“Freed from the Curse”: Elizabeth Gaskell

By the time this column is posted to the blog, Halloween will have come and gone. But the gray skies and bare tree limbs of November will still evoke the haunting time of year where the spooky and the creepy seem so close at hand. In honor of fall, today I’m looking at a gothic story by Elizabeth Gaskell, “The Poor Clare.” Despite the innocent title (referencing an order of nuns), the story is about an evil curse.

Writing in nineteenth-century England, Gaskell was known for her social activism. Today, we probably know her best for the BBC miniseries of her novels, especially North & South. In North & South, Gaskell heavily criticizes the industrial revolution’s mistreatment of the English worker, examining unionization and strikes while her heroine falls in love with and reforms a mill owner.

As you can tell from that description, Gaskell does not abandon many of the feminine and generic conventions of her time. However, she does use those conventions to examine how powerful men manipulate and abuse their privilege. In “The Poor Clare,” Gaskell depends on staples of the gothic genre, a literary form popular in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to question the lingering aftermath of patriarchal violence.

“The Poor Clare” is narrated by a man who falls in love with the granddaughter of Bridget Fitzgerald, a strange and stubborn old lady who continually mourns a daughter who ran away from home. For most of the story, of course, Bridget does not know of the existence of her granddaughter and it is the narrator who brings the disparate story lines of these two women together. The granddaughter, Lucy, is burdened with a terrible curse. She is shadowed by an evil twin, a ghostly form of herself who imitates her in look and gesture but lacks Lucy’s innate goodness. When this spirit appears, friends and suitors are usually driven away—but our narrator is determined to remove her curse. Once all of the pieces of this mystery are connected, we understand that the curse is that of Bridget, who unknowingly placed it on Lucy’s father, who shot Bridget’s dog in a random rage, the dog being the only reminder Bridget had of her missing daughter…

What?

True to gothic form, the family connections in this story are a bit twisty, though not as explicitly incestuous as in many similar tales.

What we need to know for now is that a wealthy gentlemen named Gisborne (has there ever been a good Gisborne in English stories?) convinces Bridget’s daughter Mary to run away with him while she is working abroad. He fails to do right by her and, after the birth of their daughter, Mary throws herself in a river. Many years later, Gisborne goes hunting on the same property where Bridget’s cottage is located. Frustrated by lack of game, Gisborne is in a “black humour” and he shoots at Bridget’s dog, “[p]artly for wantonness, partly to vent his spleen upon some living creature.” The act is cruel, the outburst of a privileged and rich man who views the world and the humans and animals around him as subject to his moods. Lucy has heard similar stories of her father, that he is an “angry man” and “very reckless.” However, both she and the narrator attempt to sanitize this narrative. Lucy claims, at first, that he never acted inappropriately towards her and the narrator explains that “those who knew him well, used to say he had a good heart.” The text, however, pokes at this attempt, reflective of society, to redeem cruel men. The narrator is forced to modify his description with “when he was neither drunk, nor angry, nor in any way vexed.” The list is somewhat exhaustive and condemns Gisborne even when the narrator and Lucy seem reluctant to do so.

When Bridget finds that her dog is shot, she promises Gisborne that he will see the person he loves most “become a terror and a loathing to all.” Consequently, Lucy acquires an evil spirit and is accidentally condemned by her grandmother. It is ultimately, though, due to the violence of her own father, that she is so haunted. And the system accuses Bridget of witchcraft rather than properly condemning Gisborne’s behavior. The charge of witchcraft, if formally brought, carried a significant threat with it and so Bridget lives in a precarious social situation as a result of her unwillingness to conform. And she has little cause to conform. Her own past marriage is hinted to have been “unhappy” and her curse on Gisborne “unwittingly banned him for a deeper guilt than that of killing a dumb beast.” He was, after all, abusive to both Mary and their daughter Lucy.

Ironically, in one way, it is the curse that saves Lucy from her father’s violence. Gisborne is approaching her with a riding whip, intent on beating her, when her evil twin first appears and frightens her father away: “My father saw my double at the same moment.” The system in which Lucy and Bridget are trapped forces them to embrace multiple identities. They cope with the rejection of society by constant travel and by hiding their pasts. When Bridget struggles to remove the curse, it is only by joining the order of the Poor Clares, thus rejecting standard society, that she can finally come to grips with her enemy, Gisborne. Dying on the battlefield, Gisborne is rescued by Bridget, who is working alongside the Poor Clares as medics. She gives over her portion of rationed food to him, dying herself, but releasing Lucy through her act of self-sacrifice. Over Gisborne’s bed is written, “Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.”

Perhaps, frustratingly, the text calls on self-abnegation to enable victory. But at least it also acknowledges the enemy that is Gisborne. It conjures up the wicked spirit of something more  terrifying than Lucy’s twin and asks how we might dispel generational violence.

If this story interested you, you might check out the fiction collection by Gaskell called Gothic Tales, edited by Laura Kranzler. It promises to explore the issues raised here in more depth.

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