The Romance of the Forest by Ann Radcliffe

the-romance-of-the-forest If you were going to write a Gothic novel, what sort of things would you include? Dark forests? Ruined abbeys? Stormy weather? Wicked noblemen? Secret manuscripts? Skeletons? Well, you’ll find all of those and more in Ann Radcliffe’s 1791 classic, The Romance of the Forest. Radcliffe was one of the earliest pioneers of the Gothic novel and, while I can see that her books won’t appeal to everyone, I’ve now read four of them and enjoyed them all – although this one is not her best.

The story is set in 17th century France and opens with Pierre de la Motte, who has found himself in debt, fleeing Paris with his wife and servants, hoping to get as far away from his creditors as possible. Losing their way in the dark, they see lights shining from a house in the distance and Pierre knocks on the door to ask for help. He gets more than he bargained for, however, when the man who answers the door pushes a beautiful young lady towards him and begs Pierre to take her away with him. Pierre agrees and the family, with the addition of the girl, whose name is Adeline, continue on their way.

They find refuge in an old, deserted abbey and decide to settle there for a while, safe in the knowledge that their pursuers are unlikely to find them in such a remote and gloomy place. Inside the abbey, though, there are new terrors to face. The discovery of a skeleton, a rusty dagger and a faded manuscript point to a murder in the abbey’s history – and when the sinister Marquis de Montalt arrives on the scene, Adeline senses that her own life could also be in danger.

Ann Radcliffe is not known for her strong heroines and Adeline is no exception, so be prepared for some fainting and swooning and lots of melodrama. Having said that, she does have strong principles, and tries, in her own way, to fight for what she wants and believes in. Like Emily St Aubert in The Mysteries of Udolpho, she also has a habit of picking up her lute and breaking into song from time to time (giving Radcliffe an opportunity to insert her own poems into the text).

I didn’t find this book quite as atmospheric as her others (certain sections of The Italian, in particular, have a darkness and an eeriness that are never matched in this book), but her descriptive writing is still beautiful:

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. The wild and alpine heights which rose above were either crowned with perpetual snows, or exhibited tremendous crags and masses of solid rock, whose appearance was continually changing as the rays of light were variously reflected on their surface, and whose summits were often wrapt in impenetrable mists.

I also enjoyed seeing the plot unfold in the final third of the novel, with revelation following upon revelation. There are some coincidences which are too convenient or too ridiculous to be believed and any big holes in the plot are explained away as ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’. These are things that would bother me in any other type of novel, but in an 18th century Gothic novel, they’re exactly what I would expect and so I was able to suspend my disbelief without any problems!

This is a weaker Radcliffe novel, in my opinion, so if you’ve never read any of her books before I would probably recommend beginning with a different one. The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho and A Sicilian Romance are the others I’ve read and any of those might be a better starting point.

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief “A diamond. A curse. An obsession.” These are the words on the front cover of Essie Fox’s third novel and they give us a good idea of the type of story we can expect to find inside. The Goddess and the Thief is a Victorian Gothic novel (like the previous two books by this author – The Somnambulist, which I’ve read, and Elijah’s Mermaid, which I haven’t) and combines a complex plot with an atmospheric setting and a sense of mystery.

The novel begins in colonial India, where a little girl called Alice Willoughby is growing up in the care of her beloved ayah, Mini, having lost her mother in childbirth. Alice loves India – she loves the warmth, the vivid colours, the stories Mini tells of Parvati and Shiva – and is heartbroken when her father decides to take her back to England to live with her Aunt Mercy. Alice is lonely and miserable in her new home and finds Mercy cold and uncaring. Things become even worse when she discovers that her aunt is a medium and that she will be forced to take part in Mercy’s fraudulent séances and other spiritualist activities.

Alice’s life reaches another turning point when she and Mercy meet the mysterious Lucian Tilsbury, a man who has recently returned from India and is planning to involve the two women in an elaborate scheme…a scheme revolving around the Koh-i-Noor diamond, the famous jewel claimed by the British at the end of the Anglo-Sikh war. Some say the diamond is cursed and others that it is blessed, but one thing that is certain is that it exerts a strange power over everyone who comes into contact with it.

You may be thinking that this sounds like The Moonstone, but while there are some similarities with the Wilkie Collins mystery, this is a very different book and the story surrounding the diamond took some surprising twists and turns which I definitely wasn’t expecting! I was particularly intrigued by the occasional appearances of Queen Victoria and the Maharajah Duleep Singh, two people for whom the Koh-i-Noor has a very important significance.

The scenes set in India at the beginning of the book were among my favourites and I was sorry when we left India behind for the gloom of Aunt Mercy’s house in Windsor. The mood of the novel then becomes increasingly dark and oppressive and I was pleased that tales of the Hindu gods and of Alice’s life in Lahore continued to be woven into the plot. I liked Alice as a central character and enjoyed following her adventures, while also feeling afraid and worried for her as she found herself betrayed, badly treated and unsure of whom to trust.

