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The Lady of the Forest

August 7, 2007

The Lady of the Forest, by L.T. Meade, is another recent acquisition, and one of the most crazily convoluted books I’ve ever read. It’s so confusing that you need a family tree to understand it. The author didn’t include one, though, so I’ve had to make up the deficiency myself.

Lovel Family Tree

The father of Rupert(I) and Valentine(I) disinherited Rupert(I), so Valentine(I) inherited Avonsyde, the Lovels’ ancestral home. A hundred years later, Valentine(II) decides that all the family’s bad luck since then is due to the elder branch of the family being disinherited. Valentine(II) was not so happy with his own son, Valentine(III), who married a woman beneath him socially, had two daughters, and then died. Now Valentine(II) is dying himself, and there is no male heir — his daughters Griselda and Katharine are both spinsters. While he lets his daughters adopt Valentine(III)’s girls, Rachel and Kitty, he asks Griselda and Katherine to seek out a healthy, manly young boy who is a lineal descendant of Rupert(I). The women make Rachel and Kitty’s mother, Mrs. Lovel(I), abandon her children.

By the time Rachel and Kitty are 12 and 9, respectively, Avonsyde has seen many potential new heirs, but they’ve all either been puny, or have been proved not to be lineal descendants of Rupert(I). Now a new one is arriving: Philip(II) Lovel, age 7, who arrives from Australia with his mother. He will henceforth be known as Phil(no Roman numeral). Griselda takes a liking to him, and so does everyone else. In spite of the fact that he’s pale and skinny — and also very plain — it starts looking like he’s going to be the heir.

We soon discover that although Phil has an unnamed ailment that causes him great pain, his mother, Mrs. Lovel(II), makes him pretend that he;s strong and healthy. He’s a pretty determined, brave little kid, so he manages to do that very well, and for a long time no one suspects that he’s not perfectly strong and healthy. Phil soon becomes friends with Kitty, but he’s constantly having to stop himself from talking to her about things his mother has told him to keep secret, like his cousin and best friend, Rupert(III), who is strong and brave and looks a lot like a certain portrait of Rupert(I) Lovel.

Meanwhile, Kitty’s friendship with Phil leaves Rachel on her own a lot, and she takes to wandering alone through the forest, looking for the Lady of the Forest, a sort of local spirit who reportedly appears once in a generation or so, usually to a Lovel, and makes the person who has seen her kind of beautiful, in an indefinable, having-something-to-do-with-purity-of-character sort of way. One day, she sees a quiet, sad-looking woman dressed in gray deep in the woods, and although at first she mistakes her for the Lady, she changes her mind when she meets the woman’s servant, Nancy, who tells her that the woman isn’t allowed to speak to her. Or something. Rachel is increasingly fascinated by the woman, and goes back to look at her often.

Nancy has impressed upon Rachel the idea that the woman in gray’s existence is a secret, so she gets a little scared when she hears Kitty telling Phil about the Lady of the Forest. Phil is intrigued, and would like to see the Lady, but he’d rather have a bag of gold that some kind of indefinable beauty in his expression; he’s gathered that his mother has brought him to Avonsyde because she wants money, and he figured a bag of gold would solve that problem so that they could go back to Australia and Phil could hang out with Rupert(III) again. Mrs. Lovel(II) is pretty venal and unpleasant, and although she loves her son, she’s clearly willing to let his medical problems go untreated if it gets them the Avonsyde estate. The scene when she realizes that, if Phil’s made the heir, she’s going to have to leave him and Avonsyde eventually, is pretty funny.

Some point around now we get a glimpse of what’s going on in Australia. Rupert(III) is one of those nice, manly boys with very little personality. His sister Gabrielle is a little more interesting, but we don’t see much of her, and Peggy, the third sibling, might as well no be there at all. Anyway, they all miss their little cousin Phil, none of them liked his mother, and meanwhile Rupert(II) has found the advertisement (placed by the Lovel sisters at Avonsyde) that sent Mrs. Lovel(II) to England, and goes looking for a goblet and some letters that prove his descent from Rupert(I) only to find that they’ve disappeared.

