Women are heinous, devilish creatures who possess “an unshrinking relentless soul” – or at least that is what is dictated by Charlotte Dacre in her famed novel of 1806, Zofloya; or, the Moor.
Set in late fifteenth century Venice, Zofloya; or, the Moor tells the tale of Victoria Loredani, villainess and entitled daughter of the Duke and Duchess Loredani. Zofloya remains a standout and understudied classic as Dacre obliterates the idea of the weak, meek, and passive female protagonist. Inversely, the male characters perpetuate these qualities with Leonardo (Victoria’s brother) written to be “yielding easily to the seductions of the wild and beautiful, accessible of temptation, and unable to resist”.
Dacre herself remains a mysterious figure, daughter of a radical political writer, John King, and of Portuguese Sephardic heritage. She wrote under numerous pseudonyms throughout her life with Zofloya being the novel which propelled her into the literary canon. Zofloya is rare in its portrayal of women and femininity; Victoria Loredani is an overall unlikeable character, selfish, cruel, and often lacking in empathy. These traits, however, are presented as character flaws rather than intrinsically gendered faults, something rare for the gothic genre and for other writings of the time. This separation gives Dacre a rare opportunity to explore the bounds of the social narrative of the period, and demonstrate them so palpably through her character construction.
A key conflict of the novel is the fight for the affections of Laurina, Victoria’s mother and a woman of “unexampled beauty”. Count Arnold, a friend who lodges with the family, sees the opportunity to meddle with the happy marriage of Laurina and her husband Marchese De Loredani. This conflict comes to a head as the men participate in an emotionally fueled fight that results in the death of Marchese and the ruin of the family. This pattern of male futility is continued in the character of Berenza, an adoring suitor who later faces death at the hands of Victoria.
Dacre’s creation of male characters overcome by emotion and diminished of logic eventually resulting in their downfall is one of the greatest aspects of the novel, as she critiques the misogynistic pairing of womanhood and hysterical emotion. Although Dacre has faced criticism for her colonialist imprints in the novel, particularly concerning the character of ‘the moor,’ I firmly believe it is a novel that deserves greater critical exposure and does an impeccable job at breaking down the ideas of gender that so often plague books of its era.
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