his conscience; but, through the image of virtue, which Nature had impressed upon his heart, was sometimes obscured by the passing influence of vice, it was never wholly obliterated. With strength of mind sufficient to have withstood temptation, he would have been a good man; as it was, he was always a weak, and sometimes a vicious member of society: yet his mind was active, and his imagination vivid, which, co-operating with the force of passion, often dazzled his judgement and subdued principle. Thus he was a man, infirm in purpose and visionary in virtue: in a word, his conduct was suggested by feeling, rather than principle; and his virtue, such as it was, could not stand the pressure of occasion.” (Radcliffe)

6 “This kindness operated so powerfully upon his heart, which had been betrayed through weakness rather than natural depravity, and awakened so keen a remorse for the injuries he had once meditated against a benefactress so noble, that his former habits became odious to him, and his character gradually recovered the hue which it would probably always have worn had he never been exposed to the tempting dissipations of Paris.” (Radcliffe)

7 “He was minister of the village, and equally loved for the piety and benevolence of the Christian as respected for the dignity and elevation of the philosopher. His was the philosophy of nature, directed by common sense. He despised the jargon of the modern schools and the brilliant absurdities of systems, which have dazzled without enlightening, and guided without convincing, their disciples.

His mind was penetrating; his views extensive; and his systems, like his religion, were simple, rational, and sublime. The people of his parish looked up to him as to a father; for while his precepts directed their minds, his example touched their hearts.” (Radcliffe)

8 “She attended her father in the library at the usual hour, and learned, from his discourse with her brother on what had been read the two preceding days, that she had lost much entertaining knowledge” (Radcliffe)

9 “Here, contemning the splendour of false happiness, and possessing the pure and rational delights of a love refined into the most tender friendship, surrounded by the friends so dear to them, and visited by a select and enlightened society — here, in the very bosom of felicity, lived Theodore and Adeline La Luc.” (Radcliffe).

10 “Louis, who had left the room soon after La Luc arrived, that his presence might not interrupt their farewell grief, now returned. Adeline raised her head, and perceiving who entered, it again sunk on the bosom of Theodore.” (Radcliffe)

11 “His chateau stood on the borders of a small lake that was almost environed by mountains of stupendous height, which, shooting into a variety of grotesque forms, composed a scenery singularly solemn and sublime. Dark woods, intermingled with bold projections of rock, sometimes barren, and sometimes covered with the purple bloom of wild flowers, impended over the lake, and were seen in the clear mirror of its waters.” (Radcliffe)