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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Book Eleven

We have a grand To Be Read pile of books, and a wish list on a major book-selling website, and of course plenty of space to add books we don't know we want until we actually see them. One of the interesting things about such piles and lists is that during the interval between deciding we want a certain book and actually reading the book we might well forget our initial interest in the book.

The eleventh book we have read is an Oxford World Classic by Charlotte Dacre titled Zofloya, or The Moor. At some point we read something that mentioned this book, and either the subject or the summary or the recommendation drew our interest. The book was added to our wish list, and received last Christmas. Now coming to read it, we have forgotten precisely why we wanted to read it in the first place. Well, in general, who wouldn't be interested in reading a tale of lust, betrayal, and multiple murder set in Venice in the last days of the fifteenth century? Beyond this, though, what did we want to read it for?

This is an early gothic romance that follows in the footsteps of classics by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis, and then steps beyond their boundaries to become something unexpected and shocking for its time. Never before had a woman been shown to venture so far down the "alarming paths of sin." Today, many of the main ingredients of the novel provoke little distress in us as they must have in one of our previous lives. Issues such as class and race and nature versus nurture are deftly explored in the novel, yet they did not stand out as issues to us until after we finished reading the novel, when we read the introduction. We are told that upon publication, the Library Journal dismissed Ms. Dacre as "being afflicted with the dismal malady of maggots in the brain." The novel is reported to have enraptured Percy Shelley, and Ann Williams believes Zofloya and other gothic works provide critical keys to understanding the works of Mr. Shelley, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats. Instead of being hailed as groundbreaking and influential, the novel and its author have been mostly consigned to oblivion. In her introduction, Kim Ian Michasiw writes,
A mother-hating triple murderess who dreams of sexual congress with a demon of colour has not been judged a proper model for the young reader either in the last century or in this.
For the first half of the novel, the protagonist Victoria suffers abuse at every turn. There is a digression to follow another character, and we wondered what purpose this served the novel, until everything was brought together at the end. Zofloya does not appear until about the halfway mark, at which point Victoria believes things have begun to go her way. Of course we come to realise that she is under the influence of Satan in the gorgeous guise of Zofloya. Everything she wants she gets by his evil ways, but nothing turns out as she expects. The further she treads down the paths of sin, the more she must turn to Zofloya for help. He is a consumate seducer, and by the last page the only thing Victoria thinks about and desires is giving herself completely to Zofloya. She remains ever self-absorbed and unrepentant.

We enjoyed this book. Ms. Dacre writes in an old-fashioned manner, with words and phrases that provide an appropriate literary flavor to the novel. She even employs shifts in point-of-view, but does so with control and purpose, rendering them natural and unobtrusive. The book took longer to read than we might have expected, though it was not difficult, confusing, or boring. We now suspect our initial interest in the novel was the masterful seduction of both Victoria and her mother, as already mentioned, superbly illustrated. We would recommend this to any fan of classic gothic fiction. When you put it on your wish list, just remember to note why.

We give it four (out of five) pipefuls.

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