Charlotte Riddell – a Biographical Sketch
Compiled by Michael Flowers ©2005
Charlotte Eliza Lawson Cowan was born into fairly affluent gentility in 1832, as the youngest daughter of James Cowan, a flax and cotton spinner, and a former High Sheriff for County Antrim; and his second wife, Ellen Kilshaw. For some time the family continued to live in some luxury at Carrickfergus in a long, low Italianate house surrounded by extensive terraces, conservatories, and vineries. Although precise details are not forthcoming, Charlotte’s father had some sort of breakdown and lost most of his money. James Cowan died about the time Charlotte became twenty-one, leaving Mrs. Cowan and Charlotte with very limited means. After a short period attempting to survive on Mrs. Cowan’s jointure in the Irish village of Dundonald, Charlotte became determined to succeed as a writer. In order to achieve this aim she and her mother moved to London. The prospective author spent the exceptionally cold winter months of early 1855 hawking her manuscripts around various publishers with very little success. In 1856 Charlotte’s first published novel under the pseudonym R.V.M. Sparling was Zuriel’s Grandchild, which was published by the notorious Thomas Newby on the recommendation of his manageress, Miss Springett. However, the remuneration from this is thought to have been minimal. Riddell used the different pseudonym of Rainey Hawthorne for her next book The Ruling Passion, which was published by Bentley in 1857. Later that year, Riddell changed publishers and pseudonyms again when she received £20 on the acceptance for publication of what became her third novel, The Moors and the Fens (1858) as by F.G. Trafford. However, this money had to be employed to defray the costs of her mother’s funeral.
In 1857 Charlotte married Joseph Hadley Riddell from Windsor Green, Staffordshire. Mr. Riddell was a businessman and inventor, but seems to have been more adept at having ideas than making any money from his inventions. Her husband’s business connections gave Charlotte the idea of depicting the varied activities of the business world in her fiction. This was a new subject matter to be depicted in such detail in English literature – many contemporaries tended to look down on anyone engaged in trade as not being true gentlepeople. It is difficult to comprehend now, the revolutionary effect Riddell’s ‘City’ novels had on her readers. In 1858 she changed publishers again – The Rich Husband was published by the tiny independent publisher Charles Skeet as by “The author of The Ruling Passion.” Riddell was to produce four novels for Skeet over a four year period. Riddell’s first ‘City’ novel was Too Much Alone – again using the F.G. Trafford pen-name, which appeared in 1860. The narrative concerns a chemist who becomes so absorbed with his experiments that he neglects his wife. According to an interview Riddell gave thirty years later, the kindly Skeet attempted to dissuade her from writing about business matters, as he believed it was a subject that no woman could handle well. However, the Too Much Alone was quite well received. The critic in the Spectator declared it to be a “thoroughly good novel”, and praised it for its “downright realism.” Similarly, Geraldine Jewsbury in the Atheneaeum cordially recommended the book as “very pleasant to read.”
Following the modest success of Too Much Alone, Riddell produced a series of ‘City’ novels each focussing on a particular aspect of the business world. City and Suburb (1861) dealt with, whilst
A measure of financial security appeared to arrive in 1864 when Charlotte was given a £800 contract from the Tinsley brothers on completion of the novel George Geith. This novel was immediately and, through Riddell’s life-time, lastingly successful. An 1865 critique in The Fortnightly Review makes it clear that the novel was already in its third edition within a few months of its original publication. The book was successfully adapted for the stage in the 1880’s, and throughout the remainder of her writing career Charlotte Riddell was invariably described as ‘the author of George Geith.’ The novel was still being reprinted as late as 1900, as the existence of a two shilling version in my possession confirms. However, any easing of money worries this success brought was relatively short-lived. In 1872 Charlotte Riddell bought back her first novel Zuriel’s Grandchild, and republished it under the title Joy after Sorrow. Riddell later explained in an interview that she took this step: “after the crash came in our affairs.”(15) Evidently Charlotte hoped that as she was now a known author she might receive much needed extra income.
The reason for the continued fluctuating fortunes of Mrs. Riddell seems to have been the fault of her husband’s business acumen. Charlotte married Joseph Hadley Riddell in 1857, a few months after the death of her mother. In an interview given to The Pall Mall Gazette in 1890 she informs us that her husband was a civil engineer. A little more detail can be gleaned from the memoirs of Arthur Waugh who informs his readers that Riddell was an inventor of impractical stoves. Joseph Riddell seems to have been a highly intelligent sensitive man, but hopeless in regard to practical business affairs and money matters.
