Moral Contagion as a Threat to Cultural Hegemony in the Novels of Charlotte Dacre

Charlotte Chassefiѐre


Among what remains of the former popularity of Charlotte Dacre’s novels today, pride of place is given to the nineteenth-century critical reception of her works. Diagnosed by censors from The Literary Journal as being ‘afflicted with the dismal malady of maggots in the brain’, it was feared that her ‘licentious’ writings, focusing on female sexuality, violence, and novel-reading, would contaminate the minds of her own female readers. Interestingly, that very fear of moral contagion is at the core of Dacre’s plots: her monstrous heroines, depicted by a generally sympathising narrative voice, are presented as a threat to society, and to the moral purity paramount in nineteenth-century English culture. Presiding over these improper heroines is Victoria, the protagonist of Dacre’s Gothic best-seller Zofloya, or the Moor (1806), whose sexual attraction to the eponymous moor, and the murderous actions committed under his influence, remained for centuries a staple in Dacre’s popularity as a ‘writer of trash’. This paper will present the dynamics of alteration and contagion in Charlotte Dacre’s novels, ranging from the pollution of the stable household, to the cultural threat to imperial hegemony posed by sexual attraction to the racial Other, as well as by novel-reading, itself ironically presented as an agent of moral contamination.


19th Century literature; moral contagion; race; female desire; Charlotte Dacre

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