Born in County Antrim in 1832, Charlotte Elizabeth Lawson Cowan moved to London with her mother after her father’s death. Much of her early work was published under pseudonyms F. G. Trafford, Rainey Hawthorne or R.V. M. Sparling and after marriage to Joseph Hadley Riddell in 1857, she used her married title – Mrs. J.H. Riddell. A prolific author with over fifty books to her name, it is perhaps surprising that Riddell’s work is not more widely known today.
The founders of Irish publishing house, Tramp Press, Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff offer some explanation for this in their statement that:
“Riddell’s three-volume novels fell out of fashion when the industry retired the practice of serialising long works, and after her death in 1906 her notoriety faded.”
In 2014, Coen and Davis-Goff sought to introduce one of Riddell’s neglected works to a new generation of readers by re-issuing her “caustic, funny semi-autobiographical masterpiece” – A Struggle for Fame as part of their “Recovered Voices” series.
As they note:
“It is worth asking ourselves why some books are canon and others vanish. Sometimes it’s simply because no one puts forward the money for a reprint while copyright is held; by the time the work is in the public domain, often many decades later, the work may be all but forgotten. This is understandable, but it has in this case led to the neglect of an important Irish writer.”
Further biographical information on Charlotte Riddell can be found here
In 1893, Helen C. Black published an interview with Riddell in Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches. With Portraits. (Glasgow, David Bryce and Son: 1893). An excerpt from this interview which reveals some wonderful insights into Riddell’s background and writing life is included below but you can read the full version which has been digitized by Project Gutenberg here. A new edition of Black’s book with an introduction by Troy J. Bassett and Catherine Pope was published in 2012.
“The sleepy little village of Upper Halliford, Middlesex, has one peculiar charm. Though within ten minutes’ walk of Walton Bridge, it lies quite off the main line of traffic, and is consequently free from the visits of Cockney tourists, affording in this, as in many other respects, a striking contrast to Lower Halliford, which, situated on a lovely reach of the Thames, welcomes annually thousands of visitors.
There the inevitable steam-launch cuts its swift way through the water; there boating-men, clad in all the colours of the rainbow, are to be met with, on or after Good Friday, when the “season” begins; there persistent fishermen, seated in punts warily moored, angle day after day, and all day long, for the bream, roach, and gudgeon, to be found in such abundance; there furnished houses let at high rents; willows dip their branches in the river, and from thence the trees of Oatlands show well on the upland on the opposite sides of the glistening Thames.
It was between Lower Halliford and Walton Bridge — half of which is in Surrey and half in Middlesex—that, at a point called the Coway Stakes, Julius Cæsar is believed to have crossed the river. The name “Coway Stakes” originated in the fact that there Cassivelaunus fortified the banks, and filled the river with sharp-pointed stakes to prevent the enemy from crossing the stream, but notwithstanding these precautions the Roman leader and his legions accomplished their purpose, and, a little way above where the Ship Hotel (so well known to boating-men), now stands, a terrible battle was fought in the year 54 B.C. between the Britons and Romans. Several relics have been dug up about this part of the Thames, also a number of the stakes taken from the bed of the river, black with age, but still sound. (12)
Any one who cares to walk on to Walton should make a point of visiting the old Church of St. Mary — an edifice of great antiquity — in order to see a curious relic, dated 1632, a scold’s bit, or bridle, bearing the following inscription: —
“Chester to Walton sends a bridle
To curb women’s tongues that talk too idle.”
Upper Halliford, unlike Lower Halliford, or Walton, has nothing to show in the way of beauty or relic. It boasts no history, it has no legend, or old church, or historic mansion. It is only a quaint little hamlet, which might be a hundred miles from the bustle and roar of London; there, however, the famous author of “George Geith of Fen Court” has for the last seven years made her home, where she lives in absolute seclusion.
Her little cottage stands slightly back from the high road. It is built flush with the ground, and covered with trellis-work, which in summer time is concealed by clustering white roses and clematis. The porch is in the centre, and the rooms on each side have broad bay windows. There is a large field in front, and so many evergreens about the cottage, that, when snow comes, the place looks like a winter “transformation scene.” (13)
A great, old-fashioned garden stretches far out at the back, and it was chiefly the tranquillity and privacy of this delightful garden, with its grand old hedge of holly, now bright with red berries, which attracted Mrs. Riddell, and decided her to settle down, away from the world, after long and fierce buffeting with the stormy seas of sorrow, disappointment, losses, and bereavement, of which she has had so large a share.
