Charlotte Dacre

Alyssa Johnson, Charleston Southern University


Charlotte King, also known as Charlotte Dacre, Charlotte Byrne, and Rosa Matilda, wrote popular poetry and Gothic novels during the Romantic period. Though well-received by readers, her work never garnered real critical acclaim in her lifetime. Though her writing style, often considered an authorial weakness, was what Ann Jones calls “either shrilly melodramatic or stiltedly formal,” King nonetheless captivated many readers (242). King wrote in a variety of genres, from poetry to the epistolary novel to the Gothic, where her talents most effectively shone in works like her most famous, Zofloya; or the Moor (1806). Her poetry was accused of being overly sentimental, and her novels’ depiction of women with overt sexual desires and villainous impulses shocked some readers, leading some critics to associate her work with scandal or immorality. Unfortunately, fairly little is known about King’s personal life.

Sources do not come to a consensus on a variety of aspects of King’s history, conflicting on matters like her year of birth and her mother’s name. Scholars present a wide range of possible birth years for King, including 1771, 1772, 1777, 1780, and 1782. Neither her nor her sister Sophia’s births were registered. Her father, Sephardic moneylender Jacob Rey, anglicized his name to John/Jonathan King, possibly, as Todd M. Edelman suggests, in an intentional “move to deemphasize his Jewish background” (73). Known by the name “Jew” King, he was notorious for blackmail and radical writing. His clientele included poets, aristocrats, and radicals. He conducted various extramarital affairs, including a lengthy one with the Countess of Lanesborough. In 1784 or 1785, his wife and Charlotte’s mother, Deborah Lara, divorced him by Jewish law.1 Four years later in 1798, Rey went bankrupt and was involved in a sexual assault scandal. At that time, Charlotte and her sister Sophia published Trifles from Helicon, using their real names. They dedicated this volume of poems to him, with the inscription, “Instead of the mature fruit of the muses, accept the blossoms; they are to show you that the education you have afforded us has not been totally lost:–when we grow older, we hope to offer you others with less imperfections.”

After Trifles of Helicon, Charlotte King published poems under the pseudonym “Rosa Matilda” in The Morning Post between at least 1802 and 1815, possibly longer. She also published an entire volume of poetry, Hours of Solitude, in 1805. Prior to 1806, King became romantically involved with the Post’s married editor, Nicholas Byrne. The pair had three children: William (1806), Charles (1807), and Mary (1809). All three were baptized in 1811. As “Charlotte King, spinster,” she married Byrne on July 1, 1815. He was politically conservative and deeply private. Charlotte seems to have shared these traits, although her stance on some issues may be more nuanced than first meets the eye. Dacre passed away in 1825. Her obituary in The Times said she died “after a long and painful illness, which her purity and sublime greatness of soul enabled her patiently and piously to endure” (qtd. in Michasiw xi).

King’s popular poetry was not generally critically acclaimed; it was frequently accused of being Della Cruscan. This was a school of poetry featuring an overly affected, florid poetic style. The poems in Hours of Solitude, written during King’s teenage years, reflect extreme sentimentality, making the accusations of Della Cruscanism seem accurate. Her pseudonym Rosa Matilda became attached to the qualities that highbrow Romanticism criticized. A footnote in Byron’s satirical English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809) highlights the contrast between public and critical reception of her work. Byron writes, “Far be’t 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” (58). Byron adds a clarifying footnote about her: “This lovely little Jessica, the daughter of the noted Jew K–––, seems to be a follower of the Della Crusca School, and has published two volumes of very respectable absurdities in rhyme, as times go; besides sundry novels in the style of the first edition of the Monk” (58). While Byron does not respect her work as high art, finding it overly sentimental and cliche, he admits to its popularity. Calling her a “Jessica,” which was “a common stereotypical name for a woman of Jewish descent,” exoticizes her in the manner of Shakespeare’s Jessica from The Merchant of Venice (Wilson 415). Importantly, Byron associates scandals with her father, not King herself. Despite the criticisms of Byron and other Romantic authors, King’s work wielded an influence over others–her novel Zofloya specifically influenced Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1810 Zastrozzi.

As Rosa Matilda, King’s writing became quite well known, not for its finesse but for its use of popular genres and the intrigue behind the authorial persona. At this time, mysteriousness could benefit authors while providing some privacy. King’s chosen pseudonym has ties to Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796), a Gothic novel she enjoyed by an author to whom she dedicated her Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805). Rosa and Matilda evoke names of Gothic heroines and villainesses, for good and for bad. While “Matilda” points to a tragic figure in Horace Walpole’s first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), the name also draws on The Monk’s villainous Matilda, who poses as a monk named Rosario as a means to seducing the pious Ambrosio. King’s chosen pen name thus tied her to “two debased genres: the Gothic novel, and Della Cruscan poetry” (Wilson 396-7). Kim Ian Michasiw suggests that even the engraving published in her first book of poems, Hours of Solitude, depicts King herself as a “Gothic heroine” (xi). In some ways, this image shapes our understanding of her life and writing: her personas fit neatly within the genres she worked in, despite the lack of critical respect for those genres. Even when she began using the pen name Charlotte Dacre alongside the name Rosa Matilda, King still maintained a degree of anonymity. Her pseudonyms were only recently linked together.

