Situating the King Sisters within Literary Tradition

Michael Scrivener (Wayne State University)

Although accomplished literary scholars have written about the fiction and poetry of Charlotte (1781/82–1826) and Sophia King (1782–after 1805), the daughters of John “Jew” King (1753–1823; see Endelman), they rarely have read the King sisters in terms of a Jewish tradition of writing. Adriana Craciun, Diane Hoeveler, Lisa Wilson, Ann Jones, and others have written perceptively about Charlotte’s work, only rarely about Sophia, so that at least Charlotte is fairly well known, at least to scholars of the Gothic. The sisters’ work, however, is part of Jewish literature, even though the most obvious and immediate influences of the sisters, especially Charlotte, were on Byron and P. B. Shelley. I will show a circuitous route of connection between the sisters and modern Jewish literature, and I will illustrate the ways their work is meaningfully Jewish.

Philip Roth’s postmodernist playing with his own identity in his fiction with the Zuckerman series and other novels harkens back to Lord Byron’s similar but Romantic playing with his own identity in Childe Harold, Manfred, Don Juan, and other poems. Some critics such as the British-American novelist Benjamin Markovits (2011, 2018) have drawn the connection between Roth (1933–2018) and Byron (1788–1824), and between Byron and the protagonist David Lurie, a secular Jew, in John Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999), a novel that evokes both Roth and Byron. The daughters of John “Jew” King had a deep if rarely acknowledged influence on the noble poet. Charlotte’s Hours of Solitude (1805) led to Byron’s Hours of Idleness (1807), not just in the similarity of titles but in the sentimental and Della Cruscan style of both volumes. Also, the connection between Byron and modern writers like Roth and Coetzee entails a thematic preoccupation with sex that is a primary focus in their work. Roth acquired a notoriety not just for satirizing aspects of contemporary Jewish life, but especially for his representations of sex. While it might seem to some that Roth’s focus on sex is radically new, in fact there is a tradition of Jewish writers preoccupied in similar ways. The King sisters were pioneers in this area. They drew upon not just Mary Robinson (1758–1800) and her theatrical display of her beauty and her use of various pseudonyms, but also the Restoration/early eighteenth-century writing by women like Aphra Behn (1640–89) and Eliza Haywood (1693–1756). Haywood’s Fantomina (1725), whose heroine displays inventive sexual initiative in her pursuit of the man she wants, seems like a precursor of Zofloya (1806) and Charlotte’s other novels. The King sisters’ poetry and fiction are filled with illicit desires and transgressive sexual activity, often by women and from a woman’s perspective. One thinks of Virgina Woolf’s essay “Professions for Women” (1931), where she acknowledges the taboo area of women writing about their authentic desires. Both Charlotte and Sophia wrote extensively about women characters struggling with desires that violated social norms. The young Jewish women deepened a sexual focus in their work rather than disguised it, and they resisted the ascendant prudish norm (for the norm, see Poovey), perhaps because, as socially marginal young women, they could be daring, especially with the example of their father in mind, a Jew who survived and thrived despite hostile public opinion and legal problems. Also they could use the notorious precedent of Lewis’s Monk (1796) to expose the hypocrisy of a sexual double standard. Unlike Byron’s or Roth’s male characters, the Kings’ female characters paid a much heavier price than similar male characters ever paid for similar activities.

Another aspect of Byronism prominent in Roth’s work is theatrical role playing so that the author intentionally suggests a connection, whether true or not, between him and his characters (on theatricality in late-eighteenth century England, see Pascoe). Charlotte was a practiced disguiser and revealer of her own identity and autobiography in her poetry and fiction, using pseudonyms such as Rosa Matilda, to evoke the associations with Matthew Lewis’s villain Rosario, who appears to be a young man, but who is actually a woman named Matilda, who seduces the monk Ambrosio and turns him to the dark side. She further obscured her real identity by using Charlotte Dacre as her “real” name, to which she attached an engraved image of herself on the title page, an image of a pretty dark-haired young woman wearing a close-fitting, low-cut dress. It was not usual for women writers to present themselves to the reading public with a sexy portrait of themselves (Mary Robinson excepted). Byron, in a characteristically High Romantic move, satirizes Charlotte’s poetry and fiction dismissively in British Bards and Scottish Reviewers (1809), as though he himself were not a student of her writing. A note appended to the second edition of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers where “Rosa Matilda” receives fourteen lines (756–64, 926–30) reads as follows:

This lovely little Jessica, the daughter of the noted Jew K[ing], seems to be a follower of the Della Cruscan School, and has published two volumes of very respectable absurdities in rhyme, as times go; besides sundry novels in the style of the first edition of the Monk. (Byron Works 1: 413)

