WiHM Spotlight: Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell
My Spotify harpsichord music playlist was a constant companion while reading through Gaskell’s Gothic Tales. It was eerily appropriate. If you enjoy setting your books to music, I can’t recommend anything better than the London Harpsichord Ensemble.
Sometimes short stories can have the same, if not better, effect with the Gothic themed stories—looming houses or manors, fantastic villains, romance, yet with fewer pages to convey fear and the sublime.
Elizabeth Gaskell, friend and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, was a master when it comes to these short stories. Gothic Tales, published by Penguin Classics, was edited by Laura Kranzer who holds a doctorate in philosophy on Gothic Fiction from Hertfod College, Oxford. She includes an introduction, further reading suggestions, and notes on the text.
One warning about the introduction: it includes material from the stories that might be considered spoilers. If you want to remain surprised by the stories, read the introduction last. The collection includes nine stories, each published in in whole or in part in Victorian magazines.
I’ve selected what I think are the best of the collection to discuss.
In “The Old Nurse’s Story,” Hester relates a story to the child of Miss Rosamond, whose parents died when she was very young. Hester and Miss Rosamond move to the Furnivall manor house soon after.
Several mysterious happenings occur that the household seems to be used to: an organ built into the house is heard despite the fact, when Hester investigates, the inside of the organ is in shambles, a ghostly child continually beckons the young Miss Rosamond outside.
One snowy day, the nurse returns from church only to find that Miss Rosamond is nowhere to be found. After much searching, another member of the household brings her in from the cold, and, after warming her by the fire, the child tells an extraordinary story about being beckoned outside by a little girl and led to the Fells where the mysterious child’s mother was waiting. After hearing of this, the mistress of the house is adamant that Miss Rosamond should not be allowed near the other child, for it would lead to her death. Hester couldn’t believe it…until she saw the child for herself.
This one is probably one of my favourite short stories from this collection. Part of the reason for this is the old time radio program I listened to that adapted this story. There are a few radio plays that invoke strong emotions from me. I wish I could remember the production—it was so well done. If I manage to find it I will post it in the blog comments. I’m hoping I may come across it again.
The second excellent story in this book, set in 1691, is “Lois the Witch.” Lois Barclay travels to New England to live with an estranged uncle and his family after he own parents die, only to discover her uncle is bedridden and close to death himself.
Her aunt, a very strict Puritan woman, is not pleased with the arrangement, but lives with it. Lois meets her cousins, Faith and Prudence, who do not meet up to their names. Lois befriends Natte, the Native American servant who spends much of her time in the kitchen. She also meets Cousin Manasseh, who becomes obsessed with marrying his newly arrived relative.He insists he hears a voice demanding that they marry.
Lois, as she has a beau back in London, refuses him at every turn. Religious zealousness reaches a fever pitch when one of the daughters of a prominent townsperson is afflicted with fits, determined to be witchcraft.
The Salem witch hysteria, with special appearance by Cotton Mather, combined with Faith’s misunderstanding of a scene involving the man she loves and Lois, and her calling Lois a witch in front of the malicious Prudence, lead to the accusation of Lois being a witch.
This is a truly terrifying story. Kranzer, in her introduction, mentions that Gaskell researched the Salem witch trials and “Lois the Witch” was based on the persecution of a New England woman, Rebecca Nurse, whose ordeal, and death, came from Lectures on Witchcraft, written by Charles Upham, a Unitarian minister in Salem in the 1830s.
Knowing that numerous innocent women, and men, were fasley accused of witchcraft, and the ordeals they went through, makes this story that much more tragic. The way Gaskell writes this shows sympathy for what all of those people faced at the hands of powerful, superstitious people.
Much like Frankenstein and The Italian, the bulk of “The Grey Woman” tale is delivered in manuscript form. The story is introduced by a German server at a café who offers to give a manuscript telling the story of the Grey Woman to two women who visit the café and see a painting of an unusual looking woman hanging in the palour.
It turns out Anna Scherer, the woman in the painting, wrote the manuscript. It describes a fateful visit to her friend Sophie, and the meeting of Monsieur de la Tourelle at a social engagement. At first she is smitten beyond words, but then quickly changes her mind when she becomes familiar with his less than masculine behavior.
Sophie’s mother, obsessed with social class and prestige, insists they make their acquaintance better. This ultimately leads to their marriage and Anna’s separation from friends and family.
At his estate, she is given her own apartment and spends much of her time alone in her rooms, and she hears nothing from back home. Her husband hires Amante as a maid. Anna found her kind, and assertive without being rude to others. She actually, in her own way, stands up for Anna against her husband and his favourite servant, who is found to treat Anna rudely.
One night, when the master of the house is out, Amante finds what she thinks might be a letter to Anna from her family, but is prevented from taking it by another servant faithful to his master. Anna and Amante steal into her husband’s apartments to retrieve the letter, and others that might be hidden from her. Anna becomes trapped in one of the rooms and witnesses a grim scene which changes her life forever.
I recommend Gothic Tales if you enjoy your Gothic stories in short story form.
See you in the stacks,
Lizzy Walker, WiHM Librarian
The Elizabeth Gaskell Society was formed in 1985 by Joan Leach. The Society’s aims include such things as promote and encourage the study and appreciation of the work and life of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell; to record sources of information about the work of Elizabeth Gaskell and any other material relating to her life, family, work and memory; to arrange visits to places associated with her or her books; and more. I encourage you to check out the Society’s website for more information.