CHARLOTTE DACRE (c. 1782–c. 1841)

Charlotte Dacre was one of two daughters of the Jewish radical writer and blackmailer John King. She was twice married, but little is known of her life. Several passages in her best novel Zofloya are borrowed from Radcliffe’s The Italian, but all her works were strongly influenced by Matthew Gregory Lewis, to whom she dedicated her novel The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805). She wrote under the pseudonyn ‘Rosa Matilda’ (other novels were The Libertines, 1807, and The Passions, 1811). Her works were very well known in the early nineteenth century (much-loved by Shelley and Thackeray), and at least Zofloya should be classed among the first rank of Gothic novels. In this novel, subtitled ‘A Romance of the Fifteenth Century’, Laurina is seduced by Count Ardolph, who kills her husband, a disgrace condemned by her wild and imperious daughter Victoria. By the end of the novel Victoria becomes a heroine-villain who slowly poisons her husband to death (after first experimenting on an elderly female relative). These and other horrid acts are facilitated by Zofloya the Moor, servant to her husband’s brother (with whom Victoria has fallen in love, and whose wife she imprisons and torments). The Moor haunts Victoria’s disturbing dreams, in which he turns into a skeleton before she awakes in terror, and sinisterly appears and disappears, a ‘mysterious being’ whom we perceive to be the Devil (as dark within as without). To escape punishment for the horrors she has perpetrated, Victoria swears to Zofloya her soul, whereupon he reveals himself as Satan, and without further ado hurls her into the dreadful abyss (as Satan did Ambrosio in Lewis’s The Monk). The novel would be called misogynistic if the author were a man, and most of its obsessions and conventions are unarguably Lewisian (and Sadean). But it has much to say about mother–daughter relations, female desire, power, race and ‘the other’, and challenges our assumptions about what differentiates the ‘female Gothic’ from the ‘male Gothic’.

(Copyright 2000, 2013 Rictor Norton)

