Cordelia, Or a Romance of Real Life
Author: Sophia King Fortnum
Publisher: Minerva Press
Publication Year: 1799
Book Dimensions: 11cm x 18cm
University of Virginia Library Catalog Entry, Sadleir-Black Collection: PZ2.F63 C 1799
In this 1799 gothic novel, a young woman named Cordelia struggles with her father’s abandonment of her family, tries to improve her situation, and is ultimately faced with deceit and tragedy.
Cordelia, or a Romance of Real Life by Sophia King Fortnum is presented in leather binding with a marbled paper cover, giving it an elegant and high-quality appearance. The marbled decoration of the front would have been achieved by hand, using water and oil colors to create a unique design, and shows the care that was taken into the appearance of the book.
The spine is decorated with a few thin horizontal lines and has subtle embellishments surrounding the title, in capital letters, CORDELIA. The book still gives a refined impression, but its age shows with small fractures stemming from a substantial vertical crack down the spine and faded coloring of the cover. The top and bottom right corners of the paper cover appear worn off and torn, which could indicate the possible existence of leather, or another material, corners that came off at one point in its history. The book is 11 by 18 cm and 212 pages in length.
Inside, the pages are yellowed and occasionally darkly spotted on the tops and edges, which is referred to as foxing and is common in paper as it ages. This could possibly be due to oxidization, humidity, or other factors depending on the environments and conditions impacting the paper. The ink in the book is only somewhat faded and still easy to see, but brownish stains blemish many of the pages and one blue stain bleeds through page seven onto eight.
The pages alternate between two lengths and are curled slightly on all edges, leading to pages sticking together as they’re turned. Horizontal folds split the paper into thirds, showing that the paper could have been folded before it was bound in its leather and marbled paper dressings.
Opening the novel, the title is displayed on the second page as Cordelia, or a Romance of Real Life in fanciful font, and on the third page again. The author’s name appears below the title on the third page. Throughout the novel, on the tops of pages, the title is printed as CORDELIA.
The font of the story is prominent, and the lines of text are decently spaced apart. Wide margins, consisting of a larger bottom margin and thinner top margin, also make the text easy to read. As was common in printing at the time, the letter s in Cordelia is usually printed as a “long s,” which appear similar to f, and can cause some confusion for modern readers. Many of the pages feature letters and numbers at the bottoms. These signature marks are meant to indicate to the printer how to fold the pages in the correct order before binding them. Each chapter begins with a quote relevant to the chapter and a word or few words completely capitalized. The text’s format then continues generally uniformly, which fits in with the overall high-quality impression of the book.
Cordelia, or A Romance of Real Life was published in two volumes in 1799 by the Minerva Press and is Sophia King Fortnum’s second novel (Summers 284). Fortnum was born around 1782 to John King and Deborah Lara, though she may have been born earlier and misconstrued her age (Brown et al.). She was of Sephardic Jewish heritage, and her father was a moneylender and radical political actor in England with a notorious career known as the “Jew King” (Brown et al., Baines). Her parents divorced in 1784 or 1785 after her mother took two of the children, possibly including Fortnum, with her to Italy to try to prevent her father’s marriage to the dowager countess of Lanesborough, an English noblewoman, and failed (Brown et al., Endelman). Fortnum and her sister, Charlotte Dacre, author of Zofloya and other gothic novels, published a collection of poetry together dedicated to their father called Trifles of Helicon in 1798 (Brown et al.). Fortnum married Charles Fortnum and began publishing under Sophia Fortnum instead of Sophia King in 1801 (Brown et al.).
Fortnum published other gothic novels throughout her career, as well as poetry. She was the author of Waldorf, or the Dangers of Philosophy, A Philosophical Tale in 1798, The Victim of Friendship in 1800, The Fatal Secret: or, Unknown Warrior. A Romance of the Twelfth Century in 1801, and her final novel, Victor Allen: a Novel in 1802 (Summers 86). Fortnum published much of her poetry in newspapers under the name “Sappho” and published her only verse collection in 1804: Poems, Legendary, Pathetic and Descriptive (Brown et al.). The date of Fortnum’s death after these publications is unknown.