A young Irish cartoonist, Harry Furniss, who had an introduction to meet Charlotte in 1873, later stated that he had the impression that Joseph Riddell was in prison. Although this slur was denied by Mr A.H. Norway who knew Mrs. Riddell well, it seems likely that Joseph Riddell went bankrupt at some stage. The main proof for this lies in Charlotte’s novel Mortomley’s Estate (1874) which involves a detailed description of what can occur to an undischarged bankrupt. The accuracy with which Charlotte described the bankruptcy process could hardly be questioned by the critics. The reviewer of The Athenaeum admits that:
the mere superficial knowledge of the ordinary critic cannot...pretend to
follow Mrs. Riddell through the consequences of the Bankruptcy Act,
or attempt to decide how far she has reason on her side. (16)
The inference that Joseph Riddell had followed a similar route to the protagonist in the story can be made from Charlotte’s outspoken remarks as an intrusive narrator. As The Saturday Review comments:
we had never seen...till we came upon the volumes now before us,
a novel in which the author was so carried away by hatred of the law
as to forget altogether that the reader might like to be amused. (17)
The 1869 Act had the disadvantage of permitting a bankrupt to go into permanent receivership, without hope of release, while his creditors went without payment. Charlotte Riddell’s vehement hatred of the Act suggests that she may have had direct personal experience of its effects on people’s lives.
Charlotte Riddell’s utilization of autobiographical elements also aided the semblance of verisimilitude in her supernatural stories. In an interview Charlotte Riddell stated that: “I am more at home with my City men...I understand men well, I have much in sympathy with them, and I always find them easier to describe than women.”(18) Typical protagonists of her ghost stories include: surgeons or physicians, various city clerks, lawyers and accountants. The appearance of people from the business world in Riddell’s ghost stories assists in lending her characters, and therefore her tales with a important sense of solidity.
When Joseph Riddell died in 1880 a further series of debts were uncovered, and Charlotte, although under no legal obligation, declared that she would repay them. The remainder of her career was a struggle in a climate of ever decreasing sales to reimburse liabilities her husband had made with his own family.
A further possible motive behind Charlotte Riddell’s repeated descriptions of the financial and commercial worlds was simply that she found it intensely fascinating. In the 1890 Pall Mall Gazette interview she admits that on her marriage:
all the pathos of the City, the pathos in the lives of struggling men entered
into my soul, and I felt I must write, strongly as my publisher [Charles
Skeet] objected to my choice of subject, which he said was one that
no woman can handle well...In fact I was and still am heartily in love
with the City. (Ibid).
Charles Skeet’s fear that no woman could write well about City matters was contradicted as early as 1860. The first of Charlotte Riddell’s ‘City novels’ to be reviewed by The Athenaeum was Too Much Alone which appeared in that year. It is the story of a chemist who loves his wife but neglects her through his absorption with his experiments. The outstanding facet of the novel for the reviewer was its verisimilitude as can be evinced from these remarks: “it is a well-conceived, well-wrought-out story, which has an air of human truth and reality about it which novels do not often possess.”(19)
Aside from her business novels, Riddell’s domestic and Irish fiction was also noted for its realism. The Irish novels such as Maxwell Drewitt (1865), The Earl’s Promise (1873), Berna Boyle (1884) and The Nun’s Curse (1887) exhibit detailed character analyses, and vivid geographical locations which were clearly enhanced by Charlotte Riddell’s intimate knowledge of the area. For example, Maxwell Drewitt and The Nun’s Curse make effective use of the dramatic Connemara and Donegal scenery respectively. The Irish connection was also present in many of the ghost stories. In The Uninhabited House, ‘Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning’ and ‘Conn Kilrea’, leading characters are Irish by birth and they are often utilized to bring some local colour or humour to a tale. A few supernatural tales such as ‘The Last of Squire Ennismore’ and ‘Diarmid Chittock’s Story’ are even located in Ireland. In these instances Charlotte Riddell’s personal knowledge of a locality, evident in her mainstream novels, is utilized to provide an effective setting for the supernatural.
Most of Charlotte Riddell’s most successful ‘domestic’ works are also set in places she knew well. The oscillating financial circumstances of the Riddells necessarily resulted in an almost continual search for a new home. The positive side to this state of flux was that Charlotte was able to gain an intimate knowledge of a new area, which she would later use as a setting in a book. For instance, Alaric Spenceley (1881) describes West Ham, Bromley Marsh and Abbey Marsh as they were when she first arrived in London. In the 1931 study of her work, S.M. Ellis states that one of Charlotte Riddell’s main talents was topographical. He believes she had a special ability to accurately recreate locations, before the ravages of nineteenth-century change meant that they were lost for ever.
