Vancenza; or The Dangers of Credulity

Announced through creatively worded advertisements that seemed to promise intimate details of her scandalous past, the first edition of Mary Robinson’s Gothic novel, Vancenza; or The Dangers of Credulity, published in 1792, sold out by lunch time on the first day and five more editions quickly followed, making it one of the top-selling novels in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Whilst the public adored the novel – critical reception was mixed – and more recently biographer Paula Byrne dismissed it as a “product of the vogue for Gothic fiction [that] now seems overblown to the point of absurdity”. But can this largely neglected novel be dismissed so easily?

On the frontispiece of Vancenza the epigraph carries the warning: ‘Be wary then: best SAFETY lies in FEAR’. It could be suggested that Robinson is following in the footsteps of Anne Radcliffe who quoted from Hamlet on the title page of A Sicilian Romance (1790) – that she is endowing her novel with cultural authority – positioning herself as a credible writer of Gothic Romances.

However, this ‘textual kidnapping’ as EJ Clery calls it may also serve another purpose as it reminds the reader that Robinson was a once a famous actress who played the role of Ophelia seven times between 1777 and 1779. Secondly, the quotation links Robinson to her scandalous past – especially her seduction by the Prince of Wales. Robinson knows that she can never hide from who she is and what the reader knows about her. Therefore, she uses her notoriety to provide an aura of authenticity to her tale of ‘wronged’ women – positing Vancencza as novel written by a woman who was herself wronged. Finally, the quotation suggests that the novel will have a tragic ending. Linking Elvira to Ophelia – a symbol of frailty and innocence driven to madness and death by patriarchy. A warning for Robinson’s readers that life, even for pure girls, does not always have a happy ending.

Through her characters Madeline Vancenza and her daughter Elvira,  Robinson offers a re-writing of her own life to her readers as an example of the perils of womanhood.  However, Robinson didn’t die of grief or shame, but remained in the public consciousness and courted public approbation.  Therefore, her depiction of the character Madame Montalba, the sexually experienced woman could be seen as another re-writing of herself.   Robinson’s novels are full of versions of herself – extraordinarily beautiful, refined, suffering because of love, domestic tyranny, class prejudice and assaults on her virtue and this novel is no exception.

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1 Comment

  1. Bethany said,

    October 21, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    In your research, have you found much criticism on Vancenza or Angelina? I’ve been looking for scholarly input and have found nothing of substance on either text. I’ve only found vague references on JSTOR and Project Muse; the WorldCat libraries aren’t funneling in much information.

    Thank you.


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