Riddell, Charlotte (1832–1906)

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Riddell, Charlotte (1832–1906)

Irish-born British novelist and short-story writer. Pronunciation: Riddle. Name variations: (pseudonyms) Mrs. J.H. Riddell; F.G. Trafford; R.V. Sparling; Rainey Hawthorne. Born Charlotte Eliza Cowan in Carrickfergus, County Antrim, Ireland, on September 30, 1832; died in London, England, on September 24, 1906; daughter of James Cowan (a high sheriff) and Ellen (Kilshaw) Cowan; married Joseph Hadley Riddell, in 1857 (died 1880); no children.

Selected writings:

Zuriel's Grandchild (1856); The Ruling Passion (1857); The Moors and the Fens (1858); City and Suburb (1861); George Geith of Fen Court (1864); Home, Sweet Home (1873); Above Suspicion (1876); Weird Stories (1882); Berna Boyle (1882); A Struggle for Fame (1883); Mitre Court (1885); Miss Gascoyne (1887); The Nun's Curse (1888); Idle Tales (1888); The Head of the Firm (1892); The Banshee's Warning (1894).

Known in Victorian England as the "Novelist of the City" for her books about the financial and business worlds, and best known to modern readers as an exemplar of the Victorian-era ghost story, Charlotte Riddell was born Charlotte Cowan in a small town in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1832. Her father James Cowan served as the county's high sheriff, and Riddell grew up in quite comfortable circumstances, receiving a suitable education and reportedly writing a full novel by the age of 15. Her father's death when she was around 21 reduced her and her mother Ellen Kilshaw Cowan to straitened circumstances. Within a few years they decided to move to London, for Riddell hoped to earn her living as a writer, one of the few semi-respectable professions open to women at the time. They arrived in London in the mid-1850s, and found life there hard and money short.

Riddell's first two novels were long thought to have been lost, but finally were identified as Zuriel's Grandchild (1856), under the pseudonym R.V. Sparling, and The Ruling Passion (1857), under the pseudonym Rainey Hawthorne. It seems likely she earned little money from them, and her mother died of cancer around 1857. Shortly thereafter, Riddell was married to a civil engineer, Joseph Hadley Riddell, whose poor head for business meant that she ended up supporting them both with her writing, and keeping to a punishing schedule to pay off the debts he incurred. Her third novel, The Moors and the Fens (1858), under the pseudonym F.G. Trafford, finally brought some success, and she continued to publish under this pseudonym until 1866.

Despite its personal drawbacks, Riddell's marriage was important to her writing, for it was through Joseph that she gained many details of life in "the City," as the financial heart of London is known. She put this information to use in many of her most popular novels, including City and Suburb (1861), Mitre Court (1885) and The Head of the Firm (1892). It also formed the background for her breakthrough, and most successful, novel, published in 1864. George Geith of Fen Court, the story of a cleric who leaves his wife, his congregation, and the religious life to become an accountant in the City, went through several editions, and was adapted into a play that was popular on the stage through the 1880s.

Riddell's work found a ready audience for nearly a quarter of a century after the publication of George Geith. She began publishing as Mrs. J.H. Riddell in 1866, and over the course of her career wrote some 46 novels (some anonymous ones may have yet to be discovered). Considered among the best of these which do not focus on the financial world are Home, Sweet Home (1873), Miss Gascoyne (1887), and The Nun's Curse (1888). A Struggle for Fame (1883) was said to have been autobiographical, focusing on her own struggle to become a successful writer; Berna Boyle (1882) was one of her rare novels set in her native Ireland; and Above Suspicion (1876) was a "sensation" novel (at one time, Riddell was almost as popular asMary Elizabeth Braddon , author of Lady Audley's Secret, the sensation novel par excellence). She also edited Home Magazine and Anna Maria Hall 's St. James's Magazine for several years in the 1860s, and contributed regularly to periodicals and Christmas annuals.

Riddell published a number of short stories, and it is for her ghost stories that she is now primarily remembered and read. (She also wrote four novels with supernatural themes, Fairy Water [1873], The Uninhabited House [1874], The Haunted River [1877], and The Disappearance of Mr. Jeremiah Redworth [1878], but these have rarely been republished and currently are all but unavailable.) She published ghost stories in the popular Christmas annuals, and released three collections: Weird Stories (1884), Idle Tales (1888), and The Banshee's Warning (1894). Riddell is considered one of the best of the Victorian ghost story writers; some have placed her just below J.S. LeFanu, the acknowledged master of this crowded genre. A number of her stories, including "The Old House in Vauxhall Walk," "Nut Bush Farm," "Diarmid Chittock's Story," "Walnut-Tree House," "Hertford O'Donnell's Warning," and "Forewarned, Forearmed," are now classics, held as standards of the genre and frequently anthologized.

Riddell's husband died in 1880, leaving substantial debts which she paid off with her writing. This became increasingly difficult as her work fell out of fashion beginning in the 1890s, and she grew steadily poorer and began to suffer from ill health. Her poverty was somewhat alleviated after 1901, when she became the first writer to receive a pension from the Society of Authors, but her last years were not spent in comfort. She died of cancer in London in 1906.


Bleiler, E.F. "Introduction," in The Collected Ghost Stories of Mrs. J.H. Riddell. NY: Dover, 1977.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Newmann, Kate, comp. and ed. Dictionary of Ulster Biography. The Institute for Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, 1993.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland