Charlotte Riddell

Charlotte Riddell (born Charlotte Eliza Lawson Cowan; also known as Mrs J. H. Riddell; 30 September 1832 – 24 September 1906) was an Irish writer.

Born in Ireland, where her father James Cowan served as the county’s high sheriff, Riddell grew up in quite comfortable circumstances, and was educated at home through private teachers and tutors. Fond of reading and writing, by the age of 15, Charlotte had written a novel. About her formative years, she said to Helen C. Black, in an interview for the book Notable Women Authors of the Day (1893): “I never remember the time when I did not compose. Before I was old enough to hold a pen I used to get my mother to write down my childish ideas and a friend remarked to me quite lately that she distinctly remembers my being discouraged in the habit, as it was feared I might be led into telling untruths. In my very early days I read everything I could lay my hands on, The Koran included, when about eight years old. I thought it most interesting.” About the novel she wrote at 15, she said: “It was on a bright moonlight night—I can see it now flooding the gardens—that I began, and I wrote week after week, never ceasing until it was finished.”

Her father’s death in 1951, when she was around 19, reduced her and her mother Ellen Kilshaw Cowan to finacially straitened circumstances. Four years later, in 1855, they moved to London, where Riddell hoped to earn her living as a writer, an experience which inspired her novel A Struggle for Fame (1883). About the difficult de­cision to leave Ireland, Riddell has stated: “I have often wished 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. (…) Coming as strangers to a strange land, in all London we did not know a single creature. During the first fortnight, indeed, I really thought I should break my heart. I had never taken kindly to new places, and, remembering the sweet hamlet and the loving friends we had 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.”

Life in London was harder than expected, however, and her mother died of cancer the following year, in 1856, when Charlotte was 24. That same year, Riddell published her first book, Zuriel’s Grandchild (1856), under the pseudonym R.V. Sparling, and, the following year, she published a second novel, The Ruling Passion (1857), under the pen name Rainey Hawthorne. In 1857, at 25, she married Joseph Hadley Riddell, a civil engineer. The couple never had children, and, due to her husband’s poor head for business, Riddell ended up supporting them both with her writing.

Riddell’s third novel, The Moors and the Fens, was published in 1858, one year after her marriage, under the pseudonym F. G. Trafford. It sold well and brought her some success. She never stopped publishing. In 1863, dissatisfied with the terms given by her publisher Charles Skeet, Charlotte signed with a new publisher, the Tinsley Brothers, who were publishing many of the successful sensational novels of the 1860’s. She earned an expressive amount for her books, but her husband threw all her money away on bad business investments.

When he died, in 1880, he left substantial debts which she had to pay off with her writing. This would become one of the topics of her fiction, and some of her most successful books, such as City and Suburb (1861), Mitre Court (1885) and The Head of the Firm (1892), dealt with business, debts, loans, finance, court battles, and financial frauds.  About the topic, Riddell said: “you could take no better guide than myself; but alas! many of the old landmarks are now pulled down. 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 objected to my choice of subject, which he said was one no woman could handle well.” She was known in Victorian England as the “Novelist of the City” for her books about the financial and business worlds.

Between 1858 and 1902, Riddell went on to publish over fifty volumes of fiction, including forty novels, shorty story collections, children’s stories, travel books, and essays. She continued to conceal her authorship until 1866, when she finally began publishing under her married name, as Mrs. J.H. Riddell. From 1867 onwards, Riddell became part-owner and editor of St. James’s Magazine, a prominent London literary journal created in 1961 by Mrs. S. C. Hall (pen name of Anna Maria Hall). In the 1860’s, Riddell also edited the magazine Home, and wrote short tales for the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and Routledge’s Christmas annuals.

She published a sensation novel, Above Suspicion (1876), and was considered almost as popular as Mary Elizabeth Braddon. As many women authors of ther time, Riddell also wrote novels and novellas with supernatural themes, such as Fairy Water (1873), The Uninhabited House (1874), The Haunted River (1877). One of her most famous novellas, The Uninhabited House, is a ghost story which deals with financial panic and court battles. The narrator is a poor clerk in a law firm whose job security hinges on finding tenants for a haunted house. Riddell was also prominent as a writer of ghost stories, such as “The Open Door” (a classic Victorian examination of class, wealth, and character), and she released three collections in this genre: Weird Stories (1884), Idle Tales (1888), and The Banshee’s Warning (1894). A number of her ghost stories are now frequently anthologized classics.

At the age of 51, Riddell defied social convention and became the companion of Arthur Hamilton Norway, a younger man with whom she lived for several years. They travelled to Germany and Ireland together. In 1889, their relationship ended, and she started to live in seclusion and in poverty, as her work fell out of fashion. In 1901, she became the first writer to receive a pension from the Society of Authors, receiving a pension of £60 a year.

Charlotte Riddell died from cancer on 24 September 1906, at 73. She was one of the most popular and influential writers of the Victorian period, but died in poverty and almost forgotten. James L. Campbell wrote about her: “Next to Le Fanu, Riddell is the best writer of supernatural tales in the Victorian era.”

