The Forest House is based on the plot of Bellini’s screechy opera Norma, which may account for some of the grand gestures and dramatic agonies to which its characters are prone. Eilan, daughter of Druids, falls immediately and irrevocably in love with the half-Roman Gaius after meeting him in a boar-pit. To her father and foster-brother, however, Gaius’ heritage makes him a symbol of the hated Roman empire, a threat to the British way of life and to Druidic traditions that have been passed down unchanged from their Atlantean ancestors. Eilan, in short, may not marry Gaius. Heartbroken, she accepts an invitation to enter the Forest House, a sanctuary for Druid priestesses. Embroiled in the internal politics to which even a feminist idyll is sometimes prey - and empowered by her experience of the Goddess - Eilan finds no more than a few moments to mourn the loss of her lover. She can’t believe that they will never meet again - and neither, it must be said, can the reader.
Bradley’s historical research seems impeccable; her Roman Britain may have fantastical elements, but it is rooted in fact - although there’s a tendency to be either pedantically precise or mystically vague. For example, although no date is given for the events of the novel, it’s relatively easy - given the references to people and events outside the scope of the narrative - to place it around 80 AD As a historical novel, however, The Forest House is not wholly successful. Perhaps this is because it is not entirely focussed within the Romano-British world which is its setting. There are many informative asides - two girls walking through ‘the thick, uncleared forest that still covered much of the south of Britain’. And Bradley’s characters occasionally appear to be no more than mouthpieces for authorial comments on current concerns - deforestation, ethnic cleansing, female priests - which seem not only anachronistic but largely irrelevant to the events of the novel.
The flow of time in the novel is unsettlingly uneven - several years may pass in the space between chapters, unremarked until Eilan or her cousin Dieda begin to reminisce. It’s a perfectly valid plot device; but in a novel focussed so closely on the emotions and reactions of its protagonists, it interrupts the empathy which is built up between the reader and the characters
Despite these flaws, though, The Forest House has its share of enchanting and mystical moments. Eilan’s encounters with the Goddess, and her initiation, reflect a spiritual truth; they are neatly balanced by Gaius’ initiation into the masculine art of battle. A tragic and romantic tale, which mounts to an oddly satisfying conclusion.