The gentle, quiet face tells its tale of early struggles, heavy burdens, severe trials; yet time has not laid its ruthless hand over-harshly on the author. Not a silver hair is visible on the soft, brown hair, which is simply rolled into a neat coil, high on the back of her head, and fastened by a large tortoise-shell comb. The deep grey eyes are undimmed, and wear a look of peace and resignation, nobly won; while “ever and anon of griefs subdued, there comes a token” which recalls the past. But Mrs. Riddell can smile sweetly, and when she smiles, two—yes two—absolutely girlish dimples light up the expressive countenance. She is tall, has a good carriage, and is dressed in black; she has worn no colours for over ten years.
The little room is very simply but prettily furnished. It is lighted by one bay window reaching to the ground in front, and a glass door at the side. Soft, white rugs lie here and there on the dark red carpet, and an old-fashioned bookcase contains the works of her favourite authors. There are no particular curiosities or decorations to be seen, save one valuable bit of old Dresden china, two or three plates of ancient Crown Derby, together with a couple of quaint Delhi-work salvers, and a few pictures hanging on the walls. Of these last, two are particularly attractive. One is the Head of a Christ crowned with thorns, beautifully painted on copper; the other, over the fire place, represents the Castle of Carrigfergus, which, though built nearly a thousand years ago, is still strong enough to hold a troop of soldiers. (14)
Mrs. Riddell was born in Ireland, at The Barn, Carrigfergus. She was the youngest daughter of Mr. James Cowan, who held the post of High Sheriff for the county of that town.
“Yes, I am from the north—the black north,” says your hostess in a low, soft voice. “My grandfather was in the navy, and my great-grandfather fought at Culloden, so I may fairly claim to be English, Scotch, and Irish. My mother, Ellen Kilshaw, was a beautiful, graceful, and accomplished English woman. On most subjects people have two opinions, but I never heard a second opinion about my mother. Even amongst those who only knew her in later life, when stricken with disease, and changed by long years of sorrow, she stands out a distinct personality, as one of those possessed of the manners, appearance, and ideas, that we associate with the highest bred women of the past!” (15)
“And she was good as she was beautiful. I wish you could hear how rich and poor who knew her in the old time at The Barn still speak of her. As for me, while I speak, the grief of her death seems sharp and present as on that sixteenth of December when she left me.”
Last autumn, after a lapse of twenty-five years, Mrs. Riddell revisited her native place. “Such of our old friends as were left,” she says, “I found as kind as ever.”
It must have been sad, yet sweet, for the author to recall the old reminiscences of her girlish home as she saw once more the pretty bungalow-like house, with its gardens, hot-houses, and vineries, and to visit again the spot where, at the age of fifteen, she remembers writing her first story.
“It was on a bright moonlight night,” she says—”I can see it now flooding the gardens—that I began it, and I wrote week after week, never ceasing until it was finished. Need I add it was never published?”
She goes on eloquently to tell you of yet further recollections of the old house, the memory of her father’s lingering illness, and the low, sweet tones of her mother’s voice as she read aloud to him for hours together. “From my father,” says Mrs. Riddell, “I think I got the few brains I possess. Undoubtedly he was a very clever man, but I never knew him at his best, for as far as my memory goes back he was always more or less a sufferer, blessed with the most tender and devoted wife man ever had.”(16)
On her father’s death, the property passed into other hands, and with but a small jointure the broken-hearted widow and her daughter left their old home. They lived afterwards, for a while, in the charming village of Dundonald in the County Down, where the young author subsequently laid the scene of her novel, “Berna Boyle,” and then, after a good deal of meditation, they decided to come to London. In later years she wrote three other Irish stories, “The Earl’s Promise,” “The Nun’s Curse,” and “Maxwell Drewitt,” which last contains an exciting account of an election at Connemara.