Anyone capable of connecting the dots would realize that Charlotte Dacre, Rosa Matilda, and Charlotte King signified the same individual, the same Jewish woman, the daughter of a man who socialized frequently with William Godwin and who had financial dealings with him as well as Byron and Shelley (Byron Letters 1: 89n1; St. Clair 353 ; Reiman vii; Scrivener, “Philosopher” 241–60). Moreover, Byron is connecting Charlotte to Shakespeare’s Shylock, the most hated Jew in English literature. Also, Byron’s early lyrics so closely resemble those of Charlotte that at least one of her poems was sometimes mistaken for his, namely “The Mountain Violet.” To distance himself from and repudiate a style of poetry he himself practiced and for which he was criticized, Byron scapegoats Rosa Matilda, in what Jerome McGann aptly calls “a typically Romantic act of displacement” ( “‘My brain’” 56).

Charlotte’s first novel is dedicated to Matthew Lewis (1775–1818), author of The Monk, a scandalous novel even in 1806 when Charlotte’s own novel appears. Lewis was compelled to expurgate the first edition of his novel under threat of prosecution for blasphemy and obscenity (Gamer 1046). When Byron indicates that it is the first edition of The Monk to which Rosa Matilda has affinity, he is linking her with a notorious breach of cultural norms. Moreover, Charlotte’s inserting in the title page a print of her attractive physical image provoked at least one reviewer to read it as sexual advertising: “Whether Miss Rosa has other views than that of having her poetry admired we cannot say” (Rev. of Hours 429). With the Hours of Solitude dedicated to a rich, powerful, older, unmarried man—John Penn, M. P. (1760–1834)—and the volume repeatedly reminding the reader of the poet’s youth—twenty-three at the time of publication, and much younger for some of the poems—Charlotte communicates an ambiguous sexualized message. A woman author can present herself to the public in one of several roles: a daughter helping the family (Emma Lyon, Miscellaneous Poems 1812), a mother supporting her children (Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets 1784), a married woman not writing for money but for the public benefit (Anna Barbauld 1790s), a genteel woman writing as a “lady” rather than someone needing money (Jane Austen). Although an unmarried woman who cannot claim financial necessity can claim the status of a Lady, like Jane Austen, Rosa Matilda/Charlotte Dacre is not claiming the Lady status and if she is writing for money, the absence of a protecting father or husband or brother suggests sexual availability. “John Penn” is a patron figure, but he is also a category of man who is neither husband nor family member, hence The British Critic’s reading the book as sexual advertising. Another way to look at Charlotte’s self-fashioning is that it was performing a kind of sexual freedom without hypocrisy, a way to break down the double standard that allowed men wide parameters for pursuing their desires, but prohibited women from doing something similar.

Her younger sister Sophia, who was married by the time she published her second volume of poetry in 1804, establishes a literary lineage like that of her older sister. In the prefatory section of Poems, Legendary, Pathetic and Descriptive, she calls attention to her pseudonym Sappho in the newspapers—thus calling to mind both the Greek poet and Mary Robinson, famous for her sonnet series in Sappho and Phaon (1796), an inspiring role model for Charlotte (Cross 190–218)—and aligns her work with Matthew Lewis’s as well. She describes her poetry thus: ‘Much of this poetry is in the legendary stile. Tales of wonder, and of spectres, have been much in vogue since the poems of Mr. Lewis; and it is hoped therefore that now to offer such to the public, will not be conceived a dereliction from good taste: the fairy world of ghosts, and of magic, offer, without doubt, sublime images in poetry. Amid the horrible, and the extraordinary, the fantastic imagination roves unshackled, free from the more rigid discipline of reason; and perhaps the exuberances of the wildest fancy, may often interest and chain the attention, when the cold, and puerile love-sonnets, and invocations which have deluged the public, may fail of exciting the least notice. (Fortnum) ’ Lewis’s Tales of Wonder (1801), a collection of Gothic verse, and a similar volume, Tales of Terror (1801, 1808), have gotten far less attention than canonical texts like Lyrical Ballads (1798, 1800) because Lewis’s volumes were exclusively Gothic. While there are points of contact between Sophia’s “fantastic imagination” and Wordsworth/Coleridge’s natural supernaturalism, her preference for unrestrained wildness undisciplined by reason has little purchase on the classical tradition, from which her kind of Romanticism is an uncompromising departure. Sophia is using Lewis to authorize a literature repudiating a certain masculine lyricism—the “cold” and “puerile” sonnets. “Cold” suggests lack of passion, and “puerile” suggests immature sexuality. Sophia’s manifesto-like preface uses an emancipatory rhetoric of being liberated from the shackles of “reason” and being able to freely explore the imagination. The Gothic and sentimental literature she celebrates share the virtue of representing areas of experience ordinarily neglected by the neoclassical sensibility shaped by an Oxbridge education.