Dacre published four novels: The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805), Zofloya; or, The Moor (1806), The Libertine (1807), and The Passions (1811). Each was popular, running to multiple printings, but none were critically acclaimed and were in fact lambasted with accusations of moral depravity and sentimentality. Although the novels engaged different forms, they all bear witness to King’s engagement with the Gothic. She never wrote for Minerva Press, using “fairly respectable” publishers for Zofloya, The Libertine, and The Passions (Wilson 411). Her first novel, The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer, was published under the name Rosa Matilda in 1805. The confessional novel functions as a cautionary tale, chronicling the story of the abandoned Cazire, a young woman raised in a convent who falls prey to seduction and eventually becomes a nun. The popular romance features passion, melodrama, and early Gothic topoi like found documents, secrets, a continental European setting, depictions of Catholicism, suicides, and a Gothic villainess. While many Gothic authors wrote primarily to serve economic ends, King wrote Confessions as a source of personal entertainment (Varma xiii). The work was reprinted in 1806 and 1807. Despite being overlooked by critics, the novel’s moral was fairly well received by audiences.

Zofloya; or, the Moor (1806), ascribed to both Rosa Matilda and Charlotte Dacre, has remained Dacre’s most famous novel. Dacre takes different approaches from other early Gothic women writers in this novel inspired by The Monk. Despite the obvious connections between Zofloya and The Monk, Jones insists Dacre did more than merely mimic Lewis’ novel (238). The novel’s heroine, if we may call Victoria that, is neither virtuous nor innocent. In a variety of ways, she is more similar to the typical “Gothic male villain” than any sort of heroine (Brewster 610). Among other dramatic plotlines in the novel, Zofloya, a black servant, tempts the young Victoria to give into her own desires, leading her to commit adultery and murder. At the end of the novel, he is revealed to be Satan in disguise, and he kills her in a scene modeled after the conclusion of The Monk. Although early reviewers found the work scandalous for its frank depictions of sexual desire and violence, especially given its female writer, the book was incredibly popular, demonstrated by its ample translations and adaptations, including an illustrated abridgement (The Daemon of Venice, 1810), French and German translations, and a play inspired by the book.

Critical scholarship on Zofloya often focuses on representations of gender and race or the work’s relationship to the Gothic. Zofloya does not fit the pattern of Radcliffean Gothic, especially in Victoria, who acts like a male gothic villain rather than the typical Gothic heroine. As Diane Long Hoeveler and others observe, Zofloya is overtly racist; however, Carol Margaret Davison and Sara D. Schotland believe Dacre’s depiction of Zofloya holds a degree of complexity, revealing the dangerous consequences of colonialism and enslavement. Anne Mellor points out that Victoria’s sexual desire for a black man is taboo and noteworthy, contributing to the novel’s framing with “a pat Christian moral,” which she thinks should not be taken “over-seriously” (171). Regardless of the text’s overt cautionary moral, Zofloya pushed the boundaries of propriety in titillating, exciting ways that contributed to the text’s reception and later elision.

King’s third novel, The Libertine (1807), tends to be her least studied novel, despite its popularity in its time. This book, published with both the names of Rosa Matilda and Charlotte Dacre attached, tells another tale of a seduced young woman who must deal with the consequences. Like Zofloya, this book was accused of immorality. At its time of publication, it was nearly as popular as Zofloya, running to a third edition by 1807 and being translated into French. Jennifer Airey’s feminist approach to King shows how King critiques the impacts of patriarchy in each of her novels, especially The Libertine, which Airey believes condemns patriarchal institutions (229). Dacre’s final novel, The Passions (1811), is an epistolary work with many textual flaws, including its length, florid tone, and distracting prose. Jones writes, “there is really nothing at all to commend about the novel and much to deplore” (246).

Little is written on King’s relationship to Judaism; many scholars do not mention her Sephardic heritage. Her children were all baptized in 1811, and she was buried in the Church of England. The King family does not seem to have been religiously observant. King’s work does not tend to overtly address Judaism, but it does engage in contemporary religious discourse. For instance, Zofloya certainly engages in early Gothic anti-Catholicism. Additionally, as Diane Long Hoeveler argues, the title character can be interpreted as a projection of Jewish self-hatred, as “an abjected, demonized, and wandering Jew” (166).2 King’s work does tend to include strong moral invocations seemingly in alignment with both Jewish and Christian middle-class moral standards of the day, despite her willingness to depict what some readers saw as shocking displays of immorality and evil. Jones thinks King “would not have regarded any novel as suitably concluded” without “an overt moral admonition” (247). Unfortunately, as with other aspects of her life, King’s religious beliefs and practices must remain somewhat mysterious. Much still can be learned about the writer known sometimes as Rosa Matilda, other times as Charlotte Dacre. Her depictions of female sexual desire and willingness to permit women characters to transgress marks her work as noteworthy, even if Lord Byron found her poetry unimpressive.