My only problem with The Goddess and the Thief was that there were certain passages which I found confusing and difficult to follow, partly because the use of opium played a role in the story, which meant that the boundaries between reality and unreality often became blurred. I appreciate that this was done intentionally, to make Alice’s situation even more frightening, but it was the one aspect of the novel that didn’t work very well for me. Of course, it could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough!

Having enjoyed both this book and The Somnambulist (this one slightly more than the first, I think), I will have to read Elijah’s Mermaid soon!

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

The Girl Who Couldn't Read Three years ago I read John Harding’s Florence and Giles and loved it, so I was pleased to find a copy of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read in the library. It’s a sequel and will make more sense if you’ve read Florence and Giles first, but don’t worry if you haven’t because it should still work perfectly well as a standalone.

The story is set in the 1890s and is narrated by Doctor Shepherd, who has just arrived at his new job in a women’s mental hospital on an isolated island in New England. Taking a tour of the hospital’s facilities with his new colleague, Doctor Morgan, he is appalled by some of the methods being used to control the patients. When he tells the other doctor of his concerns, Morgan agrees to an experiment: Shepherd can choose one of the women to work with using his own methods in an attempt to prove whether gentle, humane treatment can be as effective as harshness and brutality.

The patient Doctor Shepherd picks for his experiment is a young girl known as Jane Dove – she says she can’t remember her real name, her age or anything about her past. She is also unable to read (and claims that she has never been allowed to learn) and, according to Doctor Morgan, she can’t even use the English language correctly. It seems Shepherd’s task could turn out to be a lot harder than he’d expected! After spending some time with Jane, though, he begins to realise that while the girl’s speech is unconventional, the way she uses nouns and verbs actually makes perfect sense.

She invented new words from old, often by changing the way they were used. She said “we outsided” rather than “we went outside”, or “I downstairsed” in place of “I went downstairs”, both of which I found perfectly clear and actually more economical than the conventional expression.

Jane immediately reminded me of a character from Florence and Giles – another girl who used language in a creative and unusual way. As Doctor Shepherd continues to work with her, encouraging her to search her memory and giving her books to look at, the connection between Jane and that other girl becomes clear. But what about Shepherd himself? It’s obvious from the very first chapter that he is not who he says he is either…and possibly not even a doctor at all!

I love books with unreliable narrators and Doctor Shepherd is a very intriguing one. We know that he is unreliable, we know that he is not being honest with us – but we don’t know why and we don’t know who he really is. The truth about Shepherd isn’t revealed until near the end of the novel, but along the way there are plenty of plot twists and surprises! And to make things even more interesting, Doctor Shepherd and Jane Dove aren’t the only people in the story with secrets to hide; there’s also a third mystery and this one made me think of a classic Victorian novel – an impression that grew stronger as the story progressed.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a great book – it’s maybe not quite as good as Florence and Giles but it comes very close! I did wonder whether the setting might make it too similar to The Asylum by John Harwood, which I read just a few weeks ago, but fortunately they are two very different novels with very different plots and characters. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!

The Asylum by John Harwood

The Asylum Imagine waking up one day to find yourself in an asylum, with no memory of how you came to be there. You know your own name – Georgina Ferrars – but the doctor tells you that you had admitted yourself as a voluntary patient the day before under the name Lucy Ashton. The clothes and belongings you’ve brought with you, marked with the initials LA, seem to confirm this, but you’re sure that’s not who you are. Sending a telegram to your uncle, a London bookseller, you wait for him to prove your identity, but when the reply comes it isn’t what you’d hoped for at all. Apparently Georgina Ferrars is safe and well at home…which means you must be an imposter.

This is the nightmare scenario in which a lonely young woman finds herself in this atmospheric gothic tale of betrayal and deceit, secrets, insanity and identity. To describe the plot in any more detail would risk giving too much away, so I won’t try – I think it’s best if you begin this novel knowing no more than I’ve already told you above as part of the fun is in wondering what’s going on and coming up with theories of your own. And I certainly came up with plenty of theories…and had to keep changing and revising them as new clues and revelations came to light!

As I read The Asylum I felt as confused and bewildered as our narrator did. Was she really Georgina Ferrars, as she claimed to be? I thought so at first – I liked her and wanted to believe her – and I was convinced she must be the victim of a conspiracy. But who exactly was involved in the conspiracy? The doctor? The uncle? The fake Georgina? After a while, though, I began to have doubts. Was the narrator herself the fake after all? I couldn’t believe she was telling lies, so did that mean she was deluded or just suffering from a total loss of memory? There were so many questions to ask and so many possible answers.

The story is set in the 1880s and written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel. Like Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and other books of that era, parts of the story are told in the form of journal entries and letters. These help to fill in some gaps in our knowledge so that we can start to understand what is happening to Georgina. There were other aspects of the novel that reminded me of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and one of the letter writers finds herself in a situation similar to the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but there were enough original ideas here to make this an intriguing and absorbing story in its own right.

Most of the action takes place within the confines of Tregannon House (the private asylum on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, in which Georgina becomes trapped) and the atmosphere Harwood creates is wonderfully claustrophobic and eerie. I really sympathised with Georgina’s situation and shared her terror and bewilderment. My only criticism of the book is that the ending – in particular the way in which one of the villains of the story is eventually dealt with – felt a bit too melodramatic in comparison to the rest of the book.

