.S. M. Ellis's long chapter on Charlotte Riddell quotes from many of her letters and books, describes some of her various homes in detail, and is accompanied by a long and useful bibliography. The following excerpts have been chosen to give the outline and flavour of her life. One notable omission is the part in which Ellis presents a defence of her husband's questionable financial dealings (287-88). Page numbers are given in square brackets. — Jacqueline Banerjee.

Early days

Decorated initial C

harlotte Elizabeth Lawson Cowan was the youngest daughter of James Cowan, of Carrickfergus, High Sheriff for the county of Antrim, but her mother, Ellen Kilshaw, was English. Her paternal grandfather was in the Navy, and a great-grandfather fought at Culloden on the right side, so she mixed the blood of the three kingdoms.... [She] was born on September the 30th, 1832, at The Barn, Carrickfergus.... The happy home life at Carrickfergus all too soon came to an end. Mr. Cowan died when his daughter was scarcely of age, and, owing to reasons connected with the family estate which have not transpired, Charlotte and her mother were at once reduced from comfort, if not affluence, to very limited means — in fact, merely the amount of Mrs. Cowan's jointure. They had to depart from the pleasant house and gardens, and went to live at Dundonald, in the adjoining county of Down.... Mrs. Riddell dealt with various aspects and traditions of her native land.

But, for the greater part of her work, Charlotte Cowan was destined by Fate to be the pre-eminent novelist of far-distant and entirely different scenes — the City of London and its nearer suburbs, and to find her inspiration in old City mansions and courts and the melancholy but attractive scenery of Middlesex and the Thames Valley. In after years Mrs. Riddell realised that it was all for the best, in the sense of her future literary career, that she had removed, when still a young girl, with her mother from Ireland, though it was with grief at the time that the decision was made to leave Dundonald....

The London years

Charlotte Riddell in a double-page spread of 24 "Novelists of the Day" (six of them women) in a supplement to the Graphic of 29 September 1888, kindly supplied by William Joy of the Peggy Joy Egyptology Library, Michigan.

Thus it was, she arrived in London — the City she was to learn to love and interpret with that rare sympathy which is only acquired by personal sorrow leading to understanding — friendless and unknown, conscious of literary gifts the did not know how to utilise, but burning with anxiety to earn sufficient to keep a mother, dying from cancer, in necessary comfort. Her manuscripts, unsupported by any recommendation or introduction, were rejected again and again by unperceptive publishers —as will be case with future famous authors and other publishers until the end of Time. The desolation and pain and devastation of this period were deeply [271/72] etched on Mrs. Riddell’s sensitive nature, and were the cause of much of the sadness that found a wistful echo in her books. So the weary trail to publishers’ offices went on "o’er moor and fen" of the stony book-world — little wonder that she called one of her earliest books The Moors and the Fens, for it was written amid "encircling gloom" when she was about to lose a face she had "loved long since." lasting success was at hand when, in 1856, The Moors and the Fens was accepted by a leading firm, Smith, Elder, the publishers of Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë. Following the example of the Brontë sisters and that of another popular author whose works were published by this firm, Harriet Parr — "Holme Lee" — Charlotte Cowan adopted the nom-de-plume of "F. G. Trafford." By a cruel blow of Fate, Mrs. Cowan died at Christmastide, 1856, long before The Moors and the Fens appeared in 1857-8, and the sorrowing daughter devoted the first cheque, £20, she received from this work to a memorial for the mother she had loved so dearly... [273/74].

Charlotte Cowan was now alone and, after the struggle, was on the threshold of fame. Much of the story of these sad days she afterwards told in A Struggle for Fame (1883). She was not destined, happily, to be alone for long, for in 1857, at the age of twenty-five, she married Joseph Hadley Riddell, of Winsor Green House, Stafforshire, but he, being professionally a civil engineer, was generally resident in London. Mrs. Riddell’s first home as a wife was in the City, in Scott’s Court, Cannon Street, demolished when the railway station and hotel of the latter name were built in 1866. It was a typical bit of old London — a sombre Court containing a few trees, a few houses where of yore had dwelt Lae tie citizens, and a melancholy burial ground—probably the graveyard of the now demolished church of All Hallows the Great — where, mouldering, they occupied their final home. Without doubt, Mrs. Riddell’s plastic and imagi- native mind thus carly took the impression of the grim fascination of such a spot, for again and again in her books she returned to picture a scene of this kind — a great gloomy house o’er-hung by trees, and the relentless rain falling alike on the quick and the dead .... [274/75]

It was owing to her residence in Scott’s Court that she acquired that peculiar knowledge of the City of London and City life which brought her success and fame when presented in her City novels, We Two Alone, City and Suburb, George Geith of Fen Court, The Race for Wealth, The Senior Partner, Mitre Court, The Head of the Firm, and others, despite the fact that at first her publishers did not at all like this choice of subject by a young Irish writer. With the topography of the City she became intimately acquainted, [275/76] and knew every court, winding lane, and historical building ....