Evidently Charlotte Riddell’s ability to imbue real localities with imaginative implications was a useful skill for any novelist to possess. This faculty, apparent in her mainstream works, was also necessary in her ghost stories. For several years in the 1870’s Charlotte and her husband lived at Addlestone, then a quiet village near Weybridge in Surrey. Adjoining her property was the Basingstoke canal and a derelict water mill. She was to make use of the dark trees leaning over the gloomy water for the brooding situation of a ghost in a water-mill as the setting for The Haunted River (1877).
To summarise the main characteristics of Riddell’s non-supernatural fiction it would not be an exaggeration to declare that reality of commercial situation, character and geographical locality were her greatest strengths. Charlotte Riddell, as we shall discover later, was to exploit each of these qualities fully when she applied her gifts to writing ghost stories.
Of all the women writers under discussion Charlotte Riddell is probably the one who came closest to being a specialist in the supernatural genre. For example, in mere quantity she easily outstripped Rhoda Broughton, who only wrote half a dozen short supernatural stories. Although Mary Braddon, Amelia Edwards and Mrs Henry Wood wrote slightly more short ghost stories than Riddell, none of these other authors can match Riddell’s success with the longer ghostly tale. Amelia Edwards only managed to write one fine ghostly novella of c.25, 000 words, but this does not quite match the vividness of her short ghost stories, and the supernatural apparition is extremely brief. Mrs. Henry Wood wrote two supernatural tales each of over 20,000 words relatively late in her writing career, and one long supernatural novel, but only ‘Featherston’s Story’ comes close at matching the quality achieved by Riddell. Mary Braddon, in contrast, did not write any supernatural novellas. She did, however, publish two late novels with supernatural episodes, but these are not considered to be artistically successful. In contrast to the other writers, Charlotte Riddell wrote four highly effective supernatural novellas each of roughly 50,000 words. Her achievements at this greater length can be gauged from the remarks of E.F. Bleiler, who, when reprinting The Uninhabited House, said that Charlotte Riddell was “the Victorian ghost novelist par excellence.”(20)
1. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Supernatural Fiction Writers, New York: Scribner’s, 1985, p.277.
2. Richard Altick, The English Common Reader, University of Chicago: Chicago, 1957, p.395.
3. The Saturday Review, 8/7/1865.
4. The Atheneum, 8/6/1899.
5. The Spectator, 31/8/1889.
6. The Atheneum, 8/6/1899.
7. The Queen, 30/12/1882.
8. The Times, 23/12/1882.
9. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Kent: Kent State University, 1983, p.431.
10. The Times, 28/12/1877.
11. The Saturday Review, 21/12/1878.
12. Fortnightly Review, December 1923, pp.999-1003.
13. Herbert Van Thal (ed.), Weird Stories by Mrs Riddell, London: Home & Van Thal, 1946, p.viii.
14. E.F. Bleiler (ed.), Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs J.H. Riddell, New York: Dover, 1977, p.xxvi.
15. Helen C. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day, Glasgow: D. Bryce, 1893.
16. The Atheneum, 1874, p.373.
17. The Saturday Review, 10/10/1874, p.481.
18. Pall Mall Gazette, 18/2/1890.
19. The Atheneum, 17/3/1860.
20. E.F. Bleiler, (ed.), Five Victorian Ghost Novels, New York: Dover, 1971, p.vi.
Helen C. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day, Glasgow: D. Bryce, 1893.
E.F. Bleiler, ‘Mrs. Riddell, Mid-Victorian Ghosts, and Christmas Annuals’ in The Collected Ghost
Stories of Mrs J.H. Riddell, New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1977.
R.C. Alston, A Checklist of Women Writers: 1801-1900, London: The British Library, 1990.
R.A. Altick, The English Common Reader, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Helen C. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day, Glasgow: D. Bryce, 1893.
R. Blathwayt, “Interview with Mrs. J.H. Riddell”, Pall Mall Gazette, 18 February 1890.
E.F. Bleiler (ed.), The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J.H. Riddell, New York: Dover
Publications Inc, 1977.
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Mrs J.H. Riddell, The Haunted River, London: Chatto and Windus, 1885.
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Hebert Van Thal (ed.), Weird Stories by Mrs J.H. Riddell, London: Home & Van Thal, 1946.
Arthur Waugh, One Man’s Road, London: 1931,
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