Charlotte Dacre Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.