Sophia wrote another manifesto-like preface in 1801, this time introducing—as Sophia King, with no attempt to conceal her Jewish identity—a piece of Gothic fiction, The Fatal Secret (1801). In this seven-page statement she complains to the public about her undeserved poverty and neglect as a prolific writer of now four novels of meritorious quality; she contrasts her own neglect with the success of William Godwin and Matthew Lewis, who make use of the Gothic conventions associated with Ann Radcliffe and women’s magic; she points to the hypocrisy of decrying the Gothic fiction as unrespectable and morally transgressive, while at the same time it provides two male authors—Godwin and Lewis—an avenue to fame and fortune. She had visited Godwin, one of her father’s friends, several times, usually with her sister, and her mocking tone in discussing him displays her fearless attitude in confronting what she considers a double standard, especially as Godwin’s St. Leon (1799) was somewhat influenced by Sophia’s own novel, Waldorf (1798). The character Berenza in Charlotte’s Zofloya seems to be a satirical attack on Godwin or Godwinism.

She begins the preface comparing herself to Job: “‘May mine enemy write a book,’ exclaimed Job” (Fatal Secret i). She is referencing the section where the tragic biblical hero argues that if he has sinned, then he invites the appropriate punishment, but he is not aware of having committed any transgressions. “Oh that one would hear me! Behold, my desire is, that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book” (King James Bible, Job 31.35). Sophia is comparing her own suffering from literary neglect—poverty, ill treatment by booksellers and reviewers, isolation, wandering, and the threat of prison—to one of the most well-known victims in the Hebrew Bible. The two sisters in their Gothic writing make few Christian references, except ones that are unavoidable in Gothic writing. She figures the writer as “prowling in melancholy solitude” wandering like Cain, with a hateful “mark” that “entails misery” (ii). She compares reviewers to “little animals” who survive by eating remnants in the teeth of crocodiles. Contemptuous of the literary world that has victimized her, and confident of her own worth, feeling she deserves “the civic crown of glory”, this self-assured nineteen-year-old defends the Gothic genre—coming from the “glorious Radcliffe” (iv)—while at the same time exposing the hypocrisy of a culture that loves to read Gothic, which it also abjects as feminine, immoral, and sub-literary. Although men of privilege like Godwin and Lewis can shock public opinion with apparent immunity and achieve “the acme of fame,” a teenaged woman writer is subject to the double standard.

Although sister Sophia does not appear in Byron’s writing by name, I assume he read her work because of her connection with her sister and from his relationship with her father, from whom he borrowed money. The King sisters are unacknowledged influences on an important aspect of Byron’s work, the so-called Byronic hero. Sophia’s 1805 Victor Allen, for example, presents the reader with an anti-hero protagonist, the kind of character that became the norm for Byron’s equivocal heroes in the Eastern Tales (1813–16), Manfred (1816–17), and Don Juan (1819–24). Sophia’s Victor Allen, through whom the novel is focalized, is a bastard and a murderer, but he also provokes the reader’s sympathy as a victim, by being rejected unjustly by his father, long before he had committed any anti-social deeds, and pursued relentlessly by false reports that ruin his reputation, in a way to remind the reader of Godwin’s tragic hero, Caleb Williams, who is tormented by the aristocratic Falkland and his agent Gines (Caleb Williams [1794]). The dark-skinned Victor is both Satanic and a victim of prejudice, a pursuer of revenge, a sexual adventurer, and a thief, but he is also mocked and humiliated as illegitimate, and excluded from any supportive family. He refuses to accept the judgment of a society that hates him, much like Frankenstein’s monster. The trope of the isolated Satanic hero which Byron employed recurrently appears not just in Victor Allen, but explicitly in The Fatal Secret, where the Satanic figure is a woman, the married female protagonist who has adulterous desire for someone who turns out to be Satan after she has killed her sister and tried to kill her husband. Charlotte used this Satanic trope in her Zofloya, where the protagonist Victoria murders her husband and her rival for the man she desires, only to find out that her accomplice and newest object of desire, Zofloya, a dark-skinned Moor, is actually Satan, who destroys her at the novel’s end. Anti-heroes who challenge the reader’s sympathies are common in Roth’s work, as well as Isaac B. Singer’s (1902–91), and in the work of Mendele Moykher Sforim—Mendele the Bookpeddler, whose birth name was Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (1835–1917).

