Charlotte Dacre: a brief biographical account

Charlotte Dacre was a minor British woman writer of the Romantic period, whose production places her within the Gothic tradition. As with may other authors, especially women, her name and work are nowadays hardly remembered, which makes studying her even more challenging and interesting. The first time I came across this writer was browsing Adriana Craciun’s Women Romantic Era Writers page. I remember clicking on her name, clueless, and reading the short poem “Wine, I Say! I’ll Drink to Madness!”. Here is an excerpt:

Wine’s a sov’reign cure for sorrow,
Let’s drink to-day, and die to-morrow;
No wonder the bottle should mortals enslave,
Since it snatches the soul from the brink of the grave!

Gentle creature, hither bring,
Wine to soothe my love’s despair;
Then in merry accents sing,
Woman false, as she is fair!

Wine, I say! I’ll drink to madness!
Wine, my girl, to cure my sadness!
And tell me no more there is folly in drinking
Can anything equal the folly of thinking?

The theme and the style struck me as refreshing after so many verses on Nature and Moral Virtue, as did the fact that when reading it, although I knew the author was a female writer, I felt the narrator was intended to be male -if this thought is  the result of a patriarchal gender binary biased education, and therefore, problematic, I will not dwell upon. So, wanting to know more, I googled our mysterious poetess and  was told by my unreliable but usually inspiring friend Wikipedia that both Shelley and Byron had read and praised -the latter in his particular way- her. A minor writer I knew nothing about who we know was read by two of the Romantics? I must know everything.

Somehow, six months later, I find myself writing my Master’s dissertation on her. In the research process I have found out very interesting things, but I can only discuss part of them in my paper, which is why I shall use this space to share every insignificant and fascinating detail with you. Let us begin in the beginning, who is Charlotte Dacre?

CharlotteDacre

Charlotte Dacre herself, wearing a dress made of… sun, apparently. Her face says nice-to-meet-you, but her impossible breasts say my-reviewers-call-me-pornographic-gothic-writer.

Charlotte Dacre was the daughter of the Jewish “self-made banker, writer, blackmailer and supporter of radical causes” Jonathan -or John- King (born Jacob Rey). Biographers do not agree on a year of birth; if we believe the register, she died at fifty-three and was born in 1772. However, if we believe the preface of Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer, where she claims having written the story aged fifteen and leaving it untouched for three years, she might have been born around 1782. Her father married Deborah (according to Craciun; Sara, née Lara, according to the ODNB), with whom he had two daughters, Charlotte and Sophia. He divorced his wife under Jewish law in 1784-5 and married (the ODNB writes ‘set up home’) the dowager countess of Lanesborough. About the separation from her mother, Craciun writes “Dacre’s novels often take up on the theme of women abandoned by their unfaithful partners, as it appears her mother was”. King was known in London society as “Jew King”, and had dealings with Godwin, Shelley, and Byron as well as with Mary Robinson’s husband. Craciun explains there were even rumors of an affair with Robinson herself. His life, and consequently that of his daughters, was chaotic and turbulent. He was associated with radical political figures, financially involved and took part in several lawsuits, which he  later would detail in several publications. He became bankrupt before 1798, the year in which the two King sisters published a volume of gothic poetry, Trifles from Helicon, and dedicated it to him, showing their support: “the education you have afforded us has not been totally lost.”. Later in that year he was charged with sexually assaulting two women, and it was then when Charlotte began publishing under a pseudonym.

Charlotte  King first used the pen name Charlotte Dacre with the publication of Hours of Solitude, her first solo incursion in the literary world, and The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (both in 1805). The ODNB proposes that the choice of surname was intended to suggest aristocratic connections. She also wrote verses for both Morning Post and Morning Herald, under the pseudonym Rosa Matilda, from 1802 to 1815. At some point in that period she began an illicit relationship with the married editor of Morning Post, Nicholas Byrne, with whom she had three children, William, Charles, and Mary, all of them baptised in 1811. The couple married in 1815, when his wife died, and Charlotte King became Charlotte Byrne.

Charlotte’s pen name Rosa Matilda has been said to be a tribute to the gothic author Matthew Lewis and his character in The Monk Rosario/Matilda, the female demon lover. In fact, her association with Lewis has brought many critics to believe that his best known work, Zofloya (1816) is in fact a gender swap rewriting of The Monk –an with which idea I do not agree at all. Furthermore, “Rosa Matilda” associated her with the Della Cruscan poetic school, an eighteenth-century school of poetry known for its characteristic excessive ornamentation, effeminate style and exalted feelings, as well as a tendency to use Matilda as a pseudonym.  As Dacre the author faded into oblivion, Rosa Matilda the name remained, partly thanks to the fact that Byron dedicated her a few verses to that name in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: “Far be 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” (519:1809).  Her last two novels were The Libertine (1807) and The Passions (1811).

Charlotte Byrne, née King, known as Dacre, died in November 7th 1825 and was buried in St Mary’s, Paddington.


And this is everything for this time. In my next post I will discuss Dacre’s political alliances, whether or not we can call her a feminist and Everything You Have Always Wanted to Know About Zofloya.

If you are interested in knowing more about Dacre’s life, I have read and used three authors for this article: Adriana Craciun’s introduction to the Broadview edition of Zofloya, Paul Baine’s ODNB entry on Charlotte Byrne and Kim Michasiw’s introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Zofloya.

  • Craciun, Adriana. “Introduction: Charlotte Dacre and the Vivisection of Virtue” in Adriana Craciun (ed.) Zofloya. Canada: Broadway Press. 1997: 9-29.
  • Michasiw, Kim Ian. “Introduction” in Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya. New York: Oxford University Press. 1997: vii-xxxi.
  • Paul Baines “Byrne, Charlotte”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015.