It may naturally be supposed that the character of Victoria, by nature more prone to evil than to good, and requiring at once the strong curb of wisdom and example to regulate it, had not, since the death of her father, obtained much opportunity of improvement. She saw exemplified, in the conduct of her mother, the flagrant violation of a most sacred oath – she saw every principle of delicacy and of virtue apparently contemned – and, although the improper bias of her mind led her infinitely to prefer the gay though horrible state of degradation in which she lived, to the retirement and seclusion so strongly insisted on by the dying Marchese, yet had she reflection and discrimination enough, fully to perceive and condemn the flagitious disregard those dying commands had received. But Victoria was a girl of no common feelings – her ideas wildly wandered, and to every circumstance and situation she gave rather the vivid colouring of her own heated imagination, than that of truth.
          Berenza had awakened in her breast feelings and passions which had till now remained dormant, mighty and strong, like the slumbering lion, even in their inactivity. Slight, indeed, was the spur which they required to rouse them. She had even contemplated the seductive, and, in appearance, delightful union of her mother with Ardolph, with such sentiments as were at the time inexplicable to herself; but when Berenza singled her out, when he addressed her in the language of love, she then discovered that her sentiments were those of envy, and of an ardent consuming desire to be situated like that unhappy mother – like her, to receive the attentions, listen to the tenderness, and sink beneath the ardent glances of a lover. Such, such were the baleful effects of parental vice upon the mind of a daughter – a mind that required the strongest power of precept and virtuous conduct to correct it.
          ‘At length, then,’ with secret exultation, she exclaimed – ‘at length, I too have found a lover – I shall now be as happy as my mother, at least, if Berenza should love me as Count Ardolph loves her.’
          But it happened that the heart of Berenza had acquired a real passion, while that of Victoria was susceptible only of novel and seducing sensations – of anticipations of future pleasure. Berenza loved – Victoria was only roused and flattered. Upon consideration, but not certainly impartial consideration, the enamoured philosopher concluded that it would not be an act of baseness or guilt to withdraw Victoria from her present dangerous and ineligible situation – to acknowledge his passion to her, and induce her, if possible, to abandon the contaminated roof under which she resided. The pride of the Venetian, however, must have been stronger than his love, for it rejected the idea of making her his wife; while he determined to leave no means untried to cause her to become his mistress.
          Pursuant to this idea he sought the earliest opportunity of obtaining a private interview with Victoria. An opportunity early presented itself; and having declared to his delighted auditress the ardent love with which she had inspired him, he delicately but frankly proposed to her the plan upon which he had for some time past suffered himself to dwell enraptured.
          The boldly organised mind, the wild and unrestrained sentiments of Victoria, prevented her from being offended at the proposition of Berenza: had she for an instant conceived, that his strict ideas deemed her incapable of being legally his, she must, with all her desire for a lover, have spurned him indignantly from her; but pride here acted as the preservative of pride, and her vanity easily led her to believe that Berenza thought marriage a degrading and unnecessary tie to love like his.
          Under this impression she gave him her hand: Berenza seized it with ardour, as the earnest of consent; and, seating himself at the feet of his mistress, who smiled with high and unusual joy, he entered more fully into his arrangements, and the means by which he proposed she should quit Monte Bello unsuspected. Victoria listened with lively emotions; pleasure flushed triumphant her animated cheek, and shone in her wild eyes with an almost painful brilliance: her heart glowed with the love of enterprize; she felt capable of deeds which, though in their conception they dilated and seduced her soul, she could neither comprehend nor identify; but she felt inspired for action, and the enthusiasm which burnt in her bosom, lighted up every feature with lambent and ethereal [sic] fire. Suddenly, in the very midst of her felicitations, while Berenza, still at her feet, was pouring in her intoxicated ears his various plans for their future happiness, in rushed, rage and horror depicted in her countenance, the half frantic Laurina!
          ‘Wretch!’ she exclaimed, seizing violently the arm of Victoria – ‘wretch! is it thus you recompence my indulgence towards you – the fond, the foolish confidence, which your mother has ever placed in you? – And you, Signor Berenza, monster of depravity! is it thus you recompence the hospitality of Count Ardolph, in seeking to seduce our only happiness, the innocent Victoria?’
          ‘Signora,’ replied Berenza, with a disdainful smile, ‘you are indeed well qualified to arraign those who trample on the rights of hospitality!
          The eyes of the conscience-struck Laurina sought for an instant the ground – her countenance became suffused with a guilty blush – her heart beat with violence, and scarcely could she support her trembling frame! Berenza, with dignified calmness, took the hand of Victoria – ‘I do not,’ he continued, in a firm deliberate voice, ‘I do not plead guilty to the charge of attempting to seduce your daughter.–– I wish,’ he added, in a severe accent, ‘to save her from seduction. Pardon me, if I say, that under this roof, I conceive it inevitably awaits her.’
