The Three Ghosts of the Forest

The Three Ghosts of the Forest, A Tale of Horror. An Original Romance.

Author: Unknown
Publisher: D. N. Shury
Publication Year: 1803
Language: English
Book Dimensions: 10.2cm x 16.5cm
Pages: 34
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2 .T565 1803

In this 1803 chapbook, jealousy, secrecy, kidnapping, and murder erupt as Orlando pursues romance with Isabella, Octavia, and Adela—three sisters.

Material History

At first glance, this book looks very frail and worn. With dimensions of 10.2cm x 16.5cm and a thickness of about 0.5cm, it is very small and thin. The cover is completely blank, and it is only yellowed paper (there is no kind of leather or hardback cover on the front). Also, there is no back cover of the book, it is just a piece of paper with writing from the beginning of another story.

The title page for Three Ghosts of the Forest

The title of this particular gothic book has a few different forms. Because the frail cover of the book is blank, the first place where the title appears is on the backside of the cover. In this location, the title is Three Ghosts of the Forest. The font of the title is relatively large, and it is fancy because the letters are outlined in black but have no color on the inside of the letters. The only other information on this page is the illustration as well as the artists’ names under the illustration. On the title page, which faces the inside of the cover, the title of the book is printed as The Three Ghosts of the Forest, A Tale of Horror. An Original Romance. The font here is solid black and much larger. The title page features a short four-line poem, and some decorations are present on the title page which include black lines separating the different parts of the title and separating the poem from the list of publishers underneath. It also includes the city of publication, London, and the year it was published, 1803. The decorative black line also appears below the word “finnis” on page 34. Once again, on the first page of the text, the title reads The Three Ghosts of the Forest. While this book has a title printed within it several times, it lacks an author’s name. This component does not appear anywhere throughout the book.

The novel also contains a frontispiece illustration. It is a black and white picture of two women wearing long white dresses, and they are surrounded by trees and grass. There is no caption beneath this picture, but the shorter version of the title is written underneath it. The artists’ names, however, appear underneath the illustration.

One of the most compelling parts of this book is a piece of patchwork that one of the original owners glued onto the back of the title page. There must have been a rip on this page, so somebody took the liberty to paste a fragment of a piece of paper over the rip. The patch has cursive handwriting in ink on it, and it is amazing to think that somebody wrote that so long ago. Other than the University of Virginia Special Collections Library stamp on the front of the book, this is the only mark of ownership.

This page features a hole over what appears to be the word “virtue”

This book has a relatively small font just because the book itself has such small dimensions, but it is not difficult to read the text. The text is not particularly closely set. Surprisingly, the margins of this book vary by page. Sometimes, as on page 5, the margins are much thinner on the right side than on the left, although on page 27 for example the margins are extremely crooked. As a result, the text is slanted on the page. This is a great example of the book’s individuality; every copy probably does not have the same margins since the printer that was used obviously printed some of the pages crooked.

This fragile book lacks a strong binding. The binding is paper, and it is held together by strings. There are no decorations on the outside of the book, and what would be the back binding is just the first few sentences of another different story. The book’s paper is very worn and yellowed. Many of the pages are stained with dark spots. The paper is thin and brittle, and page 13 actually has a hole in it which impends the reader from seeing one of the words.

Textual History

This book has an epigraph on the title page in the form of a short four-line poem. This poem appears to be original to this story, and it functions to give the reader an idea of some of the story’s themes. The narrator of the poem wants to escape his conscience because it will not let him forget some of the worst things he has ever done. This is relevant to the story since Orlando regrets his crimes so deeply by the end of the book.

Illustration showing Isabella’s ghost warning Adela about Orlando

There is little information available about the contemporary reception of The Three Ghosts of the Forest. However, the work does appear in several modern examinations of Gothic literature. One example of this book appearing in a twentieth-century work is Ann B. Tracy’s The Gothic Novel 1790–1830: Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs (1981). This resource provides a summary of the story, as well as summaries of many other gothic stories from the same time period, all organized alphabetically (177–81). It is interesting to note that despite the alphabetical organization, The Three Ghosts of the Forest also has thematic links with its surrounding stories. The summary featured before The Three Ghosts of the Forest is of a book called Tales of the Dead that also features ghosts. The book that is summarized after The Three Ghosts of the Forest is called Rosalind de Tracy; while this summary does not include ghosts, it includes elements similar to The Three Ghosts of the Forest such as marriage problems and death.