“I have often wished,” says Mrs. Riddell “we never had so decided, yet in that case, I do not think I ever should have achieved the smallest success, and even before we left, with bitter tears, a place where we had the kindest friends, and knew much happiness, my mother’s death was—though neither of us then knew the fact—a certainty. The illness of which she died had then taken hold of her. She had always a great horror of pain mental and physical; she was keenly sensitive, and mercifully before the agonising period of her complaint arrived, the nerves of sensation were paralysed; first or last, she never lost a night’s sleep the whole of the ten weeks, during which I fought with death for her, and—was beaten.”
Mrs. Riddell’s first impressions of London are well worth recording. Coming as strangers to a strange land, throughout the length and breadth of the great metropolis, she says, “We did not know a single creature! During the first fortnight, indeed, I really thought I should break my heart. I had never taken (17) kindly to new places, and, remembering the sweet hamlet and the loving friends left behind, London seemed to me horrible! I could not eat; I could not sleep; I could only walk over the ‘stony-hearted streets’ and offer my manuscripts to publisher after publisher, who unanimously declined them.” The desolation of her spirit can be more easily imagined than described. Conceive the situation of the young girl, burning to earn a living by her pen, knowing that it was within her to do so, yet unacquainted with a single literary or other person; friendless, unknown, with an invalid mother, and terribly insufficient means! And when, at last, she sold a story, called “Moors and Fens,” that beloved mother had passed away; and your eyes moisten as the daughter mentions the touching and filial use to which her first twenty pounds were applied.“
To read the rest of Black’s rich interview with Riddell, see the full Project Gutenberg digital edition available here. This edition also contains an interview with Rhoda Broughton, another writer of supernatural fiction and niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
Citation: Black, Helen. C. Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches. With Portraits. (Glasgow, David Bryce and Son: 1893). Project Gutenberg Ebook Release Date: January 17, 2012 [EBook #38596]. Produced by Delphine Lettau and the Online Distributed. Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net.
Charlotte Riddell Online
Below is a list of links to digital versions of a range of works by Charlotte Riddell. These digital copies have been produced and made freely available by The British Library, The Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg.
Zuriel’s Grandchild: A Novel (1856)
The Ruling Passion (1857)
The Moor and the Fens (1858)
Too Much Alone: A Novel (1860)
City and Suburb (1861)
The World in the Church (1862)
George Geith of Fen Court (1864)
Maxwell Drewitt: A Novel (1865)
Phemie Keller: A Novel (1866)
The Race for Wealth (1866)
Far Above Rubies (1867)
Austin Friars: A Novel (1870)
A Life’s Assize: A Novel (1871)
Fairy Water (1873) later reprinted with the title The Haunted House at Latchford Water
Home, Sweet Home: A Novel (1873)
The Earl’s Promise: A Novel (1873)
Mortomley’s Estate (1874)
Above Suspicion: A Novel (1876)
Her Mother’s Darling (1877)
The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth (1879)
The Senior Partner: A Novel (1881)
Alaric Spenceley: or, A High Ideal (1881)
The Prince of Wales’s Garden-party and Other Stories (1882)
Weird Stories (1882)
The Uninhabited House and The Haunted River (1883)
A Struggle for Fame: A Novel (1883)
Susan Drummond: A Novel (1884)
Miss Gascoigne: A Novel (1887)
The Nun’s Curse: A Novel (1888)
Idle Tales (1888)
Princess Sunshine, and Other Stories (1889)
My First Love: A Novel (1891)
The Rusty Sword: or, Thereby Hangs a Tale or Thereby Hangs a Tree (1893)
The Banschee’s Warning and Other Tales (1894)
A Rich Man’s Daughter (1897)
Did He Deserve It? (1897)
Handsome Phil and Other Stories (1899)
The Footfall of Fate (1900)
Poor Fellow (1902)
Bann, Jennifer. “Ghostly Hands and Ghostly Agency: The Changing Figure of the Nineteenth-Century Specter.” Victorian Studies 51.4 (2009): 663–686. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
Bleiler, E. F., ‘Introduction’, in The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs J. H. Riddell (New York: Dover Press, 1977), pp. v-xxii.
Bissell, Sarah. “Spectral Economics and the Horror of Risk in Charlotte Riddell’s Ghost Stories.” Victorian Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, 2014, p. 73-89. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/vcr.2014.0039.
Coen, Lisa, and Sarah Davis-Goff. “Rediscovering neglected texts and muted voices“, The Irish Times. Fri Dec 19 2014.
