Charlotte Dacre Essay - Critical Essays

Charlotte Dacre


Charlotte Dacre c. 1772-1825?

English novelist and poet.

Charlotte Dacre's birth name was Charlotte King; her married name was Charlotte Byrne. Charlotte Dacre and Rosa Matilda were pseudonyms.

Charlotte Dacre is best known for her volume of “sentimental” poetry influenced by the Della Cruscan school, Hours of Solitude (1805), and for her four Gothic novels: Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805), Zofloya; or, the Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century (1806), The Libertine (1807), and The Passions (1811). The Gothic novel as a literary genre spanned approximately a half-century, beginning in 1764 with Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto. Telling tales of passionate love, suspense, and the exotic, often set in haunted ruins surrounded by wild landscapes, and almost always in a Catholic or feudal society, Gothic literature emphasized heightened emotions of horror and fear caused not only by dreams and supernatural forces, but also by human beings' inhumanity. Given that this genre dealt with forces and species of existence lacking a common referential vocabulary, it follows that some authors obviously were better than others at achieving memorable Gothic effects—Charlotte Dacre being one of them. Montague Summers writes that, “With the exception of the great Mrs. [Ann] Radcliffe and [Matthew Gregory] Lewis it is possibly little exaggeration to say that during her hour of success there was no more popular writer of this school than Charlotte Dacre.” Adding to the popularity of Dacre's Gothic stories was her ability to flexibly adapt to them the formats of the epistolary novel, novel of manners, domestic tale, confession, and soliloquy. A versatile and appreciated writer in her own time, Dacre is now being reconsidered by modern critics because, according to Devendra P. Varma, she “bequeathed to the gothic novel a new tone of psychological realism.” Given Dacre's fixation on fevered emotions and dark interior states of mind, most critics regard her literature as having been a thematic precursor to such nineteenth-century writers as Emily Brontë, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, and as being a source of new, valuable insights into many topics concerning late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century society.

Biographical Information

Because so little is known about Charlotte Dacre's life, to portray it we must draw inferences from her writing and from critics' commentary. Much of her life's portrait therefore lacks factual objectivity. Still, most contemporary critics writing about Dacre defer to Adriana Craciun's conclusion that she was born Charlotte King in 1772 or late 1771, and died possibly in 1825, at age 53. Students of Dacre should know that Dacre also was well known by her nom de plume, Rosa Matilda—a name she used probably to suggest the Della Cruscan school of “sentimental” poetry and to allude to the femme fatale of Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk. We also may identify Charlotte Dacre by the name Charlotte Byrne: in 1815 she married Nicholas Byrne, owner and editor of London's Morning Post from 1803 until his murder in 1833. Because Charlotte's surname was first King, then Byrne, we must conclude that Dacre also is a pseudonym; however, in literary criticism, Dacre has become her standardized name. We know that Charlotte Dacre was a daughter of the self-made Jewish banker, politically radical writer, and notable London figure Jonathan King, who knew William Godwin, Lord Byron, and P. B. Shelley. In 1785, King divorced Charlotte's mother to marry a countess. Possibly, that divorce helps us to understand why Dacre's literature so often includes women abandoned by unfaithful partners. However, if such a premise is valid, then it concludes with an irony: although Dacre married Nicholas Byrne in 1815, their three children were born between 1806 and 1809, suggesting that Charlotte had her own protracted extramarital affair, with Nicholas, prior to their marriage. Not only a novelist and poet acknowledged and often acclaimed by her contemporaries in the literary world, Dacre also “enjoyed considerable renown in the field of popular music” as a lyricist, says Varma. Evidence further suggests that, unlike her father, Dacre was politically conservative, as was her husband, Nicholas. Her poem “On the Death of the Right Honorable William Pitt” (1806) announces her admiration of Pitt's conservatism, as does the fact that she named her first son William Pitt Byrne.

