The Poor Clare by Elizabeth Gaskell

the poor clareIf you’re wondering whether or not Elizabeth Gaskell had the chops to pull of a truly Gothic novel, and I know you are, I am pleased to say, yes, she did.

Ms. Gaskell dabbled in the Gothic for publication in Charles Dickens’ Household Words in 1856.  She was a regular contributor to Household Words where her masterpiece Cranford first appeared.

I must admit, I had my doubts with The Poor Clare.  Things didn’t start off with a bang, just a rambling plot with more detail than I care to start a novella with.

Then the local lord shot the dog dead and my jaw dropped.

Bridget, the local woman who may have more power than the reader realizes, had a daughter whom she lost to the world.  The daughter left nothing behind when she left home except a beloved dog.  Bridget kept the dog for years, her only companion and her only reminder of her lost daughter.  While out walking with her dog one day, she encountered the local lord.  The dog starts barking, the lord quickly loses patience with it and shoots it.

This grabbed my attention.

Then Bridget lays a curse on the lord that had me shaking:

“Those never throve that did me harm….I’m alone in the world, and helpless; the more do the saints in heaven her my prayers.  Hear me, ye blessed ones!  Hear me while I ask for sorrow on this bad, cruel man.  He has killed the only creature that loved me–the dumb beast that I loved.  Bring down heavy sorrow on his head for it, O ye saints!  He thought I was helpless, because he saw me lonely and poor; but are not the armies of heaven for the like of me?…..You shall live to see the creature you love best, and who alone loves you–ay, a human creature, but as innocent and fond as my poor, dead darling–you shall see this creature, for whom death would be too happy, become a terror and a loathing to all, for this blood’s sake.  He me, O holy saints, who never fail them that have no other help!”

I did mention this is a Gothic novel hence the over-the-top language.  Gothic novels are fun that way.

From this moment the novella picks up speed.  Years quickly pass and we meet a stranger who has come to town and fallen in love with the local lord’s grand-daughter.  But, he soon discovers that she suffers from the curse Bridget laid on her grandfather.  A demonic double follows her, taking her place when she is absent, behaving in ways that estrange her from everyone she knows.  Despised in spite of her innocent goodness, the lords grand-daughter lives a miserable life, unloved and unwanted by all but the stranger who must avoid her as much as he can in case she is really the demon-double who will surely turn him against her.

It’s a bit confusing, it’s very twisted, it may say something profound about the class struggle, but it’s a very successful Gothic novel.

Nicely done, Ms. Gaskell.

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