Monday, June 13, 2016

doppelgangers, part one: The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell

image from Melville House
Melville House, 2013
92 pp


First things first. This particular edition of The Poor Clare is part of Melville House's Art of the Novella series, which I subscribed to for a long time before I realized that I was starting to get duplicates. It's a wonderful set of books that has introduced me to the work of many authors I hadn't read before and is well worth every cent I paid.   In the front of this book, there's a brief note that this particular edition is reprinted from Gaskell's Lizzie Leigh and Other Tales (1896 ed.); it first made its appearance in Dickens' Household Words in 1856.

Second things second.   After finishing Nabokov's Despair and The Port-Wine Stain by Norman Lock, I found myself fascinated with the idea of doppelgangers (yes, I know there's an umlaut but I'm too lazy right now to do character map) in fiction, so I decided to put together a little mini-series of doppelganger books to fit into my summer reading.  Here's the list in no particular order:

  • Alraune, by Hanns Heinz Ewers (which I've been told is very strange)
  • The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg
  • The Devil's Elixirs, by ETA Hoffman
  • The Double, by Dostoevsky
  • Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
and of course, this book, The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  

And that brings me to third things third, which is where I talk about the book. I know that it's been labeled as a Gothic tale, but in my mind, this story of revenge and redemption sits much more squarely in the supernatural zone. It is a compelling and eerie tale,  involving a horrific curse that will come to have serious repercussions beyond anything even remotely imaginable. 

The story is revealed retrospectively through the eyes of a young lawyer who will eventually find himself caught up in the events that are chronicled in this tale.   Bridget Fitzgerald had served as nurse and companion to the now late Madame Starkey and her husband the squire in the English countryside of Lancashire,  after having followed them to St. Germains and to Antwerp. Her time with the Starkeys was only broken up by her marriage; when she became a widow she, along with her daughter Mary,  once again returned to the Starkey home.  The Starkeys had to live abroad to practice their religion, as England was staunchly anti-Catholic; eventually, however, they make their return followed by Bridget and Mary, where their power is great among the servants, and their word goes in the household.   Bridget is given a cottage to live in just a "short cut" away from the manor house; things were very good until rebellious Mary decides to leave home to take up a position with a good family, leaving only her little spaniel, a "dumb remembrancer of happy days", upon which Bridget lavishes love as if it were her child.   Mary writes faithfully at first, but  as time goes by, the letters from Mary to Bridget stop coming.  After some time of no communication, Bridget makes what turns out to be a fruitless search for her daughter before returning to her cottage and hiding herself away from the outside world.    Often heard talking to herself,  the locals come to believe that she's some sort of  witch.   However, her solitude is broken when one day,  during a hunt at the old Starkey manor, one of the participants shoots her beloved dog.  Bridget's rage knows no bounds when the shooter makes light of the dog's death; she lays a horrible curse upon him.  Unfortunately for everyone concerned, her grief, her rage and her thirst for revenge are just the beginning of a completely unforeseen tragedy.   

Elizabeth Gaskell, from The British Library

While anti-Catholicism is definitely woven into this tale in various ways, along with class differences   and the repressed anger/power of women,  another very important element found here is that of redemption,  which made me wonder if this story couldn't also be in part a plea for religious tolerance. That would make sense; after all, anti-Catholic feelings were still strong during Gaskell's lifetime, exacerbated by the influx of Irish immigrants coming to England during the Great Famine.

As to how the doppelganger element comes into the story, sadly I can't really go into any depth about it  without divulging too much.  What I can reveal is my own conclusion about why Gaskell chose to include it --  since it is female,  to me it represents the emergence of a part of the female self which has been stifled by men who desire a particular sort of quiet subservience in their women. Given the events of this tale and the time period, it seems a logical conclusion but again, I can't really give anything away.  

On the other hand, if you really don't care about picking up undercurrents or subtext and just want a well-written, different and entertaining read, The Poor Clare  is still a good choice for dark fiction readers. I loved it.  It's almost like a mystery in parts; the only down side is that it is a bit abrupt at the end so beware. I had to go back through the last few pages more than once to make sure I got it right.  Overall, though,  it's one of the strangest tales I've read in a while, and it's a very good one.  It's also very unlike Gaskell's other stories that I've read so it might be a new experience for readers who enjoy her work.

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