Major Works

A critical understanding of Dacre is founded principally upon her first volume of poetry, Hours of Solitude, and her subsequent four novels. In addition to those works, she co-authored (as Charlotte King) the novel Trifles of Helicon (1798) with her sister, Sophia King, and, at the end of her career, as Charlotte Byrne she authored the poem George the Fourth (1822). Very popular in its day, the thirty-seven-poem Hours of Solitude, published in 1805 using Dacre's pseudonym Rosa Matilda, was reprinted in a second edition seven months later. Like the novels to come, Hours reveals the young poet's penchant for using Gothic elements. Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer, Dacre's first novel, which also uses the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, is dedicated to Gregory Lewis, author of the prototypical Gothic novel The Monk. Framed by investigations into the workings of the feminine heart and mind, the first of Dacre's Gothic novels is in essence a cautionary tale about seduction and sexual drive that philosophizes about passion, love, marriage, conventional morality, religion, and the existence of God. Dacre's second novel, Zofloya; or, the Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century, often is compared to Lewis's The Monk and generally is considered to be her most provocative work. Translated into German in 1806 and into French in 1812, this second novel not only marks an advance in Dacre's narrative abilities, but fulfilled her generation's taste for suspenseful excitement, sensationalism, wild melodrama, and the exotic. The popularity of Dacre's third novel, The Libertine, is indicated by its three editions within twelve months and by its ready conversion into a play, Angelo. Dacre's final novel, The Passions, contains six characters and is an epistolary novel with a prose narrative conclusion. Similar to Zofloya in its use of two complementary female characters, The Passions furthers the paradoxical moral positioning common among all of Dacre's novels: while seeming to censure and punish the villainous female, its narrator overlooks no details about how to become one.

Critical Reception

Ever since they were published two centuries ago, Charlotte Dacre's poetry and novels have been diversely viewed and ranked. Because she wrote so fervently about human passions and so vigorously about sexuality, Charlotte Dacre's Gothic romances were mainstays of circulating libraries and in women's magazines, but not approved of, for example, by the Evangelicals of her day. It seems plausible that this critical dualism regarding her literature—silent approval on the one hand, outspoken censure on the other—is amplified by Dacre's works themselves, which, Ann Jones believes, “symbolize the consciousness of an age not only of suppressed social and political unrest, but also of two faces, the one of comparative licentiousness, the other of great propriety.” Later in the nineteenth century, Dacre's literary reputation was apparently so low that her name was not included in the Dictionary of National Biography, and yet at the same time Charles Algernon Swinburne discovered Zofloya to be a “remarkable romance” that he admired for its literary kinship with the works of Marquis de Sade. Modern critics have assessed the widely-read Dacre's influence on later literary figures, such as Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. A. M. D. Hughes, for instance, argues that Shelley's Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne borrow heavily from Dacre in terms of plot devices and characterization. Jerome McGann likewise investigates Dacre's influence on the juvenile, “sentimental” poetry of Byron. Similarly, scholars have discussed how the atypical and dynamic female characters in Dacre's oeuvre influenced both her own critical reception and the work of later writers.

Principal Works

Trifles of Helicon [as Charlotte King, with Sophia King] (novel) 1798

Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer. 3 vols. [as Rosa Matilda] (novel) 1805

Hours of Solitude: A Collection of Original Poems, Now First Published. 2 vols. (poetry) 1805

“On the Death of the Right Honorable William Pitt” (poem) 1806

Zofloya; or, the Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century. 3 vols. (novel) 1806

The Libertine. 4 vols. (novel) 1807

The Passions. 4 vols. (novel) 1811

George the Fourth, A Poem: Dedicated to the Right Honourable the Marquis of Londonderry (poem) 1822


British Critic (review date December 1805)

SOURCE: Review of Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer. British Critic (December 1805): 671.

[In the following review, contemporaneous with the publication of Confessions, the reviewer praises the novel's useful moral but berates its affected prose.]

Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer; a Tale in Three Volumes. By Rosa Matilda. 12mo. Hughes. 1805.

A very fine, sentimental, and improbable story, written in turgid and affected language. For example, “at length I married; it was a step of desperation, and failed of yielding me the solace I expected; it smoothed not in its placid even chain, the effervessence of my...

(The entire section is 135 words.)