The Rich Husband is apparently the earliest of Mrs. Riddell’s literary efforts that survives, for it was commenced soon after her arrival in London. The scenes in Wales she saw in the course of the journey from Ireland, while in the character of Alice Crepton she depicted her own painful struggles in London to get her stories accepted and how she wrote through the night hours with Death about to summon her mother.


In April of [1868] she became editor and part-proprictor of the St. James Magazine, and the Struggle for Fame (but not wealth and happiness) was won. For she was now a power and influence in the literary world, and humble aspirants to that realm of mingled joy and bitterness sought entrance to her salon at St. John’s Lodge, Tottenham, and at Leyton, where it would seem she was living in 1873-1875. It was then a charming rural district in the midst of cornfields, for though, to the south, lay the dreary wastes of Stratford and to the west the great expanse of Hackney Marsh, so impressive as the sun sets and the mists rise to veil the last ang gleams of a brick-red sky, to the north and east stretched the lovely woodlands of Epping [285/86] Forest. Mrs. Riddell described the scenery of this district again and again in her books.

Money troubles

Mr Riddell [288/89] died in 1880 — "Suddenly and unexpectedly, the end came, and the crowning sorrow of a much-tried life was laid upon the devoted wife when death claimed her gifted husband." It was a sorrow which was ever keen in her remembrance. Her financial troubles only increased with the death of Mr. Riddell, for quixotically and without any legal obligation, she took upon herself to pay off liabilities due to her late husband’s relatives. For many years she struggled valiantly to cancel the debt of honour, and succeeded — by crippling herself financially, for she paid away money necessary for ordinary comfort in her later years when her books were no longer highly remunerative. As Mr. Norway so truly says: "Her embarrassments were not of her own creating — in no degree — for she was simple in her mode of life and pence only to others. She grew poorer and poorer, but lived to discharge fully and honorably the liabilities assumed to her husband’s people. She was always brave, humorous and cheerful, contemptuous of parade or insincerity, a very warm true friend, wiser for others than for herself, since she would have counselled any other person, out of her rich ience, to reject the burdens which she assumed and which crushed her."

After the financial crash, when great retrenchments became necessary, Mrs. Riddell resolved to leave the pleasant northern suburbs, where she had held a literary court since the success of George Geith ten years earlier, and settle in quite another district. She decided upon the then quiet and remote village of Addlestone, near Weybridge, in Surrey. She took, in 1875, an old- fashioned house, Raglan House, whose surroundings, rather melancholy and most remarkably aquatic, were exactly what she liked.... [289/90]

Riddell's ghost stories

Weird Stories comprise some of the best ghost tales ever written. There is real terror in "The Open Door," while "Nut Bush Farm" achieves the difficult success of a supernatural appearance in the open air, for the usual mise en scéne of a ghost requires an oak-panclled chamber, or tapestry, long corridor, or wide staircase with oricl window. As may be supposed, Mrs. Riddell was an admirable verbal raconteur of ghostly tales around the fireside, for she told such stories with all the added wealth of her Irish imaginativeness and sense of drama and humour. She loved the Christmas season, and there is a passage in George Geith lyrical of Christmas joys that rivals Dickens in the same vein — picturing one of those good, comfortable, Leech-ian Yule-tides of the Mid-Victorian time....[295/96]

During the years in South Lambeth Road, Mrs. Riddell wrote many excellent stories — The Mystery in Palace Gardens (1880), which she liked best of her many books ; The Senior Partner (1881); Daisies and Buttercups (1882); [296/97] Three Wizards and a Witch (1883); A Struggle for Fame (1883); Berna Boyle (1884); and Mitre Court (1885). She had disagreed with Tinsley and the books of this iod were mainly published by the famous house of entley, which had by now long repented former refusals of her work. Time brings its revenges.

Method of writing

Mr. Richard Bentley, the sccond, has told me of Mrs. Riddell’s curious method of writing a novel, On one occasion he asked her how she was progressing with a story his firm was to publish. "It is finished," she replied. "Good," said Mr. Bentley, "then may we have the manuscript to-morrow?" "Oh, NO!" returned Mrs. Riddell; "what I meant was that the tale is completed in my head, to the last conversation; but I have now to write it down on paper, and that will take a considerable time." So great was Mrs. Riddell’s power of concentration and memory, and control of her material, that she invariably composed the end of her stories first. The situations and chatacters of her books were, as I have demonstrated, often drawn direct from actual places and people. At other times the influences were unconscious. he ever obsetved things closely; then later on, when between the border land of sleeping and waking, scenes, people, words, that she had noticed seemed to be photographed on her brain; sentences formed themselves, together with vivid episodes, and in the morning she was able to reproduce and detail them in her narratives. According to another of her publishers, Mr. Edmund Downey, she wrote very slowly, and said that she would like to take two years over a book. Her motto was slow but sure, and her stories were written with infinite care. So were the books of her contemporaries, the women novelists of her school, Miss Braddon, Rhoda Broughton, ‘Holme Lee,’ Mrs. Alexander, Mrs. Hungerford, Florence Marryat, and many others, for all were ladies of culture and knowledge, with the result that novels of this class were of far higher merit and interest than those of the present day which [297/98] are often the product of young misses ignorant alike of the world and literature, but who can turn out a serial of a typist’s love idyll for The Daily Shock in less than six weeks.