According to Montague Summers’s A Gothic Bibliography, the Minerva Press was owned by William Lane and was the “most famous publishing house which issued Gothic romances” (ix). Cordelia also had a French translation published by C. Chanin in Paris in 1800: Cordelia, ou la Faiblesse Excusable, histoire de la vie telle qu’elle est (Summers 284). A contemporary review of Cordelia by Tobias George Smollett called the novel a “gloomy tale” that was not “very probable in its incidents” or “interesting in its progress” (235–36). Smollett’s review also stated that the novel lacked an “attractive style” and called the “morality… inconsistent with the prevailing ideas of female virtue” (236). Editions of the first and second volumes of Cordelia were published by Gale Nineteenth Century Collections Online in 2017 and are available on Amazon, though the second volume is out of print.
Narrative Point of View
Cordelia, or a Romance of Real Life, is narrated in the first person by its protagonist, Cordelia. Cordelia recounts the events of the story in retrospect, rarely describing specific scenes and often summarizing her own judgements on situations and people to convey what happened. Cordelia goes on tangents about her beliefs and judgements within the text, saying she has “digressed” multiple times after long-winded statements of her opinions (8, 50). The wording of sentences can be lengthy, using many colons, semicolons, and commas, but the language is not overly ornate, and it communicates ideas clearly.
The folly and conceit of this ridiculous couple forcibly excited my contempt; I easily developed the character of Mrs. Milner, whose brain was turned by wits, and pretended Literati. They found that by humouring her caprices, and flattering her ignorance, they should reap considerable advantages from her fortune and connections. Authors and philosophers swarmed at her table like butterflies; they praised her works, drank her wine, and dedicated poems to her. Mrs. Milner was therefore well pleased, and expended her fortune almost wholly among designing parasites, Democrats, and madmen, for I believe few who visited her were exceptions to this rule; as to the little conceited Citizen, he was a particular friend and almost totally governed her. As she was, however, a woman of rank and fortune, she did not meet with her deserved portion of contempt, but was in some measure countenanced by persons of fashion, and vitiated taste: for instance, titled profligates, romantic misses, and antiquated dowagers, who joined in her follies, and attended her levees, believing they by that means improved their manners and understanding. (48–50)
The narration overall emphasizes Cordelia’s opinions and feelings and pays less attention to action and plot. One effect of this style of first-person narration is that there is no objective view of the story or characters. In the above passage, Mrs. Milner’s characterization is completely based on Cordelia’s view of her. Cordelia states that Mrs. Milner “pretended Literati” and people praised her only to gain something from her “rank and fortune,” declaring her own “contempt” for Mrs. Milner (48, 49). She frames Mrs. Milner as untalented and ignorant and others’ praise as insincere, but there is no objective point of view to confirm this. The audience can only rely on Cordelia’s perception of herself and others to judge characters’ intelligence or morality. Throughout Cordelia, Cordelia’s impressions of others guide the framing of the story, and when her impressions prove to be inaccurate, as with Lioni’s character, the effect is unpredictability.
The narrative of Cordelia, or A Romance of Real Life, Volume I is told from the first-person perspective of Cordelia, the protagonist of the story. The novel begins with Cordelia’s rantings and criticisms of people’s disregard of religion and virtue in place of fame and fortune. Cordelia admits to being susceptible to these kinds of romantic notions at one point in her life and begins to tell her backstory. Cordelia’s family consisted of her mother, her sister Rosina, and her brother Collville. Her mother was married early in life to Mr. Arden, Cordelia’s father, but he soon deserted her and their children to be with a woman named Lady Lindern. Mr. Arden and Lady Lindern lived a luxurious life while Mr. Arden’s family was left with no prospects and infrequent visits. Cordelia describes her mother as pale, melancholy, and perpetually in love with Mr. Arden, believing he will return to her someday. She describes herself as “a sort of ringleader” of her siblings, and as the story starts, her father begins to favor her because of her apparent “genius” (20, 22). Cordelia grows to love and respect her father despite his cruel treatment of her family. However, she also becomes more dissatisfied with her situation after seeing how Mr. Arden and Lady Lindern live.
