The Forest of Montalbano by Catherine Cuthbertson
Plot summary by Beryl Chaudhuri
Angelina di Balermo, the young heroine, is being educated at an Italian convent in the opening chapters of this anti-Catholic Gothic romance. She is so beautiful and virtuous that practically everyone she meets falls in love ( or lust ) with her, except her enemies, who through their evil natures are jealous of her, and hate her. The nuns move from a dangerously ruinous convent to a castle, set in a gloomy location in the mountains, obtained through the influence of the new Abbess. Herself very young and beautiful, not even yet a nun, but sorrowful and careworn, the Abbess has been escorted to the convent by Guilelmo, a Cardinal with a reputation for gallantry. Several apparently supernatural events take place here, from unearthly moaning to the appearance of a figure enclosed in armour, who commands the Abbess to constrain a novice to swear final vows against her will, a command she rejects.
Angelina’s mother died when she was a child, her father was lost in the recent wars, so her uncle has succeeded to the title and property of Duca di Montalbano. Her uncle is a weak willed hypochondriac, who although genuinely unwell believes he is almost at death’s door. After his succession to the title he married a beautiful young woman much less well born than himself, who has taken over the castle with her family, and banished Angelina to the convent. She has produced one child to bar Angelina from the inheritance, and at the opening of the book she is pregnant, though her husband is doubtful of the baby’s paternity, and the first child has died, poisoned.
Angelina is summoned from the care of her friend the Abbess to the bedside of her uncle. On the way she is kidnapped by bandits, and rescued from marriage with the chieftain’s son Orsino both by her own exertions and the aid of Fredrico, with whom she is in love. Fredrico has been accused of the murder of his father and older brother, and all believe him guilty, even his mother, under the influence of a malicious priest, his uncle. He wanders the area apparently aimlessly, while trying to find proof of his innocence.
Angelina arrives eventually at her uncle’s castle only to undergo a series of assorted perils. She supports her uncle and encourages him back to health, until separated from him by trickery. She is aided by Father Patrick, an Irish peasant priest, a good man though simple and garrulous. She is threatened variously with, among other things, being sent to the sultan’s seraglio in a mistaken effort to save her father (who is not in fact dead ) from captivity. She is threatened with moral corruption, by being given unsuitable poetry to read. She is threatened in her reputation, through being impersonated by a wanton actress at a masked ball. She is also threatened in her belief in Fredrico, by Elouisa, a guest of Frederico’s mother, who claims, and apparently has proof, that she herself is engaged to him. There is also some threat that the inquisition may become involved, or that Angelina may be forced to become a nun.
All is resolved in the final volume. Angelina’s father is restored, Fredrico is cleared, his father and brother still live, the brother marries the lovely Abbess, the uncle’s wicked wife absconds, her baby dies so there is no male heir to threaten Angelina’s inheritance, the ‘supernatural’ events are all given an explanation, and Angelina and Fredrico can marry. The Abbess turns out to be the illegitimate daughter of the now reformed Cardinal Guilelmo, who has helped the lovers, and who himself is the illegitimate brother of Angelina’s mother.
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