Colella, Silvana. Charlotte Riddell’s City Novels and Victorian Business: Narrating Capitalism (1st ed.). (New York: Routledge. (2016). https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315571409
Delong, Anne. “Haunted Children: Legitimacy, Inheritance, and the Sins of the Fathers in Ghost Stories by Victorian Women.” Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature, Vol. 137, 2020, p. 15-29. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vct.2020.0003.
Dickerson, Vanessa D. Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural. Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 1996.
For a reflection on teaching Charlotte Riddell’s Irish gothic fiction, see Dr Dara Downey’s post here on the wonderful Irish Women’s Writing (1880- 1920) Network website.
Dr. Melissa Edmundson has published widely on ghostly fictions in the British and Anglo-Indian Context. Her works include Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2013); Women’s Colonial Gothic Writing, 1850-1930: Haunted Empire (2018); two edited collections – Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940 (2019) and Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891-1937 (2020). Further articles by Edmundson on women writers of supernatural fiction in the British and Anglo-Indian Context can be found on her website here.
Sinead Gleeson’s recent edited collection The Art of the Glimpse contains Charlotte Riddell’s “A Strange Christmas Game”. (2020).
Hay, Simon. The History of the Modern British Ghost Story. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire. Palgrave. 2008.
Henry, Nancy. “Charlotte Riddell’s Financial Life and Fiction”. In: Women, Literature and Finance in Victorian Britain. Palgrave Studies in Literature, Culture and Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-94331-2_6
Henry, Nancy. Women, Literature and Finance in Victorian Britain: Cultures of Investment. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2018.
The Irish Women’s Writing Network Website has a great resources page for women writing during the period (1880-1920) https://irishwomenswritingnetwork.com/resources/
Kelleher, Margaret (2000) “Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame: The Field of Women’s Literary Production,” Colby Quarterly: 36.2 (June 2000): 116 – 31. Web. https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/cq/vol36/iss2/6. 17 Dec. 2021.
Killeen, Jarlath. “Gendering the Ghost Story? Victorian Women and the Challenge of the Phantom.” The Ghost Story from the Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century: A Ghostly Genre. Ed. Helen Conrad O’Briain and Julie Anne Stevens. Dublin: Four Courts, 2010. 81–96.
Liggins, Emma. The Haunted House in Women’s Ghost Stories: Gender, Space and Modernity, 1850-1945. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.
Margree, Victoria. “(Other)Worldly Goods: Gender, Money and Property in the Ghost Stories of Charlotte Riddell.” Gothic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, 2014.
Margree, Victoria. British Women’s Short Supernatural Fiction, 1860 – 1930: Our Own Ghostliness. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan. 2019.
Maume, Patrick. “Works, righteousness, philanthropy, and the market in the novels of Charlotte Riddell”. Eds. Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee. Irish Women’s Writing, 1878 – 1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty. Manchester, Manchester University Press. 2016.
Meaney, Gerardine. “Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing and the Development of Irish Fictions”. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Irish Fiction, Ed. Liam Harte, Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2020.
Riddell, Mrs. J. H. (Charlotte). “Literature as a Profession.” Illustrated Review 2.132 (July 1874): 6–7.
Srebnik, Patricia Thomas. “Mrs. Riddell and the Reviewers: A Case Study in Victorian Popular Fiction”, Women’s Studies, 23:1 (1994). P 69-44.
Takumi, Mari. “Ghost representation: a study of bodily ghosts and materialisation of mind and body in mid-nineteenth-century female writers’ ghost fiction”. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London. (2021).
Thurston, Luke. Literary Ghosts from the Victorians to Modernism: The Haunting Interval. London : Routledge, 2014.
Wallace, Diana. Female Gothic Histories: Gender, History and the Gothic. Cardiff: U Wales P, 2013.
Wood, Elaine. “The Irish Literary Revival of Charlotte Riddell” Feb 05 2015. Breac: A Digital Journal of Irish Studies. https://breac.nd.edu/articles/the-irish-literary-revival-of-charlotte-riddell/
Open Access Journals dedicated to study of the gothic and the supernatural – include The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies and Revenant Journal: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural
Project Gutenberg contains over 60,000 open source ebooks with over 70 ghost story collections and anthologies available to download.
Featured Image: ‘Image of ‘A woman reading under a punkah’ (1863). British Library Flickr Commons.