The Romance of the Forest
by Ann Radcliffe
I don’t know why I never read any Ann Radcliffe before. I’ve enjoyed a number of early Gothic novels, but had yet to get to hers. I think hearing about Radcliffe’s notorious tendency to cop out on the supernatural aspect of her stories, presenting Scooby-Doo endings where all the apparent magical or ghostly happenings were actually improbable machinations by the earthly characters, caused me to shy away. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to see that the supernatural played almost no part in this book; it’s essentially a historical melodrama set in seventeenth-century France.
I was more surprised by the fact that it read less like an adventure story and more as an attempt to speak up on contemporary debates on the philosophy of the sublime. Radcliffe has a tendency, as many people have observed, to feature extended passages of landscape description; certainly, if you think Tolkien tended to excess in that respect, you don’t want to come anywhere near Radcliffe, but then as with Tolkien those passages aren’t just providing colour but actually providing shape to the theme of the book. So Radcliffe’s gothic is actually a part of an extended dialogue on the sublime and human reactions to nature. You can see the link to contemporary Romantic poetry clearly.
On the other hand, the descriptions of nature don’t do a lot to speed up the story. Coincidences abound; the structure is halting, episodic. Jane Austen, notoriously, rubbished Radcliffe’s character-writing, but she’d have been better advised to focus on Radcliffe’s plotting skills.
Since I’m on the subject, though, let’s look at that Austen quote. I’m referring to this passage in Northanger Abbey (here from Project Gutenberg):
Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.
Okay, so, taking the last point first: I was surprised to find that, contrary to Austen, The Romance of the Forest actually did have a number of “mixed characters” in it. Pierre La Motte, who carries the story for the first part of the book, is decidedly mixed; well-intentioned, but weak. The same for his wife. Nor am I entirely convinced that Adeline’s meant to be entirely without flaw. Certainly, you can argue that these characters are not convincingly drawn. But Austen’s main point is that “human nature” is not faithfully represented in Radcliffe because her characters are “spotless as angels” or else “have the dispositions of a fiend”. This is simply not true. (It also ignores the fact that faithful representation of human nature is not necessarily the aim of a novelist; but that’s a whole other argument.)
Still, what always struck me as ridiculous about this passage — I can think of no other word for the incredulity with which I first read it — is the central part: “But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”
All right, then. Anybody who ever read Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge will recall that the book opens with a poor man selling off his wife, thinking that would count as a divorce. According to one reference book I have to hand (Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew), “Between 1750 and 1850, in fact, there were some 380 of these do-it-yourself divorces effected in rural England. The general procedure was even crasser than Hardy suggests, for you typically put a halter around your wife’s head and shoulders and led her to the auction place like a cow, the only checks on the practice being occasional ostracism and not very stringent legal penalties.”
That’s assuming we’re talking about divorce, which in its legal forms was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Pool again: “Once married, a wife could not sue or make a contract on her own nor make a will without her husband’s consent. If he wished to confine her against his will, as Mr. Rochester does his wife at Thornfield Hall, until 1891 he was well within his rights in doing so. He could ‘correct’ her if he wished, too, a right which was supposed to mean only verbal chastisement but in practice often meant physical punishment.” So, yeah. I suppose you could make an argument that the Brontës’ brand of Gothic, unlike Radcliffe’s tales set in England, went some distance toward both disproving Austen’s take on a wife’s situation (Austen, of course, was never married herself) and perhaps validated the experiences of their readers.
While I’m at it, I might mention that when Austen declares “servants were not slaves” she neglects to mention that slavery was actually legal (she completed Northanger Abbey in 1799, the slave trade was outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, the book was published in 1817, Britain abolished slavery in 1833). And it has to be said that to someone in the contemporary First World, a servant’s life still seems pretty harsh. Pool tells us that a servant’s day might begin at 6 AM and end at 11 PM, with only half a day off on Sunday and two full weeks of vacation in a year, plus one evening a week and one day per month. Pay could be as little as 11 pounds a year. “The servants slept in tiny, overheated or freezing-cold attic rooms and worked in dark, dank basement areas that were too hot or too cold ... They were ordered around, sometimes insulted, and frequently treated with minimal respect for the long, hard back-breaking hours of work they put in.” And, of course, a female servant who got pregnant could expect to be fired.
(And just to finish everything off, Austen claims “neither poison nor sleeping potions [were] to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist”, which is a statement so manifestly false I have no idea why she made it. Laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, was widely available in patent medicines as a pain reliever and to bring on sleep. The best possible interpretation, I suppose, is that Austen was seeing around her only what she wanted to see and ignoring what didn’t fit.)
The point I’m getting to is that not only do I think Austen was wrong in her specific criticism of Ann Radcliffe, I have to wonder whether Radcliffe wasn’t a more accurate observer of the world around her. Was the Gothic form that Radcliffe partly created (the Brontës certainly seem to me to owe more to Radcliffe’s ‘realistic’ Gothic than to the overt supernaturalism of Walpole, Beckford, Maturin, or Lewis) a way to say things that could not be said more directly? There has been much written in recent years about Gothic as a female form of writing, about Gothic as a means of social criticism — does the form allow one to think more freely about the world around oneself?
(Edited to add: the thoughts on Radcliffe and the sublime follow from reading the 1986 World's Classics edition with notes and introduction by Chloe Chard. Some strong scholarship there, I felt.)