General Review of British and Foreign Literature (review date June 1806)

SOURCE: Review of Zofloya; or the Moor. General Review of British and Foreign Literature 1 (June 1806): 590-93.

[In the following review, contemporaneous with the publication of Zofloya, the reviewer asserts that the novel does not rank as a moral work and, in general, contains little artistic merit.]

Zofloya; or, the Moor: a Romance of the Fifteenth Century, in 3 Vols. by Charlotte Dacre, better known as Rosa Matilda; Author of the Nun of St. Omer's, Hours of Solitude, &c. 12mo. London. Longman and Co. 1806. Price 12s.

This novel abounds with characters of mischief and vice, drawn...

(The entire section is 1712 words.)

Literary Journal (review date June 1806)

SOURCE: Review of Zofloya; or the Moor. Literary Journal, a Review of Literature, Science, Manners, Politics 1 (June 1806): 631-35.

[In the following review, contemporaneous with the publication of Zofloya, the reviewer argues satirically that the novel requires of its readers a suspension of disbelief.]

Zofloya; or, The Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century. By Charlotte Dacre, better known as Rosa Matilda, Author of the Nun of St. Omers, Hours of Solitude, &c. 3vols. 12mo. 12s. Longman & Co. London, 1806.

After all it must be confessed that the...

(The entire section is 2020 words.)

A. M. D. Hughes (essay date 1912)

SOURCE: Hughes, A. M. D. “Shelley's Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne.Modern Language Review 7 (1912): 54-63.

[In the following essay, Hughes provides a brief introduction of how Matthew Gregory Lewis's The Monk and Ann Radclffe's The Italian influenced Gothic romances in general and Dacre's Zofloya in particular. The critic also investigates the influence of Zofloya on P. B. Shelley's Zastrozzi and St. Irvyne, which, the writer argues, replicate Zofloya's plot and some of its characters.]

The long disregarded romances of Shelley come under a new light in Dr A. H. Koszul's brilliant book, La Jeunesse de...

(The entire section is 4951 words.)

Rev. Montague Summers (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Summers, Rev. Montague. “Byron's ‘Lovely Rosa.’” In Essays In Petto, 57-73. London: The Fortune Press, 1928.

[In the following excerpt, the foremost Gothic scholar of the early twentieth century offers a general overview of Dacre's oeuvre.]

Far be't from me unkindly to upbraid
The lovely Rosa's prose in masquerade,
Whose strains, the faithful echoes of her mind,
Leave wondering comprehension far behind.

English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, 1809, ll. 519-522.

The orthodox note on the above passage runs thus: “The lovely little Jessica, the daughter of the noted Jew K———, seems to be a follower of the Della...

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Ann H. Jones (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Jones, Ann H. “Charlotte Dacre.” In Ideas and Innovations: Best Sellers of Jane Austen's Age, pp. 224-49. New York: AMS Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Jones treats Zofloya as an allegory whose narrative traces the growth of evil, with Zofloya intended not as naturalistic but as a representative part of Victoria's mind.]

In the year 1810, when Sydney Owenson was still known for fervid works like Woman and The Missionary, her name was linked by Sarah Green in the preface to Romance Readers and Romance Writers with that of another novelist, Charlotte Dacre, as “the most licentious writers of romance of the...

(The entire section is 12239 words.)

Jerome J. McGann (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: McGann, Jerome J. “‘My Brain is Feminine’: Byron and the Poetry of Deception.” In Byron: Augustan and Romantic, edited by Andrew Rutherford, 26-51. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

[In the following excerpt, McGann traces the development of Byron's verse in the context of sentimental poetry, investigating the neglected influence of Dacre on Byron's juvenile poetry, and, through Byron, offering a conceptual framework within which to better appreciate Dacre's sentimental eroticism.]


I begin with a mouldy anecdote, a late supplement to that once-flourishing industry—now part of the imagination's rust belt—called...

(The entire section is 4357 words.)