1 Some sources list her mother’s name as Sara; however, the most accurate research refers to her as Deborah.

2 “In projecting her Jewishness onto a black devil who takes her anti-heroine over a cliff with him, Dacre symbolically sent her own birthright, her Jewish identity … into the depths, to emerge as a newly purified British matron-mother, an appropriately WASP-y wife for her respectable WASP and Tory husband Nicholas Byrne” (Hoeveler 166).


Works Consulted

Airey, Jennifer L. “‘He bears no rival near the throne’: Male Narcissism and Early Feminism in the Works of Charlotte Dacre.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction vol. 30, no. 2., 2017, pp. 223-241. Project Muse, DOI: 10.3138/ecf.30.2.223.

Baines, Paul. “Byrne [née King], Charlotte [pseud. Charlotte Dacre]."Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sept. 23, 2004. Oxford DNB,

Birch, Dinah, editor. “Dacre, Charlotte (?1782-1825).” The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 7th ed. Oxford UP, 2009. Oxford Reference.

Brewster, Glen. “Monstrous Philosophy: Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or the Moor and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Literature Compass 8/9, 2011, pp. 609-619. Wiley Online Library, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2011.00832.x.

Byron, George Gordon. English Bards and Scotch Reviewers: A Satire. Second edition. London: Deans & Co., 1809.

Craciun, Adriana. “Unnatural, Unsexed, Undead: Charlotte Dacre’s Gothic Bodies.” In Fatal Women of Romanticism, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 110-155.

Crockett, Christine. “Medical Gothic: Genre and Gender Bending in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2013.

Davison, Carol Margaret. “Getting their Knickers in a Twist: Contesting the ‘Female Gothic’ in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” Gothic Studies vol. 11, no. 1, 2009, pp. 32-45. ProQuest.

Donovan-Condron, Kellie. “Urban Gothic in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” European Romantic Review, vol. 24, no. 6, 2013, pp. 683-697. Taylor & Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/10509585.2013.845771.

Dunn, James A. “Charlotte Dacre and the Feminization of Violence.” Nineteenth-Century Literature, vol 53, no. 3, Dec. 1998, pp. 307-327. JSTOR,

Edelman, Todd M. Broadening Jewish History: Towards a Social History of Ordinary Jews. Liverpool UP, 2011.

---. “The Checkered Career of ‘Jew’ King: A Study in Anglo-Jewish Social History.” AJS Review, vol. 7/8, 1982/3, pp. 69-100. JSTOR.

The Feminist Companion to Literature in English, edited by Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy. Yale UP, 1990.

González Moreno, Beatriz. “Gothic Excess and Aesthetic Ambiguity in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” Women’s Writing, vol. 14, no. 3., 2007, pp. 419-434. Taylor & Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/09699080701644931.

Jones, Ann H. Ideas and Innovations: Best Sellers of Jane Austen’s Age. AMS Press, 1986.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya: The Gothic Demonization of the Jew.” The Jews and British Romanticism: Politics, Religion, Culture, edited by Sheila A. Spector. Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 165-178.

King, Charlotte and Sophia Fortnum. Trifles of Helicon. James Ridgway, 1798. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Mellor, Anne. “Interracial Sexual Desire in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” European Romantic Review, vol. 13, no. 2, 2002, pp. 169-173. Taylor & Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/10509580212756.

Michasiw, Kim Ian. “Introduction.” Zofloya, or, The Moor. Oxford UP, 1997, pp. vii-xxx.

Schotland, Sara D. “The Slave’s Revenge: The Terror in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, 2009, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 123-127. Gale Academic OneFile.

Summers, Montague. “Byron’s ‘Lovely Rosa.’” Essays in Petto. 1928. Books for Libraries Press, 1967, pp. 57-73.

---. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel. The Fortune Press, 1938.

Varma, Devendra P. “Introduction.” Zofloya; or, The Moor: A Romance of the Fifteenth Century. Vol. 1. Charlotte Dacre (‘Rosa Matilda’). Arno Press, 1974, pp. xi-xxx.

Wilson, Lisa M. “Female Pseudonymity in the Romantic ‘Age of Personality’: The Career of Charlotte King/Rosa Matilda/Charlotte Dacre.” European Romantic Review, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 393-420, 1998. Taylor & Francis Online, DOI: 10.1080/10509589808570060.


Selected Bibliography

Dacre, Charlotte. Hours of Solitude. D.N. Shury, 1805, 2 vols.

---. The Libertine. T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1807, 4 vols.

---. Zofloya; or, the Moor. Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806, 3 vols.

King, Charlotte, and Sophia Fortnum. Trifles of Helicon. James Ridgway, 1798.

Matilda, Rosa. The Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer. D.N. Shury for J.F. Hughes, 1805, 3 vols.

---. The Passions. T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1811, 4 vols.