Review: Zofloya; or, The Moor

Zofloya; or, The Moor is as much the product of one woman’s palsied, eccentric neurosis as it is the chief example of Matthew Lewis’ influence on the Female Gothic. Charlotte Dacre, firmly setting aside the pastoral ‘terrors’ of Ann Radcliffe, establishes in her most widely-read novel conventions of female sadism that were, for their time, near-revolutionary. That they were not picked up by other authors until considerably later in the 19th Century is intriguing. Still more intriguing is that Zofloya; or, The Moor is, despite its almost shocking cruelty, a novel concerned to its very last lines with the supremacy of proper, uncorrupted morality.

But how is one to demonstrate the virtue of morality without first detailing, for several hundred pages, the absolute depths of corruption and depravity? This is no Torture Garden, certainly, but, for its day, the concerns of Zofloya; or, The Moor were certainly controversial: shameless adultery, scandalous violence, the suggestion of miscegenation, Satanism, liberated sexuality. And where else would a proper British novelist set these scenes of Gothic excess than in recondite, libertine Venice?

Zofloya uses its ‘ultimate morality’ as a scapegoat: Dacre’s attention is near-entirely devoted to the painted perversity of her subjects. Her own life is a testament to the enduring mystery of ‘created’ identity, subject, and morality; that there is a war, though, taking place among the pretty ruins of her muse is quite obvious: her most interesting creation, Victoria, is at turns a prototype of the justified feminist and, conversely, the villain of what descends quite neatly into one of the precursors of the ‘Slasher’ film. But the incongruity of Dacre’s irreconcilable compulsions is even more evident in the construction of her mysterious, titular ‘Moor,’ Zofloya, who only appears a little over halfway into the book: vacillating between extremes of physical beauty and physical repugnance, charm and repulsion, vile sorcerer and loyal protector—it is as though Dacre had painted the picture of her fantasies of miscegenation and diabolism, and then, fearing the effect her own proclivities might have on both her work and her reputation, quickly sought to repudiate them within the space of a few paragraphs. The curious thing is that she hasn’t removed the more obviously erotic paeans to the Moor at all: apparently repudiation is enough to clear her of any ‘immoral’ indulgence in her construction of a ‘moral’ fable. To a modern audience, though, more comprehensively skeptical of the cancers of racism, these passages of disavowal will seem almost absurdly irrelevant, and, often, highly confusing; but thus is the nature of Dacre’s neurosis, and this contrast in perspectives was not entirely lost on contemporary critics.

It is, perhaps, surprising that Zofloya; or, The Moor had a profound influence on the young Percy Shelley, one of the more graceful poets in our language; but Dacre’s prose is remarkably economical for its time, and there is actually great beauty to be found here. That it is also the product of a mind that lived as Gothic a life as the characters she created, however, is immediately apparent, and this novel appeals as much to general curiosity as it does to the search for an entertaining narrative or academic analysis.


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