The Three Ghosts of the Forest also appears in Toni Wein’s 2002 work, British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms, and the Gothic Novel, 1764–1824. Wein comments on the unlikeliness of Isabella being able to escape her captivity because a servant accidentally left the door open. She also mentions the anonymous author’s message that indulgence and absence of religion make for a terrible person, as well as the message that wealth has too much influence on people and that it can keep good people from seeing the wrongdoings of evil people (161­–2). Something that is extremely interesting is the fact that in this source, the gothic book that is discussed on the next page is called Tales of the Dead, which is the exact same book that The Three Ghosts of the Forest was grouped with in Tracy’s work. According to Wein, Tales of the Dead also includes themes of economic corruption (163).

The Three Ghosts of the Forest is also featured in Franz J. Potter’s The History of Gothic Publishing, 1800–1835. This 2005 work provides information regarding the publishing of many gothic books, but it only mentions The Three Ghosts of the Forest once. Surprisingly, this source states that the author of The Three Ghosts of the Forest is named Alexander Thomson. No other references of the book in other sources mention an author, and there is no author listed anywhere within the actual book, so it is unclear where this information originates. The History of Gothic Publishing also states that the book was “repackaged…into blue-book format” in 1803 (54).

There is a contemporary digital copy of this book, which can be found with the full text on Google Books. It features the same exact image that is on the hard copy of the book in the Sadleir-Black Collection. It even includes the first three pages of the story The Miraculous Preservation of Androcles which is exactly what the UVA Library’s copy includes at the end of the text. A difference between the two copies of these books is that the online version includes red stamps on some of the pages that say “British Museum 1560,” indicating its unique history of ownership.

Narrative Point of View

The Three Ghosts of the Forest includes both first- and third-person narration. The book is narrated in the third person for most of the first twenty-two pages of the book, and then it is narrated in the first person until the second paragraph of page thirty-three. After that, the remaining page is narrated again in the third person. The third-person narrator is anonymous and does not appear in the text. The narration in the third-person sections feels very emotionless and detached because, at some points, the narrator simply states the plot points. At other times, though, the anonymous narrator provides the reader with the characters’ emotions and processes of reasoning. The interpolated first-person narrative, which begins on page twenty-two is marked by a title, “The Confession of Orlando.” Orlando is the first-person narrator, and he gives more insight into his own feelings and reasons for his actions while explaining his point of view from his death bed. His narration feels very straightforward, as he is confessing and finally providing important information to help the reader understand the plot of the story.

Sample Passage of Third-Person Narration:

The affrighted ruffians fled, leaving the wretched Octavia, unknowing whether she would live or die, in the forest—but she died in great agony about an hour later. (16)

Sample Passage of First-Person Narration:

I was left heir to a plentiful fortune, but the indulgence I had long enjoyed now led me to associate with what are called men of spirit; but never having met with any enlightened character to warn me of my evil, to shun those men of spirit that I thought wise, but were totally living under the idea of their own self knowledge and protection, having no knowledge of God, so that I was living like a wild man of the woods. (22–23)

The third-person narration is significant to the story because it has a way of distancing the characters from the reader. The description of Octavia’s death is very brief and abrupt. The absence of any of her last thoughts or wishes makes it difficult for the reader to empathize with her or mourn her death as a character. On the other hand, Orlando’s first-person narration allows readers to understand precisely how he is feeling. There is a heavy emphasis on circumstances and fate versus free will in his portion of the story. He appears to have a lack of agency which is caused by his circumstance that he is surrounded by ungodly men. Attributing his poor decisions to fate, he does not even consider the possibility of taking control and seeking out godly men who can help him change his ways. Octavia, while also lacking agency due to the fact that she is killed, does not get to have a long first-person narrative before her death. Readers are only given the in-depth perspective of the single male character in the story rather than also getting the perspective of one of the many female characters. This suggests that although both female and male characters lack agency, only the male character is important enough—and has enough agency as a storyteller—to give a testimony before death.