Books

Novels

  • Zuriel’s Grandchild (1856)
  • The Ruling Passion (1857)
  • The Moors and the Fens (1857)
  • The Rich Husband (1858)
  • Too Much Alone(1860)
  • City and Suburb(1861)
  • The World in Church(1862)
  • George Geith of Fen Court(1864)
  • Maxwell Drewitt(1865)
  • Phemie Keller(1866)
  • The Race for Wealth(1866)
  • Far Above Rubies(1867)
  • My First Love(1869)
  • Austin Friars(1870)
  • Long Ago(1870)
  • A Life’s Assize(1871)
  • How to Spend a Month in Ireland(1872)
  • The Earl’s Promise(1873)
  • Home, Sweet Home(1873)
  • Fairy Water(1873)
  • Mortomley’s Estate(1874)
  • The Haunted House at Latchford(aka Fairy Water) (1872)
  • The Uninhabited House(1875)
  • Above Suspicion(1876)
  • The Haunted River(1877)
  • Her Mother’s Darling(1877)
  • The Disappearance of Jeremiah Redworth(1878)
  • Maxwell Drewitt(1879)
  • The Mystery in Palace Gardens(1880)
  • Alaric Spenceley(1881)
  • The Senior Partner(1881)
  • A Struggle for Fame (1883)
  • Susan Drummond(1884)
  • Berna Boyle: A Love Story of the County Down(1884)
  • Mitre Court(1885)
  • The Government Official(1887)
  • The Nun’s Curse(1888)
  • Head of the Firm(1892)
  • Daisies and Buttercups(c. 1900)

Collections

  • Frank Sinclair’s Wife: And Other Stories(1874)
  • Weird Stories(1882)
  • Idle Tales(1887)
  • Princess Sunshine: And Other Stories(1889)
  • Handsome Phil: And Other Stories(1899)
  • The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs J. H. Riddell(1977)

Anthologies containing Riddell stories

  • The 7th Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories(1971)
  • Victorian Tales of Terror(1972)
  • The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women(1977)
  • Gaslit Nightmares(1988)
  • 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories(1992)
  • The Mammoth Book of Haunted House Stories(2000)

Short stories

  • “Banshee’s Warning” (1867)
  • “A Strange Christmas Game” (1868)
  • “Forewarned, Forearmed” (1874)
  • “Hertford O’Donnell’s Warning” (1874)
  • “Nut Bush Farm” (1882)
  • “The Old House in Vauxhall Walk” (1882)
  • “Old Mrs Jones” (1882)
  • ‘”The Open Door” (1882)
  • “Sandy the Tinker” (1882)
  • “Walnut-Tree House” (1882)
  • “The Last of Squire Ennismore” (1888)
  • “A Terrible Vengeance” (1889)
  • “Why Dr Cray Left Southam” (1889)
  • “Conn Kilrea” (1899)
  • “The Rusty Sword” (1893)
  • “Diarmid Chittock’s Story” (1899)
  • “Handsome Phil” (1899)

About her

  • “Mrs. J. H. Riddell”, by  J. L. Campbell, in  Supernatural Fiction Writers , edited by E. F. Bleiler (1985)
  • “Riddell, Charlotte Eliza Lawson”, by Elizabeth Lee, in Dictionary of National Biography (1912)
  • «Charlotte Riddell’s a struggle for fame: myths of authorship, facts of the market», edited by Linda H. Peterson, Women’s Writing, 04 Jan 2007, pp. 99 – 116
  • Charlotte Riddell’s city novels and Victorian business: narrating capitalism, by Silvana Colella (2016)
  • Supernatural Fiction Writers: Contemporary Fantasy and Horror, by Richard Bleiler (2002)
  • The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers, by Joanne Shattock (1993)
  • “Introduction”, by E. F. Bleiler, in The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J.H. Riddell (1977)
  • “The ‘Uncomfortable Houses’ of Charlotte Riddell and Margaret Oliphant”, by Melissa Edmundson, in Gothic Studies, Volume 12 Issue 1, pp. 51-67, 2018.
  • Notable Women Authors of the Day, by Helen C. Black (1893)
  • “Interview with Mrs. J.H. Riddell”, by R. Blathwayt, in Pall Mall Gazette, 18 February 1890.
  • Wilke Collins, Le Fanu and Others by S. M Ellis (1934)
  • A Struggle For Fame: Victorian Women Artists & Authors, by Susan P. Casteras & Linda H. Peterson (1994)
  • Becoming a Woman of Letters: Myths of Authorship and Facts of the Victorian Market, by Linda H. Peterson (2009)
  • The Common Writer: Life in Nineteenth Century Grubb Street, by Nigel Cross ( 1985)
  • ‘Introduction’, by Richard Dalby, in The Haunted River & Three Other Ghostly Novellas by Mrs J.H. Riddell (2001)
  • “Charlotte Eliza Lawson Riddell”, by Andrew Maunder, in Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers edited by Abigail Bloom (2000)
  • “Mrs Riddell and the Reviewers: A Case Study in Victorian Popular Fiction”, by Patricia Thomas Srebrnik, Women’s Studies, 23 (1994), pp. 69-84
  • Nineteenth-Century Fiction: A Bibliographical Catalogue, 5 vols, by Robert Lee (1981-6)
  • “Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame: The Field of Women’s Literary Production”, by Margaret Kelleher, Colby Quarterly 36.2 (2000): 119.
  • “A Chat with Mrs. J.H. Riddell”, by Raymond Blathwayt, Pall Mall Gazette, 18 Feb. 1890: 3.

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