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If I were ever to write an English PhD, which is probably as likely as Luxembourg mounting a manned space mission to Mars; it would probably be on the subject of the differences in the way male and female authors handle their evil anti – heroines; today these are just musings off the top of my head after finishing re-reading Charlotte Dacre’s 1807 novel Zofloya.

It has been my long held belief, and one of the main theses of this blog, that men may fall in love with their wicked female creations and can thus never fully condemn their actions; whereas women won’t form the same relationship and can thus happily commit the anti heroine to eternal damnation. This admittedly is based, at present, on imperfect memory and flimsy evidence, but I intend to pursue it, and reading Zofloya this week has re-awakened my intent.

Zofloya, a minor scandal on its publication in 1807, was a significant influence on both Byron and Shelley. In his introduction to the Oxford World Classic edition Kim Ian Michasiw says

“… Dacre’s narrative deftly displays her heroine’s movement from the victimised position of Ann Radcliffe’s heroines to a fully conscious commitment to vice that goes beyond that of Monk Lewis’s deluded Ambrosio. The novel’s most daring aspect is its anatomy of Victoria’s intense sexual attraction to her Moorish servant Zofloya that transgresses taboos both of class and race.”

It is interesting to compare that constructive assessment with the more abrupt reaction of Sarah Green wring in 1810, who described Dacre’s work as “absurd trash”.

It is a fault (perhaps) of mine, always to try to find redeeming features in the character of the anti-heroine; to understand her and to find excuses, however weak, for her villainy. So I did with Zofloya’s Victoria, but Dacre never allows this, and through to the final chapter she refuses the opportunity to forgive Victoria, heaping crime upon crime to the concluding scene where Victoria refuses to respect and forgive her dying mother.

Of course, this is driven by Dacre’s own moral theories, reiterated over and over through the narrative, that the actions of the parent are directly responsible for the actions of the daughter,. Despite the notoriety of Zofloya, its themes of evil driven on by sexual attraction, it remains at key points a deeply moralising novel, portraying Victoria’s actions, as well as those of her mother Laurini,  in vivid detail but at the same time  forever cautioning the delicate reader against similar thoughts and deeds.

“the wretched Laurini reflected upon her past conduct – upon the husband and the children she had abandoned – upon the husband, the fond husband, that for her had died, – upon her children; hating her and flying from her presence. – Ah, terrible and severe must be the compunctious visitings of the mother, who stepping aside from the path of honour and virtue, becomes amenable for the destruction and death of a doting husband, for the crimes and miseries of her offspring! Awhile, faintly may you triumph daughter of infamy! – glitter a while the vain and despised pageant of the hour; but short lived in your ignoble glory – bitter and permanent your punishment and regret.”

Thus Zofloya, for all the scandal surrounding it, remains in many ways a typical product of its age, in which popular fiction was as much about educating and improving the reader as it was about titillating and entertaining.

The path from Victoria to Lydia Gwilt is thus quite clear. Both are driven by their desires, and are clearly able to use poison where necessary to get what they want. The gap between the publication of Zofloya and that of Armadale is about 60 years, and the development of the novel in that period was such that the styles are radically different. Characterisation and plotting have moved on, and the need for constant religious moralising has receded. However these are not the only differences and I return to the point of male and female authors. Maybe it is just me, but I feel as though I can identify with Lydia so much more than with Victoria. Although now it is some time since I last read Armadale I feel that Wilkie Collins seems always to stop short of ultimately condemning Lydia, and how ever awful her crimes are, she is still a character we can understand.  Crucially to the thesis, I believe that in Armadale Collins’ portrayal of Lydia is in some aspects sympathetic, and we can still admire the character and drive of the anti-heroine. A similar character from the period is Lucy Graham in Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. Again she murders to hide past indiscretions and to advance herself in society, but unlike Lydia Gwilt I find Lucy just cold and calculating. The anti-heroine drawn by a woman is just totally unlike that drawn by a man.

Another case is Honoria Dedlock in Bleak House. Clearly she is not an anti-heroine in the same mould as Lydia and Lucy but we do have to believe that she is a suspect of killing Mr Tulkinghorn, she is given the motive and the character to do so, and thus although we believe that she is capable of murder, we can also side with her rather than against her. I suppose in this case she was prepared to kill to save her reputation, and that of her family, rather than for any selfish motive.

I’m afraid the theory is in its infancy. I’m sure there must have a sexual frisson for Victorian male authors to invent dominant, murdering female characters, I’m sure they may have been in awe of, and definitely in love, with their creations. Nineteenth century women authors on the other hand would be more in tune with the notion of these anti-heroines as home wreckers, an evil to be aware of and to warn of. Still, there must have been those who, maybe secretly, would have liked to emulate the lifestyle, the adventures or the dominance of these anti-heroines. I think a more sympathetic reading of their characters may have ensued.

The anti-heroine develops throughout Georgian and Victorian literature. I am constantly intrigued by the relationship between these women and their authors, and need a number of further examples to investigate.