The death of virtue: Charlotte Dacre's critique of ideals of the feminine
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At the turn of the nineteenth century in England, the Gothic novel was extremely popular for its stories of ghosts, mysterious circumstances and of course, the “damsel in distress”. These novels depicted such women as virtuous heroines, women whose chastity, perseverance in the face of adversity (often brought about by a threatening male figure) and innocence made them models for female readers. However, such depictions of female virtue encouraged readers to associate positive female behaviour with suffering. Charlotte Dacre choose to challenge these beliefs by writing about heroines who attempted to understand and control their sexuality and their lives, regardless of societal mores. However, while Dacre writes of such women, her heroines always end up punished in some way, condemned to a life apart from the outside world by being shut away in convents, or succumbing to death. Comparing Dacre’s work to novels by Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis reveals her important contribution to English literature from a feminist perspective; however, it is conceded here that Dacre ultimately cannot envision women who can free themselves from accepted beliefs of virtue. Her heroines’ destinies seem the same as those of her contemporaries: to suffer. Still, her courage in writing about such heroines makes her a remarkable writer, and important to a feminist study of Gothic literature.