Charlotte Dacre – Zofloya (1806)

Review by Justin Tate

Zofloya is a pre-Freud gothic novel first published in 1806, but it often seems informed by modern theories of sexual psychology. Much of the drama arises from megalomania in the characters’ brains. This includes a philandering man with a fetish for married women. He has the very specific goal of using his charms to wreck happy homes. Then there’s the young Leonardo who thinks himself above temptation, but soon finds himself the love slave of a fifteenth century dominatrix.

Generally, Zofloya is far more interested in the sexuality of women than men. Readers were scandalized in its day for the graphic depiction of female lust, including one diabolical villainess who commits mass murder as a means to sleeping with her husband’s brother. With the aid of a magic potion, she even accomplishes the rarely-examined act of male rape.

Naturally, male critics were not happy. One of the original reviews lambasted Dacre, saying the “female mind” should not have the capacity to conjure narratives with such a flagrant “exhibition of wantonness of harlotry.”

Shocking readers was likely Dacre’s goal, however. Zofloya was written to be a female counterpart to Matthew Lewis’ salacious novel The Monk (1796). The Monk depicts a young monk’s dramatic fall from grace as he discovers sexuality for the first time and sells his soul for the ability to rape pretty girls around Madrid. While Lewis’ book was also controversial, male critics were surprisingly forgiving of rape in that novel. Instead they focused their shock on minor examples of sacrilege, such as a brief comment suggesting one can learn sexual perversions from reading the Bible.

Perhaps it is also a testament to the reality of male-dominated academia that The Monk remains an enduring classic while Zofloya is all but forgotten. Dacre’s novel is just as compelling, provocative, multi-faceted, thought-provoking, scary, and entertaining as The Monk—and yet this Oxford World’s Classic edition is the only re-printing by a major publisher. I imagine one could get an entire PhD in nineteenth century literature and never read Zofloya. Only Gothic specialists, it seems, have it on their radar. And even they may miss it.

That’s a shame. Zofloya has its problems, including psychological theories that are questionable by today’s standards, xenophobic character depiction, and sheer overabundance of melodrama. But it also demands readers ask big questions, confront the possibilities of nature versus nurture, and consider extreme examples of lust. The book may be over 200 years old, but its topics continue to startle and reveal understudied aspects of the human psyche. Add a splash of supernatural and murder plots that would make Soap Operas blush, and you have quite an enthralling thriller.

Will this classic ever receive the attention it deserves? Maybe. A search through University libraries reveals that there’s an increasingly large number of dissertations exclusively focused on Zofloya. Even if professors aren’t assigning it for class, scholars have discovered the novel and find a lot to obsess over. It is one of those novels where the emotional impact lasts long after the final page. I’m not surprised at all that literature buffs are devoting their life’s work to its pages.

Also interesting—just a few months ago, Zofloya was released as an audiobook for the first time ever. Perhaps this is another sign of growing enthusiasm? Maybe a movie version will come next? I wouldn’t be surprised. Keep an eye on this forgotten classic. Word-of-mouth could make it popular once again.

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