This story begins with an introduction of a few of the main characters. The Baron Arnhalt lives in the Chateau, and he has three daughters: Isabella, Octavia, and Adela. He plans to leave an equal share of his fortune to each of his daughters when he dies, and if any of them were to die unmarried, he would leave that portion to his nephew, Orlando. Orlando is also a wealthy man, and he wishes to marry one of the three daughters. Isabella is the oldest daughter, who has very good manners and is described as being “noble” (A2). Octavia is the second oldest daughter; she is artful, witty, and pretty. Adela, the youngest of the three, is described by the narrator as being very similar to Isabella, with an almost identical personality. Their father dies when Isabella is eighteen, and Orlando does not know which daughter he prefers yet.

Orlando starts to visit the Chateau much more frequently after the death of his uncle. He is able to rule out Adela as a possible suitor because she is being educated in a convent and he has not seen her in several years. He likes Isabella the best, but although she likes him as a person, she does not like him romantically. Octavia, though, is in love with him, and she wishes he would see her the way he sees Isabella.

This page features a handmade patch

Octavia makes friends with Orlando, and she tells Orlando that she will try to convince Isabella to accept his offers of marriage, but Octavia is not as innocent as she appears to be. Isabella had previously been in love with a man named Honorio, but he started to prefer Octavia. Isabella is such a good person that she encourages them to be together despite her love for Honorio.

Soon after, Honorio and Octavia are married. Once Isabella knows Honorio is with Octavia instead of her, she falls in love with a man who does not have much money. Honorio is not happy being Octavia’s husband, and they do not live together happily. Three months after their wedding, he is accidentally killed in the forest by ruffians. He hates being with Octavia so much that very soon after their wedding he made his will and left her basically nothing. The story returns to the present moment when Octavia assumes that now that she is a widow, Orlando will pursue her, but he still fancies Isabella.

One day, Orlando gets so fed up by the fact that Isabella does not love him that he and Octavia arrange for a group of people to kidnap her when she is outside alone to get some fresh air. Isabella finds herself in a furnished room with heavy bars on the doors and windows to prevent her escape. She is given anything that she wants or needs, and after a week of being kidnapped, she has nothing to complain about other than the fact that she wonders why she was taken away and wishes to be back at home. She also worries about how Octavia is doing not knowing where her sister is, when in fact Octavia is partly the reason for her kidnap. On the sixth day of her kidnapping, a disguised man comes into the room. He tells Isabella that she can be freed if she agrees to be his mistress, and he gives her three days to decide. After the three days have passed, he returns, and when he speaks this time, Isabella realizes that it is the voice of her cousin Orlando. He throws off his disguise, and she cannot believe he did such a thing to her. She scolds him and asks if he understands God’s laws, and after her speech, Orlando tells her that Octavia has him under her spell and that she is the reason he did this. He also tells Isabella that Octavia wants her to suffer and wants to take her fortune. Isabella is devastated by this news. She tells Orlando that if all her suffering is Octavia’s fault, she’ll return home and forget that he kidnapped her, but he tells her she must stay and be his mistress. Orlando leaves the room, reasoning that he will either keep her there until she dies unmarried or convince her to marry him, so either way he can receive her fortune.

News of Isabella’s disappearance has reached Adela’s convent. She decides to return home rather than take the veil. When Adela returns, Orlando sees how similar she is to Isabella and develops feelings for her. Whenever he thinks of releasing Isabella, he decides against it since Adela, his new object of affection, would surely hate him for doing that to her sister.

Octavia, still annoyed that Orlando does not love her, decides to threaten to tell Adela all that he has done. Octavia and Orlando agree to meet the next day at Orlando’s castle. Orlando then arranges for four men to stop Octavia on her way to his castle and take her to a distant convent and force her to take the veil. As Octavia is walking to the castle, a storm rolls in, and as she approaches the spot where Honorio was killed, the four men jump at her and one of them accidentally pierces her with his sword as she tries to escape. As this happens, Honorio’s ghost appears and says that his death had been avenged, with the same sword that killed him.