Robert Miles (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Miles, Robert. “Avatars of Matthew Lewis's The Monk: Ann Radcliffe's The Italian and Charlotte Dacre's Zafloya: Or, The Moor.” In Gothic Writing, 1750-1820: A Genealogy, pp. 160-88. London: Routledge, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Miles investigates the feminist perspective operating in Zofloya, and claims that Dacre's examination of the stereotypes of gender and feminine desire make her the most interesting of the minor female Gothic writers.]


Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya: Or, The Moor (1806), is in two respects a female version of Lewis's The Monk: a woman,...

(The entire section is 3775 words.)

Adriana Craciun (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Craciun, Adriana. “‘I hasten to be disembodied’: Charlotte Dacre, the Demon Lover, and Representations of the Body.” European Romantic Review 6, no. 1 (1995): 75-97.

[In the following essay, Craciun studies the prevailing opinions of science and epistemology during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a context within which she develops her thesis that Dacre's work, particularly her poetry, holds more complex, positive concepts of sexuality, the body, and the demon lover than we previously thought.]

And if it is in death that the spirit becomes free, in the manner of spirits, it is not until then that the body too comes properly...

(The entire section is 8841 words.)

Diana Long Hoeveler (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Hoeveler, Diana Long. “Charlotte Dacre's Zofloya: A Case Study in Miscegenation as Sexual and Racial Nausea.” European Romantic Review 8, no. 2 (1997): 185-99.

[In the following essay, Hoeveler characterizes Zofloya as a racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic work which typifies the popular colonialist and sexist consciousness of bourgeois England in the early nineteenth century. The critic reads Victoria as the aristocratic woman whose open war on bourgeois values is justly punished, and pays particular attention to the responsibility Dacre places on Victoria's mother.]

Zofloya, or the Moor was Charlotte Dacre's second novel, written...

(The entire section is 6466 words.)

Adriana Craciun (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Craciun, Adriana. Introduction to Zofloya; or, The Moor, pp. 9-32. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Craciun highlights the literary significance of Dacre's unique female characters, focusing especially on how Victoria's assertive sexuality, sadistic violence, and willful desire for mastery embody traits of the male Gothic villain. The critic also discusses how Dacre's thematic distinction between natural sex and cultural gender along with her emphasis on active existence over fixed essence accounts for Victoria's corporeal transformations.]



(The entire section is 11798 words.)

Lisa M. Wilson (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wilson, Lisa M. “Female Pseudonymity in the Romantic ‘Age of Personality’: The Career of Charlotte King/Rosa Matilda/Charlotte Dacre.” European Romantic Review 9, no. 3 (1998): 393-420.

[In the following essay, Wilson first reminds us of the key role that pseudonyms and ensuing literary gossip played in the marketing and sales of eighteenth-century books, and then shows how Charlotte King's cleverly self-protective double pseudonymity (Rosa Matilda/Charlotte Dacre) illustrates the continuing importance of pseudonymous authorship in the early nineteenth century.]

Writing in 1809, at the height of Charlotte King's career as a pseudonymous author,...

(The entire section is 11179 words.)

James A. Dunn (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Dunn, James A. “Charlotte Dacre and the Feminization of Violence.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 53, no. 3, (1998): 307-27.

[In the following essay, Dunn includes all of Dacre's novels in his discussion of how Dacre's texts' erotic imagination and Machiavellian violence are concomitantly liberating and tragic, a duality that explains her works' potential for dramatic irony.]

Where is the ebullient, infinite woman who, immersed as she was in her naiveté, kept in the dark about herself, led into self-disdain by the great arm of parental-conjugal phallocentrism, hasn't been ashamed of her strength? Who, surprised and horrified by the...

(The entire section is 7946 words.)

Further Reading


Hoeveler, Diana Long. Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park, Penn: Penn State University Press, 1998, 250 p.

Focusing on women Gothic novelists, Hoeveler surveys and assesses criticism about the “female Gothic,” while examining how Gothic writers, including Dacre, address problems of physical and social vulnerability.

Scarborough, Dorothy. “The Gothic Romance.” In The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, 6-53. New York: Octagon Books, 1967.

Discusses the Gothic romance, sometimes referring to Dacre's Zofloya, while...

(The entire section is 149 words.)