Later life

Charlotte Riddell in later life.
Source: Black, facing p.11.

After her husband’s death in 1880, Mrs. Riddell’s life was a sad and lonely one, and none too prosperous, for though her books were still selling well, she did not find writing lucrative despite, or owing to, the fact, in her own words, that "I must put as much good as I have in me into my books""; and as already related, there was a quixotic and heavy drain on her financial resources. Things were more cheerful for her when, in 1883, a family friend, Mr. Arthur Hamilton Norway, then a young man of twenty-three, occupied rooms in her house after he came to London to take up an appointment in the Sectetariat of the Post Office! She always had a profound sympathy with young men alone in London and with their way to make in the world, Mr. Norway remained with her for three years; in 1884, at a time when Mrs, Riddell was badly over-worked and worried, and sadly in need of a change, he persuaded her to go off with him on a sudden trip to Germany and through the Black Forest. Their adventures abroad she fully and amusingly described in a book entitled A Mad Tour, or a Journey undertaken in an insane moment through Central Europe on foot (1891), wherein it may safely be concluded Mr. Norway figures as "Bobby." He also went with Mrs. Riddell to Ireland in 1885, when they visited Londonderry, and on to Donegal and Horn Head — scenes she described in The Nun's Curse (1888).... [298/99] it was in this year, 1885, that Mrs. Riddell, with Mr. Norway, removed from South Lambeth Road to The Cottage (now known as Old Farm Cottage) at Upper Halliford, near Shepperton, for she had resolved to return to the Middlesex river scenery that she loved better than the most magnificent prospects other parts of the world could offer. Here, from the upper windows of the cottage, she looked across her large meadow to a wide expanse of flat green country bounded by the distant heights of the enchanted land of Windsor Forest. The Cottage, covered with trellis work, clustering white roses and clematis, was a delightful old-fashioned place with low-ceiled rooms leading onc from the other, quaint cupboards, and odd little steps cropping up in the most unexpected situations....

It was probably in 1892 that Mrs. Riddell became aware that she was the victim of the same terrible disease, cancer, which had killed her mother in the far back years of her early literary struggle. Henceforth she was a sad and lonely woman, for with the acute sensitiveness of her imaginative temperament she shrank from any observation or discussion of the malady that threatened her. The symptoms were kept in check for some years by [315/16] means of drugs, but the gloom and depression of the future made her restless and unable to sale long in any one place. So it was she decided to bring to a close the plessant years in Halliford, a period which had certainly been one of the happiest of her not too happy life....

In February, 1893, she moved to her new home, The Elms, at Harlington, in her favourite county of Middlesex of course... [317]

She was getting poorer and poorer as her health declined, for though the remuneration for her books became less and less, her voluntary payments in settlement of claims against her late husband’s estate continued with quixotic regularity until the debt of honour was wiped out. But she was now often suffering pain, ever to a greater extent, as her terrible malady gained ground.....[319]

The closing scene

The end came on September 24th, 1906, a few days before her seventy-fourth birthday. She was buried on the west side of the churchyard of Heston, which was then still a village church, filled with the monuments of the Jersey family of Osterley Park. The service was taken by Mrs. Riddell’s friend, the Rev. Richard Free (now Vicar of St. Clement’s, Fulham). Tennyson’s "Crossing the Bar" was read at the graveside. The simple stone bears the words: "Charlotte, widow of J. H. Riddell, Esq., Born 30th Sept. 1832. Died 24th Sept. 1906. Author of George Geith, The Senior Partner, and [322/23 many other novels." It will be observed that there is no text. As she was a woman who had a deep sense of religion, knew her Bible exceedingly well, and went to church frequently, if not regularly, the omission cannot have been due to indifference or accident. It may be concluded that in a moment of wracking pain and extreme weariness towards the end, realising the futility and falsity of words proclaiming peace aad comfort and joy, she impatiently gave the direction, "Let there be no texts above my grave." There was no occasion to proclaim publicly what her beliefs or future hopes might be, and that she was one who had sorrowed and suffered yery pitifully was, and is, well known to her friends. She would he satistied to be remembered just for her books, and it is fitting that the resting place for her body should be in the Middlesex she loved so well and so admirably described.


[Illustration source] Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches. Glasgow. D.Bryce & Son, 1893. Internet Archive. Contributed by Trent University. Web. 1 June 2021.

Ellis, S. M. Wilkie Collins, Le Fanu and Others. London: Constable, 1931. 266ff. Internet Archive. Contributed by the Digital Library of India. Web. 1 June 2021.

Last modified24 June 2021