          ‘Victoria,’ cried Laurina, recovering from her agitation, but awed by the manner of Berenza from replying to him – ‘Victoria, I command you to leave the room – yes, for the first time in my life, I command you never more to hold converse with Il Conte Berenza!’
          Berenza fixed his proud and enquiring eyes upon the countenance of Victoria. Whether she caught a spark of the fire which emanated from them, or thus for the first time asserted the bold and independent sentiments of her bosom, is immaterial; but, withdrawing proudly her hand from Berenza, as though she needed not his aid, and advancing a few steps towards her mother, she thus replied–
          ‘That you never, Signora, commanded me till now, is true; that you command me now, when it is too late, is equally so. I determine to quit this roof, which is no protection to me, for that of Il Conte Berenza, which I trust will be.’
          ‘Oh, Victoria! – Victoria! – are thou mad!’ exclaimed Laurina, clasping her hands, and now beginning to feel the terrible commencement of those retributive pangs so justly ordained as the punishment of those parents who corrupt their children – ‘Art thou mad, my child? or wouldst thou voluntarily plunge me in eternal disgrace?’
          ‘Plunge you in disgrace!’ contemptuously returned Victoria.
          ‘Oh, my child! my child!’ cried the distracted mother, sinking under the overpowering excess of remorseful anguish, ‘wouldst thou indeed abandon me?’
          ‘You abandoned >me – my brother – and my father!’ sternly replied the torturing Victoria.
          ‘Oh, daughter! – oh, Victoria!’ groaned Laurina, – ‘this from thee!’
          ‘Mother – eternally has thou disgraced us!’ she replied. ‘For me, no one has ever thought me worthy of love but Il Conte Berenza. Let me, then, accept his love, and be happy. Why, I ask you, should considerations of your happiness sway me in opposition to my own? When you loved Count Ardolph, you know, mother, that you fled with him, regardless of the misery you gave my father. Do you not remember too – ’
          ‘Cease, scorpion! – cease, for God’s sake!’ shrieked Laurina, in agony.
          ‘Let me, then, depart with Il Conte Berenza. Remember, it is your fault,’ pursued the pitiless girl, ‘that ever I saw him. Had you but kept the oath – the oath, mother, that – that you swore at the death-bed of my father –’
          The images conjured up by the forked tongue of a reproaching child, were too much even for the guilty Laurina to endure; and, in a convulsion of irrepressible anguish, she sunk upon the floor.
          Berenza, who had at first listened with delight and surprize to the independence of spirit, as he considered it, evinced by the undaunted Victoria, now became visibly shocked at her persevering and remorseless cruelty to a mother, whose personal tenderness for her had at least merited some little gratitude. Scarcely willing to analyse if his love for her had not already somewhat diminished by the display of a trait so offensive to a delicate and feeling mind as filial ingratitude and unkindness, he approached, and raised Laurina from the floor. When she became in a degree recovered, he assisted her, with respectful forbearance, to her chamber; and whispering to Victoria, in rather a serious voice, to be tender towards her mother, retired, and left them together.
          But the slight shade of reserve which marked the countenance of Berenza, as he waved his hand to Victoria in parting, had not failed to make even more than its due impression on her: her vivid imagination easily led her to trace the occasion of his altered air. She saw that her cruel recriminations on her mother had excited his disgust: alarmed at the remotest idea of becoming indifferent to him, she instantly determined on regaining his esteem. Approaching her weeping mother, therefore, with a conciliating air, she endeavoured to soothe her into composure; but having awakened the remorse of the conscious Laurina, she no sooner beheld in the artful Victoria a disposition to softness, than she resolved to take immediate advantage of it to withdraw her, if possible, from the vortext of guilt and libertinism into which she saw her plunging. A keener pang assailed the heart of the mother, as she acknowledged, in dreadful conviction, the fatal effects of her own example: to alleviate, therefore, the tortures of her mind, to save her loaded conscience from such an addition of guilt, she sought with energy to preserve her daughter. To every persuasion, however, even to every supplication to give up her distracting resolution without reserve, the wild impassioned Victoria was wholly deaf. The utmost that Laurina could obtain, was a reluctant promise to see Il Conte Berenza no more for that day. Even this would not have been granted, had not the deeply-meaning Victoria imagined, that, by debarring her lover from seeing her for a few hours, he would begin so far to feel the loss of her society, as wholly to forget, in his uneasiness, the cause he had had for displeasure against her.
          Laurina, after some hours of more poignant wretchedness than she had almost ever experienced, separated at length, for the night, from her daughter. She flew instantly to Ardolph, and imparted to him this new and unexpected cause, to her, of unhappiness. So keen, indeed, were her compunctious feelings, that, with bitter tears, she vowed she would quit him on the morrow, and retire at once, with Victoria, to some seclusion, where, experience now convinced her, she ought long since to have been.

[SOURCE: Charlotte Dacre, Zofloya; or, The Moor, 3 vols (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806), vol. 1, pp. 75–90]

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