Unlike the cases of Roth, Mendele, or Singer, the question of the King sisters’ Jewishness is not simple because even though both were Sephardic Jews, in their writing the sisters only rarely reference things directly Jewish and in their lives they married non-Jews, possibly (but not necessarily) converting to the Church of England (on the English Sephardim, see Hyamson). Sophia married Charles Fortnum in 1802 when she was about twenty, needing father John King to grant permission because she was a minor, and with sister Charlotte serving as witness. Charlotte married a Christian, Nicholas Byrne, in 1815 when she was about thirty-five, having already had three children with him out of wedlock. Both sisters could have followed their father’s example of marrying a non-Jew without converting (it was difficult but not impossible at the time). John divorced his Jewish wife Sara in 1784, and married the Irish aristocrat Jane Butler, countess of Lanesborough (1737–1828) in 1790. When Charlotte had her three children baptized in 1811, she herself did not get baptized, an omission that indicates a reluctance to leave Judaism. A strong sign of their Jewishness is that Christianity in their literature almost never has any spiritual significance, even in Charlotte’s first novel, Confessions of the Nun of St. Omer (1805). After her father’s death in 1823 Charlotte and her mother contributed to the Sephardic synagogue Bevis Marks to honor John King’s memory, thus indicating her connection with the Jewish community, especially as her contribution of fifty pounds is signed Rachel Charlotte Rey, her birth name (Scrivener, Jewish Representation 137–58). In sister Sophia’s fourth publication, Victim of Friendship (1801), she includes a warm dedication to her father, whom she acknowledges as the only patron who has ever helped her in a substantial way. She explicitly defends John King from his “enemies,” thus publicly aligning herself with an embattled and scandal-ridden Jewish father, arguably the most well-known Jew in England. Charlotte, despite several pseudonyms, was well known as a Jewish woman, especially after Lord Byron outed her in his English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809), as “lovely little Jessica” (Byron Works 1: 413). Jews at the time, as now, had a wide range of positions on their Jewish identity, and intermarrying is at one end of the spectrum. The writing of the King sisters should be considered Anglo-Jewish, regardless of the paucity of explicit Jewish references in the writing itself. A rare instance of a Jewish reference occurs in Victor Allen (1805) where the anti-hero protagonist figures himself not just as Satan but, after he has exacted revenge on his enemies, as the biblical Samson, having just pulled down the pillars on the Philistines (Fortnum II: 152).

The King sisters are not the only Jewish writers who express Jewishness in oblique ways. A modern parallel would be Franz Kafka (1883–1924), one of the most important Jewish writers according to Ruth Wisse in her great book on the modern Jewish canon (20; 66–86). In Wisse’s admirable book there is, however, little on the Gothic and the uncanny, but the King sisters’ work in the Gothic genre is in the Jewish mainstream. So many Jewish authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries write about the uncanny, demons, golems, dybbuks, angels, magic, and Satan: I. L. Peretz (1852–1915), S. Ansky (S. Z. Rappoport 1863–1920), Tony Kushner (Angels in America 1991, The Dybbuk 1997), Michael Chabon (Kavalier and Clay 2000), Isaac Singer (1904–1991), and even the secularist Abraham Cahan (1860–1951), whose David Levinsky (1917) refers frequently to the temptations of Satan. Freud’s great essay on the uncanny (1919) rests on a Jewish tradition of such literature and folklore, even though it focuses explicitly on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tale “The Sandman” (1816). The Gothic permits exploration of psychological depths that usually elude the realist tradition. The Gothic is not escapist but designed to articulate truths that realism cannot express. The uncanny, according to Freud, is “something which ought to have remained hidden but has come to light” as the return of the dead, a haunting, a breach in the wall between imagination and reality (142–45). Moreover, the uncanny and its Gothic expression illustrate the return of the repressed at not just the individual psychological level but also the cultural and political levels (Grumberg 1–33).

