Friday, 1 March 2013

Review: 'Zofloya, or the Moor' by Charlotte Dacre

Everyone who knows me, knows I don't really appreciate Gothic fiction.  I tried to read 'The Italian' by Ann Radcliffe and had to abandon it halfway through because it really wasn't my taste. But I didn't have a lot of choice when it came to the reading list for my module 'Studying Literature'. 'Zofloya' was on there and it was there to stay.
The novel follows Victoria's progress from spoilt daughter of indulgent aristocrats, through a period of abuse and captivity, to a career of deepening criminality conducted under Satan's watchful eye. Charlotte Dacre's narrative deftly displays her heroine's movement from the vitalized position of Ann Radcliffe's heroines to a fully conscious commitment to vice that goes beyond that of 'Monk' Lewis's deluded Ambrosio. 
Reading when you don't want to read can be really difficult, so I approached this novel with as much of an open mind as possible. One of the best things about this novel is that it is set in Venice. I adore Venice, so that was a plus-point. But then, in the tradition of Gothic fiction, the city was quickly abandoned for ruined castles and the country side. Gothic novels thrive on the supernatural, the damsels in distress and the heroic men. 'Zofloya' is different in two out of those three aspects. Yes, there is the supernatural, sometimes hidden away as a reference and sometimes out in the open. The main character however, Victoria, seems to break all the conventions. She is a very active character, desperate to make her own destiny, but only because she feels entitled to it. It is hard to like her or wish for her to succeed because, from the very first page on, Dacre condemns her as a spoilt brat and she never truly recovers from this. Also, no matter how active she is, she still depends severely on the character Zofloya to get anything done.

Many of the characters, all of them really, are severely flawed and yet Dacre has not taken the time to truly elaborate on their flaws or virtues. If Victoria is the complete opposite of a typical Gothic heroine, then Lilla is the perfect, bare template. She lacks character, incentive and is very unrealistic. Victoria's mother, Laurina, is blamed for everything bad that happens in the novel, as if her original sin (pun intended) created every other sin that follows later on. Rather than use her characters to get her messages across, Dacre has personified her message and as a consequence the novel seems overly preachy at some points. She occasionally interrupts the narrative to play Captain Obvious and redirect our attention to a different character. The ending is one big chapter of confusion, at least to me. It seems as if, after spending pages on Victoria's emotional state, Dacre decided she had enough and brought together all the story lines in one cave. I will not tell you what the major twist is, even though it wasn't that spectacular in my opinion. The ending felt rushed and incomplete and left me wondering why I just read this book.

There have been many different interpretations if this book, both in a feminist and a racist light. Do I think it is bad that Zofloya is a Moor and therefore black? No, as a Moor Zofloya is an impressive, male character, especially when compared to the other men in the book. Had he been a Scandinavian lumberjack his character would have completely failed. Also, he is the 'other' in the story, he has to be different in order to form a proper contrast to the other characters. As I already mentioned, I do not think this novel is particularly feminist. It is a Gothic novel, by definition it is rather unfeminist. Yes, Victoria is quite active but she is utterly enslaved to her passions and therefore weak.

Overall I give this novel...

2 Universes!!!

Sometimes a novel simply isn't to your taste. Yes, it is an amusing read if you like over-dramatised narratives and characters that act irrationally. For study it was perfect because it both shows and reverses Gothic stereotypes. Would I read this again? No. Do I recommend it? Not really, no.

Have you read 'Zofloya'? Was it to your taste or do you agree?

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