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Charlotte Dacre. Zofloya; or, the Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century. Ed. Adriana Craciun. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 1997. ISBN: 1-551-111462 (pbk). Price: $15.95 (pbk).

  • Lidia Garbin

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  • Lidia Garbin
    University of Liverpool

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Zofloya was a best seller in its time. It sold 754 of 1000 printed copies in six months, was translated into German and French, inspired an anonymous chapbook and many of Dacre's contemporaries and early successors. In terms of plot, Dacre's novel draws upon Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and Lewis's The Monk; but it shows an element of novelty in its revision of some Gothic stereotypes. The Gothic novel's wicked father is replaced by an unnatural mother; the young victim is not innocent and is finally granted no redemption; the seducer turns out to be a devil in disguise, who wants his victim's soul, but not her body. Despite these macabre components, Zofloya aimed at conveying a moral teaching. Young women were warned against the dangers of seduction, and their parents against illicit behaviours which could influence their children negatively. Dacre focused on this second concern and repeatedly blamed Victoria's mother for her daughter's immoral behaviour. The extract from M.D.T. Bienville's Nymphomania, or, A Dissertation Concerning the Furor Uterinus (1775), which Dacre read, helps to explain some of her views which might otherwise sound anti-feminist. Bienville had given an explanation of feminine subjectivity and women's "otherness" from a misogynist perspective. Dacre's misogynism appears in the portrayals of Victoria, of Victoria's mother, and of Megalena Strozzi, whom she condemns for yielding to passion and lust. Lilla, the fragile and naive woman-child, is the only positive female character of the novel, but she is ridiculed by Dacre: her lack of strength, as with the male characters of the novel, is finally the cause of her tragedy. These misogynist views might paradoxically be the issue of a pre-Feminist conscience in Dacre who, on other occasions, criticised feminist writings. Victoria "uses" men to achieve her own pleasure, reversing a typical male role. She gets married only to escape her predestined fate; when she falls in love with Henriquez, her husband's brother, she is ready to commit any crime to seduce him. Her feminine nature only reappears in her relationship to Zofloya to whom she feels attracted and whom she is inexplicably unable to dominate. Zofloya (Satan) rejoices in driving Victoria to perdition. He needs her as his victim but it is Victoria herself who accepts her fate as such, by willingly letting herself be manipulated by him, and by finally rejecting her Guardian Angel's warning against him.

In Zofloya, Dacre made use of two recent theorisations of the sublime which distinguished between the negative, and the positive, or Wordsworthian, sublime. In the Eighteenth Century, femininity was a source for the sublime, which in its turn became a model for female virtue. In the first half of the novel, the lack of femininity in Victoria is the result of a loss of the sublime. The male characters of the novel are, on the contrary, victims of an excess of feeling. The strong emphasis on the sexual objectification of men and on their submissive masculine response, challenges the traditional feminine subjugation to men. Victoria is transformed from the masculine woman of the first part of the novel to the feminine woman of the second: she loses her self-control when she meets Zofloya. Everybody submits to Victoria; she submits to Zofloya, is elevated and then plunged into a Dantesque abyss, and finally neglects terror and transcendence in favour of control.

Zofloya is the "other", the foreign element of the novel, but he is also the "other" in Victoria. The faint echo from Othello in the title points to a possible indebtedness to Shakespeare's Moor, but the resemblance between the two characters is almost insubstantial. Zofloya is a moor, a stranger, who has fought many battles, and who likes to relate them to the woman he has chosen. Victoria, like Desdemona, is enchanted by them, but, contrary to Shakespeare's heroine, she does not see Zofloya's visage in his mind, and is not allowed to discover his true self until it is too late.

The extracts from early reviews of Zofloya, which Craciun gives in an Appendix, show how the early negative reception of the novel was a response to its status as a book written by a woman which is addressed to a female audience. Craciun's question: 'How would we read Zofloya [...] if we did not know the sex of the author, much less whether or not she identified herself as a feminist?'(p. 13) may not sound legitimate, but it advances a significant issue in the history of the reception of the novel. Was this the reason why despite the great success enjoyed by her novel, and her influence on her contemporaries and successors, Dacre was not accepted into the literary canon? In that case, we should be grateful to Craciun for rectifying Dacre's and Zofloya's long exile.

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