This is one of the lesser-known Ann Radcliffe books, the first I have personally read and, from what I hear, pretty representative of Radcliffe's other books. The female protagonist, Adeline, continues to get thrown into dire straits, keeps coming close to the edge of salvation, and then endures more misery before finally marrying the suitor of her choice (there were several) and partying with her friends. The book, being a Gothic novel, is sort of a blend between quaint images of the forest, sensitive musings of the main character, and creepy villainy, assassination rumors, yellowed manuscripts, and hidden skeletons (both figurative and literal).
First of all, Ann Radcliffe really deserves a lot of credit because this book was, after all, published in 1790, a time when novels were fairly new to the publishing world. She did quite a nice job at writing an interesting story with several twists and turns. To be fair, I actually really enjoyed this novel. Maybe it was because I was reading it fairly fast, but I thought it was pretty exciting. I was definitely interested in finding out what was going to happen.
But the literary critic in me (I know there's one in all of us) won't let it rest there. The book was fun, but it was also predictable. The characters lacked depth. Adeline was the quintessential damsel in distress, and the marquis was a perfectly evil villain. The character of La Motte, who at first saves Adeline but then takes part in the marquis's evil plot in order to save his own backside, was somewhat more interesting, but his character development had some inexplicable "huh?" moments.
Let's talk a little bit more about Adeline. I was a little disappointed in her. I was hoping that Ann Radcliffe, a woman writing about a female character, might have just a little bit more to say about how a woman might be able to take care of herself. But like I said, Adeline was not much more than a damsel in distress, very sweet and meek and easily trampled. But again, I know I need to give Radcliffe a break; I shouldn't quite judge her for that. Adeline does show herself to be a person of some conviction when she refuses the marquis's advances several times without hesitation, bravely facing the consequences. And I actually really didn't dislike Adeline. I was a little disappointed she wasn't more interesting, but she wasn't annoying.
Despite the fact that this is supposed to be a Gothic novel, there actually isn't very much Gothic-type stuff in it. Yes, there is definitely a good portion of that, but the book keeps diving into quaint descriptions of the forest/mountains/rivers/whatever, and follows Adeline's thoughts and worries for pages sometimes. Something I found sort of funny about the book was that Radcliffe often added her own poetry to the story. She'd have Adeline wandering through the forest or something, and then Adeline would suddenly be inspired and would sit down and write a poem (which was, of course, included for our reading pleasure). The poems are very romantic and, in my humble not-very-poetic opinion, rather uninspired.
The word I would use to describe this book in a nutshell (if I had to) is quaint. Despite the mystery, action, and intrigue, Radcliffe still manages to make this into a rather mild read. I found it more interesting as an example of 18th-century literature than for any particular merit the book might have as a classic. I doubt I will read it again, but it was an enjoyable read.