Riddell, Charlotte Eliza Lawson (1832–1906), novelist, was born on 30 September 1832 at the Barn, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim, the youngest daughter of James Cowan, flax and cotton spinner and high sheriff of Antrim, and his English wife Ellen (née Kilshaw). Her father died in 1851 after a long illness. His property was entailed on male relatives, and after living for a time with her mother (who had a small jointure) in reduced circumstances in Dundonald, Co. Down (this period inspired her novel Berna Boyle (1884)), Charlotte left for London with her mother in winter 1855 and embarked on a career as a professional writer.
Her mother died in 1856, and on 24 September 1857 Charlotte married Joseph Hadley Riddell, a civil engineer, of Winson Green House, Staffordshire; they had no children. Joseph Riddell was an inventor of patent stoves who actively sought City backing for his ideas, and participation in these ventures gave Charlotte the knowledge of the mid-Victorian financial world which inspired many of her novels and won for her the reputation of 'the novelist of the Victorian City'. Unfortunately for her, her husband's ventures also dissipated her literary earnings at her most successful period. He went bankrupt in 1871 (Charlotte's 1874 novel Mortomley's estate describes the effects of bankruptcy on a family), and after his death on 20 March 1881 she was left with considerable debts to her husband's relatives, which she paid off despite having no legal obligation to do so. (In A struggle for fame (1884), the husband of the heroine has to support an extended family who are portrayed as complacent, snobbish parasites.) The illustrator Harry Furniss claimed in 1921 that her husband incurred a prison sentence for his financial dealings, but no evidence to support this has emerged and her surviving friends denied it. Charlotte always defended her husband as well meaning and exploited by others.
Her first novel, Zuriel's grandchild (1856), appeared as by R. V. M. Sparling; thereafter, she wrote under the pseudonym F. G. Trafford until, after the success of her novel George Geith of Fen Court (1864), she began to write as Mrs J. H. Riddell, the name by which she is best known. Her novels are typically constructed for Victorian serial publication. George Geith of Fen Court, for example, is divided into fifty-nine short chapters with a brief introduction and conclusion. This model sometimes led to difficulties when Riddell, who typically began with the plot conclusion and worked backwards, ran out of space to resolve the characters' dilemmas and was forced into a hasty round-up (e.g., Berna Boyle (1884)). Her subjects were more radical. For example, the protagonist of George Geith has abandoned the Church of England ministry after a disastrous marriage, becomes a City clerk under a new name, and unwittingly contracts bigamy in the belief that his first wife has died. Riddell's implicit suggestion that it was unjust that Geith should be debarred from divorce and remarriage because he did not immediately separate from his (pregnant) second wife on learning that his first wife was alive was quite radical at the time; until the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1857, divorce had only been obtainable by act of parliament, and the limited, fault-based divorce allowed by the act was opposed in principle by many anglicans. (Riddell was a middle-of-the-road anglican, critical of both evangelical puritanism and anglo-catholic ritualism.)
Riddell was editor and co-proprietor (1868–c.1873) of the St James's Magazine. With its advertisements for foreign stocks, shares and bank notes, this publication is identifiably part of the world of speculative finance she describes with such interest in her novels. According to the 1905 memoirs of Sir Wemyss Reid, Riddell's handling of the magazine's administrative affairs was somewhat slapdash, partly because, in addition to her literary work, she performed secretarial duties for her husband's business.
Riddell became well known as a writer of ghost stories modelled on those of Sheridan Le Fanu (qv), which have retained a lasting reputation. The Le Fanuvian ghost story and the sensation novel (of which she was a noted practitioner) involve protagonists who by sinning have incurred suffering, but who are either victims of circumstance or genuinely, though unavailingly, repentant and thereby attract the reader's sympathy. Riddell is noticeably, though not uniformly, sympathetic to the 'fallen woman' (e.g., the protagonist of Austin Friars (1870), having abandoned her husband and become the mistress of the title character, who subsequently casts her off, nevertheless develops a successful City career and contracts a successful second marriage after her first husband's death). In some of her novels, ostensibly villainous characters are nevertheless the main focus of the reader's attention and thereby attract sympathy; in others (e.g., The nun's curse (1888)), the actions and remarks of secondary characters can be seen as commenting on the central plot with a degree of moral realism that Riddell apparently endorses but is reluctant to voice unequivocally for fear of alienating conventionally minded readers. This concentration on weakness and forgiveness appears to derive from a combination of belief in the protestant emphasis on universal sinfulness and the futility of measuring virtue by external works, and the experience of vulnerability to economic and social fluctuations in an atomised urban society.