Cordelia and her siblings want to leave England, but because their mother still holds onto hope that Mr. Arden will return to her, she is determined to stay. Cordelia wants to run away, but her mother discovers this and tells her father. Mr. Arden gives Cordelia the opportunity to work for a wealthy writer, Mrs. Milner, and become more involved in society as an attempt to address her unhappiness with her situation. He orders her to hide their familial relation, and she starts to work for Mrs. Milner. She finds Mrs. Milner silly and untalented, but Cordelia does well and begins to interact with more writers, philosophers, and other friends of Mrs. Milner. She becomes more like them, calling herself “vain and ridiculous” in retrospect (54). One day, Cordelia edits one of Mrs. Milner’s essays heavily, and Mrs. Milner finds the rewrite insulting, reprimanding her. Cordelia leaves after this, abandoning the post her father recommended her for. When her father finds this out, he tells her that she has lost his good opinion and is an ungrateful daughter. Cordelia tries to appeal to Lady Lindern’s sympathy and has an outburst about her role in destroying her family. Lady Lindern is offended and tells Mr. Arden. Cordelia receives a letter from her father telling her it is better if they do not see each other, and she loses all hope of bettering her situation.
Cordelia decides to run away and fantasizes about obtaining fame and fortune. With the help of her sister, Rosina, she gets money together and leaves home. She eventually finds somewhere to stay, but her hostess charges her a high price and drains her funds quickly. Throughout this time, she tries to apply for jobs with theater companies but is denied. After many rejections and having to seek the assistance of a family friend, Mrs. Larlston, she gets news that her application to join a theater company was accepted. At her new job, she meets Lucinda, who she is initially wary of but becomes close friends with. Their work for the company is physically demanding and pays very little, and Cordelia remains unhappy with her life. They eventually meet a man named Count Victor Lioni and his younger companion Charles Mandani. Cordelia is suspicious of Lioni but finds Mandani agreeable and develops feelings for him. Lucinda tells Cordelia that Lioni is a childhood friend and later tells her that they have gotten married.
Lucinda, Lioni, Mandani, and Cordelia go on a trip to Italy and Cordelia is unsure of Mandani’s sentiments towards her. Cordelia asks Mandani about Lucinda and Lioni’s marriage and he sees the idea as ridiculous, revealing to Cordelia that Lioni and Lucinda are not married and that Mandani perceives Cordelia to have loose morals. After Cordelia clears the confusion about her morality, Mandani makes it seem like he intends to form a serious union with her. Cordelia confronts Lioni about the lie of his and Lucinda’s marriage, and the Count makes an advance towards her. After Cordelia’s poor response to this, he tells her she and Mandani are his captives. Cordelia sends a letter to Lioni asking him to let her leave, but he refuses and reveals that Mandani is lying to her. Lioni gives Cordelia a pile of papers and letters, which reveal that Mandani is married. According to the letters, Mandani loved Lioni’s sister Olivia, but at sixteen, Olivia took her vows in a convent. Mandani wanted to marry her and convinced her to run off to France with him and elope. Olivia’s guilt over breaking her vows caused her to leave him and move back to a convent. Lioni forgave Mandani, but if Mandani ever forgot Olivia and moved on with another woman, Lioni promised to kill him on behalf of his sister.
Cordelia cannot tell Mandani she knows about his past and marriage, and the Count gives her money to leave and have a life away from Mandani as a gesture of friendship. Cordelia overhears Mandani say that Olivia is dead to him, and he loves only her now, but she knows they cannot be together because of Lioni’s threat. She plans to leave for Switzerland and live in peaceful and comfortable solitude with Lioni’s money, but before she can make it, she encounters armed men who attack her and tie her up. She is confused and terrified but then wakes up in what she thinks is a madhouse. She despairs and adds “shrieks” to the “groans of lunacy,” but “Nature” eventually rescues her by sending her into a “happy insensibility” (212).
Baines, Paul. “Fortnum [nee King], Sophia.” Oxford University Press, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63521.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. “Sophia King: Life & Writing.” Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. <http://orlando.cambridge.org>. 09 November 2021.
Endelman, Todd. “King, John [formerly Jacob Rey].” Oxford University Press, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/67336.
King Fortnum, Sophia. Cordelia, or a Romance of Real Life. London, Minerva Press, 1799.
Smollett, Tobias George. The Critical Review, or, the Annals of Literature. R. Baldwin, London, 1800.
Summers, Montague. A Gothic Bibliography. Russell & Russell, 1964.
Researcher: Aliana Bobé Cummings
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