The same night, Isabella escapes from Orlando’s castle when a servant accidentally leaves the door open. As she runs through the woods, a robber comes out from behind a tree and takes everything she has, stabbing her to death afterwards.

When Adela hears of the deaths of her two sisters, she has to be carried to her bed and spends the next two weeks in a frenzied state of mind. When Orlando hears the news, he is not shocked about Octavia, but he is surprised to hear of Isabella’s death. Rather than dwell on depressing thoughts, he decides to go see Adela and try to win her hand in marriage. Adela agrees to marry him after the time of mourning has passed, not knowing of his involvement in her sisters’ lives.

One day, after Adela visited Orlando, he was walking Adela home just after sunset and the ghost of Octavia appeared. Octavia’s ghost tells Orlando that his time is near and then disappears. Orlando leads a distressed Adela to the end of the forest, but before they get out, Isabella and Honorio’s ghosts appear as well. Honorio looks angrily at Orlando, while Adela follows Isabella’s ghost away from Orlando. Once they arrive at the bank of a small river, Isabella’s ghost tells Adela not to marry Orlando because he has murder on his conscience. After that, the ghost disappears. Although she feels torn because she loves Orlando, Adela decides never to see him again and runs home.

The next day, Orlando wakes up with a terrible sickness, and he fears that Octavia’s ghost’s prediction is coming true. Adela only agrees to go visit Orlando because it is his dying request. When she gets there, she’s shocked at his sickly appearance and he starts telling her his confession of all the evil that he has done.

He starts his story at the beginning of his life, talking about how he was spoiled as a child and how his parents died when he was eighteen, leaving him a fortune. He lived an indulgent life, spending most of his inheritance and blaming his bad character on the unreligious people that he surrounded himself with. When Adela’s father died, he figured he should marry one of his daughters in order to gain their third of the fortune. He tells the story of how he loved Isabella and how he and Octavia conspired to get Octavia and Honorio together. Orlando became friends with Honorio and would always talk to him about how great Octavia was and how awful Isabella was, leading Honorio to marry Octavia. However, shortly after being married, Octavia told Orlando how terrible it was being married to someone who did not actually love her, and she requested that Orlando get rid of Honorio somehow. Orlando sent hired ruffians to kill Honorio, but afterwards, the guilt consumed him. Octavia did not regret it at all, and she expected to become rich by inheriting Honorio’s fortune. Although, as we already know, he left her nearly nothing in his will. Octavia then worried about the fact that Isabella was to marry a poor man, because she knew he would not want Isabella to keep helping Octavia financially. For this reason, Orlando says Octavia convinced him to kidnap Isabella. He felt very guilty after this and after acting odd around Octavia, they both knew that they were not on the same side anymore. One day, after Octavia left his house, an anonymous man requested to speak to Orlando about something urgent. He told Orlando that Octavia planned to poison him when they met the next day, so Orlando decided to hire the same ruffians from Honorio’s death to kidnap Octavia and take her to a convent. The ruffians return, though, to report to him that they had accidentally killed her and that they saw Honorio’s ghost. With both Octavia and Isabella dead, Orlando figured he could now pursue Adela without anything getting in his way. Octavia’s ghost haunted him constantly, saying she would not rest until he was dead.

Finished with his story, Orlando tells Adela to be happy that she escaped a terrible sister as well as a marriage with a terrible man. He begs God for mercy, and Adela cries for him. Happy to receive her pity, he finally dies. At his funeral, Adela thinks of how she wishes to escape this wicked world, so she decides to go live in the convent, donating one third of her fortune to the convent and the other two thirds to those she thought worthy. Whoever she donates the final two thirds of her fortune to remains ambiguous in the text.


Potter, Franz J. The History of Gothic Publishing, 18001835, Exhuming the Trade, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

The Three Ghosts of the Forest, A Tale of Horror. An Original Romance. London, D. N. Shury, 1803.

Tracy, Ann B. The Gothic Novel 1790–1830: Plot Summaries and Index to Motifs, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2014.

Wein, Toni. British Identities, Heroic Nationalisms, and the Gothic Novel, 17641824, Palgrave, 2002.

Researcher: Julia Wright