The novel A struggle for fame (1883; reprinted by Tramp Press, Dublin, in 2014), which depicts the contrasting careers of two struggling Irish authors in the London literary world, is generally read as semi-autobiographical. Its central character, Glenarva Westley, discovers on her first approach to a London publisher that Irish stories have gone out of fashion, and is obliged to change the setting of her first published novel from the Antrim coast to Yorkshire (which she has never visited). Although the central focus of Riddell's literary life was in London and Middlesex, Irish characters occur in many of her novels; in The head of the firm (1892), a central character is a young London shopkeeper of Irish protestant parentage who is discovered to be an heiress; The footfall of fate (1900) features a vigorous Irish anglican curate working in Middlesex, and the protagonist's dark secret is revealed as a result of her singing the ballad 'Molly Malone' at a party. Four of Riddell's novels have Irish settings (their dates of publication suggest she was capitalising on periods of British interest in Irish affairs), and through them she can be seen as engaging with and commenting on portrayals of Ireland by earlier Irish writers, such as Maria Edgeworth (qv), Thomas Moore (qv) and Charles Lever (qv). Maxwell Drewitt (1865) is a melodrama set in Connemara, in which the ruthless anti-hero combines resentment over his father's disinheritance with genuine ability in reclaiming and developing underused land. The earl's promise (1873) comments implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) on the defects of the Irish land system and the shortcomings of Gladstonian land reform in a plot partly inspired by the struggle between the Donegall (Chichester) and Downshire (Hill) families for political control of the Carrickfergus borough in the 1820s. Berna Boyle (1884) is a regional romance between a heroine of unbending personal integrity and a somewhat shiftless young man who has read too many books by Charles Lever. The nun's curse (1888), set in the Dunfanaghy area of north-west Donegal, combines a gothic narrative of a family curse with an Edgeworthian narrative of the difficulties of improving estate-management, and comments on the Irish land question through thinly veiled references to controversial Donegal landlords, including Lord George Hill (qv) and Lord Leitrim (qv); a character based on Fr James MacFadden (qv) makes a malevolent cameo appearance. Riddell's general view of Ireland appears to have combined admiration for the sterling qualities of the Ulster protestant and belief that the union must be maintained in the absence of any practicable alternative, with awareness that the mid-Victorian project of rapid Irish economic improvement through infusions of free-market values and outside capital had proved overly optimistic; she attributed this both to the legacy of past misgovernment (by feckless aristocrats and negligent Britons) and to the moral failings of the catholic peasantry, and concluded that a lengthy period of slow moral regeneration would be necessary before Ireland could achieve modernity.
In the mid 1880s Riddell developed a close friendship with the post office official Arthur Hamilton Norway (1859–1938), a friend of the Riddell family, who lodged with her (1883–6), accompanied her on tours of the Black Forest (1884) and Donegal (1885) – both written up in due course – and collaborated with her on the anonymous novel The government official (1887). Miss Gascoigne (1885), which portrays a frustrated romantic friendship between a young man and a middle-aged woman, is often read as a comment on their relationship. (Norway was later head of the Irish postal service at the time of the 1916 rising, and was the father of the novelist Nevil Shute (1899–1960).)
Riddell lived in relative seclusion from 1886 at a variety of rented accommodations in the Thames valley and the outer London suburbs. From 1892 she suffered from breast cancer, and derived no benefit from reprints of some of her earlier books because she had sold the copyrights. Her last novel appeared in 1902. In May 1904 she became the first author to receive a pension (as distinct from one-off grants) from the Society of Authors. She died on 24 September 1906 at Hounslow, Middlesex, and was buried at Heston churchyard to a reading of Tennyson's 'Crossing the bar'. Riddell was an enormously prolific writer; Michael Flowers's tribute website lists fifty-five separate titles. The sheer bulk of her work and its deployment of many mid-Victorian plots and conventions tend to deter studies. Close and suspicious reading, with careful regard to the historical context of her writings, reveals an intriguingly ambivalent commentator, more aware of the tensions of Victorian society (not least in regard to economic management and to women's role in society) than is apparent to the casual reader.