Thursday, 1 August 2019

The Poor Clare (1856), A Novella by Elizabeth Gaskell


I don’t usually include spoilers in my reviews, but The Poor Clare is obscure enough that in today’s post I’ll be throwing caution to the wind.


The work is a long short story/short novella by Elizabeth Gaskell, who’s better known for novel-length works including North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and for her biography of Charlotte Brontë (1857), which inspired my own forthcoming novel, Brontë’s Mistress.

The Poor Clare first appeared in serialised form in Household Words, a publication edited by Charles Dickens. Perhaps as a result of this, it alternates between feeling rushed and sorely in need of editing. There are no paragraph breaks, for instance, except in dialogue, and the development of the plot is uneven.

The story is narrated by an unnamed lawyer, who finds himself involved in ‘extraordinary events’ of a decidedly uncanny flavour. Employed to track down the rightful heir to a sizeable estate, he tracks down a strange old Irish woman, Bridget Fitzgerald, whose fervour for Catholicism is matched with a proclivity for meddling with magic. Bridget’s beautiful daughter, Mary, has disappeared years before, leading to her mother’s unhappiness and isolation. But now her child—if she had one—is next in line for this windfall inheritance.

What starts out like a mystery soon turns to a ghost story. Our lawyer tracks down the child, Lucy, more through luck than strategy, and promptly falls in love with her. But there’s a hitch. Lucy is suffering under a peculiar curse. She has a demonic double, which is hell bent on dogging her steps, ruining her reputation and driving men from her life. What’s more, it transpires that it was her own grandmother, Bridget, who unwittingly cursed her.

Gaskell writes Gothic well. Examples:

‘I was sitting with my back to the window, but I felt a shadow pass between the sun’s warmth and me, and a strange shudder ran through my frame.’

‘In the great mirror opposite I saw myself, and right behind, another wicked, fearful self, so like me that my soul seemed to quiver within me, as though not knowing to which similitude of a body it belonged.’

The tone felt most similar to Behind a Mask, an 1866 story by Louisa May Alcott, writing as A.M. Barnard, which I reviewed back in 2013. And the doubling motif is suggestive of earlier (e.g. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)) and later (e.g. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)) Gothic, as well as sensation fiction tropes. Notably, Laura, the heroine of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which appeared three years later, also suffers due to her near resemblance with another.

The Poor Clare takes an unexpected turn when our characters end up in war-torn Antwerp (only Bridget’s service to strict religious order, the Poor Clares, will be enough, it seems, to undo the curse). It’s tempting to imagine that Gaskell was inspired by the Brontës to depict a Belgian setting.

All in, although set earlier, Gaskell’s The Poor Clare is delightfully Victorian, with lots to recommend it despite its flaws. Short enough to read in one sitting, it could also serve as a great introduction for teens to Gothic fiction or as a quick-to-digest comparison text for students focusing on some of the more canonical novels in the genre.

Which lesser-known Victorian novels/novellas/stories would you like the Secret Victorianist to review next? Let me know—here or on Facebook, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And keep up with every facet of my life (reading, writing, work and life in NYC) via Instagram.

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