One day Phil decides to go into the forest and look for the Lady of whom Rachel and Kitty have spoken, hoping she’ll give him a bag of gold. Before he leaves, he goes searching through his mother’s trunk and finds the Lovel goblet that has gone missing from his uncle’s home in Australia. For no good reason, he takes it with him on his excursion. Then he gets caught in a swamp and almost dies, but is rescues by the woman in gray, who can talk to him, although she could never talk to Rachel (gee, I wonder who she could be?). When he leaves, he forgets the goblet, and Nancy, who realizes that it’s one of the things that proves he’s a Lovel, hides it. I’m not going to bother trying to maintain the suspense here, because it’s not that suspenseful anyway. The woman in gray is Rachel and Kitty’s mother, and Griselda and Katherine made her promise not to contact her kids until Rachel turned thirteen. Also, Valentine(II)’s will apparently says that if an heir isn’t found by the time Rachel turns thirteen, the two girls inherit part of the fortune.

Rachel discovers that Phil has met the woman in gray, and the to of them become better friends. Also, Rachel is apparently the only person who realizes that Phil isn’t well, and she occasionally sneaks bowls of chicken soup up to his room when he’s feeling particularly bad. Meanwhile — this book is making me want to use the word ‘meanwhile’ practically every other sentence, but I’m restraining myself — Griselda decides to make Phil the official heir on Rachel’s birthday.

Also, Ruperts(II & III) have arrived in London. They go to see the Lovel family lawyer (not their lawyer, but Griselda and Katherine’s — the advertisement directed them there) and run into Mrs. Lovel(I), who was apparently Rupert(II)’s deceased wife’s best friend. Yeah, I have to admit that I didn’t expect that.

Meanwhile, Phil has had a dream about the Lady of the Forest.

Lady: I’ve been expecting you.

Phil: Likewise.

Lady: I bring beauty of face and heart.

Phil: My mom would rather have a bag of gold.

Lady: Your mom’ll be fine. Come with me to Fairyland, where’s you’ll always be young and strong and beautiful and good.

Phil: Is strongly tempted. “I know you…some people call you by another name, but I know who you are. You give little tired boys like me great rest,” etc. He wakes up.

Mrs. Lovel(II): How do you feel?

Phil: I’ve had a dream and everything is okay now. I know what is going to happen.

I think we can all see where this is going. But if anyone needs a bigger hint, when Phil tells Griselda about his dream, he says, “Aunt Griselda, she isn’t only the Lady of the Forest; she has another name; she comes to everyone some day.”

The day before Rachel’s birthday, Mrs. Lovel(II) realizes how bad off Phil is. She feels horrible about what she’s done to him and wants to make amends. She rushes to London and talks to the family lawyer. Along with the two Ruperts and Mrs. Lovel(I), they join forces. Mrs. Lovel(II) returns to Avonsyde and the rest of them promise to turn up there the next day, along with the goblet — oh wait, I misremembered. It’s actually a tankard. Oops — which Nancy has relinquished.

So, of course everyone turns up at the climactic moment. Mrs. Lovel(I) reveals her identity and has a tearful but happy reunion with Rachel and Kitty. Phil is overjoyed to see Rupert, and the two of them go off and sit under a tree. The complicated family relationships and their testamentary ramifications (the big words are really making the summary shorter, I promise) aren’t discussed at all, which is a huge relief. Phil keeps cryptically referring to him imminent death. No one gets it.

And then he dies, which is kind of a shame, because he and Rachel were really only sympathetic characters in the whole book. Silly as it all sounds, I was kind of sad. Somehow, the image of this frail, sickly little boy being able to push himself so hard that everyone thinks he’s just thin and wiry was really effective.

Okay, so that was all really complicated, right? Guess what? I can think of at least three major subplots I left out. And probably I’ve forgotten things I meant to put in.

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