There are ways that the King sisters express Jewish themes in their novels and poetry, without naming the Jewishness as such. The main trauma for Sephardim was their expulsion from Iberia and their constrained lives within Iberia as secret Jews who could be exposed and punished at any time by the Inquisition and the political authorities. The Inquisition figures in many of the King sisters’ writing, including Zofloya. By now there is a large body of writing based on years of research on transgenerational trauma experienced by Jews and other victims of violence and persecution (Schwab 2010). One should take for granted that the sisters absorbed the Iberian trauma while they were growing up. In Zofloya, for example, the action of the novel starts in the late fifteenth century—when Iberia’s Jews were expelled—in Venice, Italy—where many Sephardim escaped to. Venice of course is where the most despised Jew in English literature, Shylock, resided. Within the first few pages we learn that the aristocratic rule of Venice entails strict authoritarianism, including secret trials, torture, and public executions of people suspected of subversive opinion (ch. 1). The Loredani family experiences a chain of disasters from outside their community, namely from a German Baron who seduces the mother and breaks up the family. (The name Loredani suggests Charlotte’s mother’s family, the Laras, as well as Radcliffe’s wicked Signora di Laurentini of Mysteries of Udolpho [1794]). Count Ardolf acquired his “depravity” in England and France (ch. 2). Long before the reader meets a real “demon” in the person of Zofloya, Ardolf is called one (ch. 2), showing the reader that the supernatural is an intensification of human qualities, not something utterly remote. The adulterous mother Laurina is called an “apostate,” a word ordinarily used in a religious context (ch. 4). The unquestionable Gothic villain is Ardolf, but Laurina’s moral status is ambiguous, as she is arguably a victim, both conflicted and complicitous. Her outward compliance but inner resistance reflect the tragic experience of Iberia’s hidden Jews, appearing in public one way, living as Jews secretively. Victoria plays the Gothic heroine role in unusual ways, as she is a rebellious daughter, independent minded, capable of escaping her Gothic imprisonment (as Jews escaped Iberia), and she initiates a sexual affair with an older man who thinks he has seduced her, and this man Berenza—some twenty years her senior to the teenager Victoria—is ultimately killed by Victoria when she tires of him and prefers someone else. Victoria is powerful, quite a reversal of the Sephardic (woman’s) historical experience, but compelling as wish-fulfillment.

The other Jewish references are considerable. The slippage between Moor and Jew in this context is fairly obvious, as both are “defeated” people hunted down by Catholic Iberia. Zofloya’s expertise, passed down from ancestors, in herbs, drugs, chemistry and medicine (ch. 18) evokes Jewish stereotypes about magic and sorcery (stereotypes Walter Scott will connect with Rebecca in Ivanhoe [1819]). Blackness aligned with Jewishness is dramatically illustrated with Victoria hating the blonde Lilla, whom Victoria kills with a knife with erotic zeal (ch. 29). The relationship between the Moor Zofloya and Victoria is complex, especially as he enters her consciousness first in the form of a dream, and he later serves as her therapist/analyst/confidant as much as her servant. He seems to be a creation of Victoria’s deepest desires rather than some external demon who has invaded her life. Much of the novel’s action is in Venice, scene of the most famous Jewish representation in English literature. Charlotte herself is a “Jessica,” the Jew’s daughter. Victoria’s rage at Berenza for thinking she was not good enough to marry because of her adulterous mother (ch. 16) is homologous with Jewish anger at anti-Semitic snobbery. The dichotomy of dark Victoria and light Lilla represents an ethnic competition on the level of sexual beauty, which is drawn to the reader’s attention with the striking image in the title page of a dark-haired “Rosa Matilda” who resembles Victoria, but not in any way Lilla.

The novel intriguingly does not correspond to what Anne Mellor calls a female Romanticism accenting women’s self-control and rational restraint to assume leadership in guiding the nation toward nonviolent reform (1993, 2000). Although Zofloya and Charlotte King’s other novels follow in some respects what Mellor calls a masculine Romanticism of unrestrained individualistic rebellion linked with an emancipation of the imagination, Charlotte’s fiction does not follow the didactic model of Wollstonecraft. As Kim Ian Michasiw points out, Charlotte’s writing assumes the stance of neither the “proper lady” nor “didactic maternalism,” two major options women writers take in the Romantic era (vii-xxx).

To conclude, I would like to refer back to the paternal grandfather of Charlotte and Sophia King, Moses Rey (d. 1764), dressed up like a Turkish “Sultan” and supplied coffee-house patrons “from Cornhill to Charing-cross” with “cane-strings, c--d--ms, sealing wax, and bawdy books.” As a boy John King doubled the profits of his North African-born father by selling candy made by his mother (Authentic Memoirs 27–28). I am using this vignette to connect the commercial theatricality of poor Jews who sold goods on the street to literary theatricality. The grandfather’s role-playing to please an audience eager for sweets and sex is not unlike what his literary granddaughters did as writers, who from a Sephardic subject position fashioned Gothic fiction and lyrical poetry for readers eager for sensational literature dealing with sex, violence, magic, the uncanny, and extreme emotions.

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