This is the third John Harwood novel I’ve read and while I think the first, The Ghost Writer, is still my favourite, I enjoyed this one more than the second, The Séance. They’re all great, though, and if you like this sort of book you can’t go wrong with any of them!

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

Watch the Wall, My Darling by Jane Aiken Hodge

Watch the Wall My Darling - Jane Aiken Hodge I had never heard of Watch the Wall, My Darling until it started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads, and with such an intriguing title I knew it was a book I would have to consider reading eventually! First published in 1966, it seems to be out of print now in paperback or hardback format, but used copies are available and an ebook version has also been released.

Watch the Wall, My Darling is a gothic romantic suspense novel set on the south-east coast of England during the Napoleonic Wars. As the story begins, Christina Tretton, a young American woman whose father has recently died, is returning to her family’s ancestral home, Tretteign Grange. After encountering a gang of smugglers on the journey, Christina arrives at the Grange – also known as the Dark House – and is met by her Aunt Verity, her invalid grandfather and her handsome cousin, Ross.

Settling into her new home, Christina quickly takes control of the management of the house and the servants. Impressed with his granddaughter, old Mr Tretteign decides to change his will and leave the Grange to Christina – on the condition that she must marry either Ross or her other cousin, Richard. Christina insists that she has no intention of marrying either of them, but her two cousins, who each have their own reasons for wanting the Grange, have other ideas. Despite herself, she finds herself drawn to Ross, but soon discovers that he is involved in something very dangerous – and with England expecting a French invasion at any moment, the lives of everyone at the Dark House could be at risk.

I enjoyed this book – it was a fun, undemanding read with plenty of adventure and intrigue and a touch of romance. I kept being reminded of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate and Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting, though this is not as well written or memorable as any of those, in my opinion. The historical background didn’t feel particularly strong and Christina felt more like a woman of the 1960s than the 1800s, while I didn’t find Ross quite as fascinating and attractive as she did. The introduction of two new characters towards the end of the book didn’t really add anything to the story either. Still, with smugglers, soldiers and spies, a crumbling abbey believed to be haunted, family secrets and an inheritance to be decided, there was more than enough to keep me happy!

And if you’re wondering, the title comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling called A Smuggler’s Song:

“Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark
Brandy for the parson,
‘Baccy for the clerk;
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the gentlemen go by!”

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Bellman and Black William Bellman is ten years old when he hits a rook with his catapult and kills it. He and his friends had expected the bird to fly away before the stone hit it and are surprised to see it die. Just a small incident and William quickly moves on with his life, but as he grows older it seems that this brief moment of cruelty was much more significant than it seemed at the time.

William joins the family mill and through hard work and dedication he begins to rise in the world. As a rich, successful businessman with a wife and children he loves, life is perfect – but not for long. Soon, a series of tragic deaths start to destroy William’s happiness and he finds himself entering into partnership with a mysterious stranger dressed in black…

I found plenty of things to like about Bellman & Black but compared to Diane Setterfield’s first book, The Thirteenth Tale, it was disappointing. Although I didn’t love The Thirteenth Tale the way a lot of other readers did and consequently my expectations for this one weren’t too high, I definitely found her first book much more enjoyable than the second. Bellman & Black is packed with great, original ideas but I don’t think she was quite as successful at bringing all of these ideas together to form a satisfying story as she was with The Thirteenth Tale.

I think part of my problem with this book may have been that I just didn’t like William and felt somehow detached from him, so that even when he was going through times of tragedy and disaster I didn’t really care. And being able to care about William would have been a big advantage in a book where William was the only character who felt fully developed. Other characters come and go without the reader having a chance to get to know them properly; I thought William’s daughter, Dora, had potential but her character was never fleshed out enough for me to be able to warm to her.

Anyway, let’s move on to the things that I loved in Bellman & Black. Diane Setterfield has chosen to write about some fascinating aspects of Victorian culture and society! The first half of the book revolves around the running of a mill and we have the chance to learn about all the different areas of the textile industry, from the processes of producing and dyeing cloth to the benefits Bellman introduces to improve the welfare of his workers. In the second half of the book we explore the mourning business and the emporium William establishes in London as part of his deal with Mr Black (I kept being reminded here of Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise).

Interspersed with William’s story are some shorter passages which discuss rooks and ravens – their appearance and behaviour, their roles in history and mythology, and every other aspect of rooks and ravens that you could possibly imagine. I’m not sure if these sections really added anything to the plot, but I liked the concept and enjoyed reading them.

Bellman & Black is described as a ghost story, though despite the Gothic touches and the foreboding atmosphere, I don’t really think I would agree with that description. William Bellman is certainly haunted, but it’s more of a psychological haunting than a physical one, so if you’re looking for a traditional ghost story you won’t find one here. This is the sort of book that will make you think and look below the surface for hidden meanings – and when you reach the final page you’ll be left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve read.

I received a copy of this book for review via Netgalley.