July 1, 2015
The Art of the Novella challenge 31: The Poor Clare
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Poor Clare
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published: 1856
Page count: 92
First line: December 12th, 1747. – My life has been strangely bound up with extraordinary incidents, some of which occurred before I had any connection with the principal actors in them, or indeed, before I even knew of their existence.
The problem with genre fiction is the management of the reader’s expectations. All stories – all writing – establish the rules for reading right from the first sentence, but genre pieces do a more comprehensive job of front-loaded rule-making, for the obvious reason that the worlds they describe are further from the one we live in than those of straight/realist/lit-fic stories. Genre pieces bundle their rules up in sets of conventions that move beyond the intimate relationship between eye, mind, text and world to the structure and intention of the work as a whole. A genre piece is a rollercoaster ride – the pleasure comes in the anticipation of the thrill, and the pay off; and the people getting off the ride are visible from the queue to get on, giving you a set of basic prompts as to what effect you should expect it to have on you.
Of course, genre pieces work as much by pushing against the particular set of conventions, as in conforming to them, and it is the tension between submission and rebellion that marks out a particular writer, a particular work. With historical genre pieces, things are more complicated, for the simple reason that conventions change over time, and where once a writer may have been pushing – hard – against the strictures of their chosen genre, now those walls might be weakened, or elastic, or collapsed, and offer little or no resistance.
The Poor Clare is a tale of the supernatural – with a curse, and an evil doppelganger – but the pay-off it gives is not what I was expecting, and it’s hard for me, at this distance, to know how far the particular situation of the genre in which Elizabeth Gaskell was writing, in the mid Nineteenth Century, might be the reason for this. Put bluntly: why doesn’t she do what I thought she’d do?
The climb into the rollercoaster car, and the slow ascent up the metal tracks, are both pleasingly familiar. The novella’s anecdote comes to us courtesy of a young lawyer, who politely follows the rules he establishes in that opening sentence. He narrates those parts of it as he remembers, and fills in the rest from what he’s heard.
The anecdote is that of a curse given by an old woman, locally feared as a sort of witch, to a nobleman visiting the area, who shoots her dog in a fit of pique. “Hear me, ye blessed ones!” calls the woman, Bridget Fitzgerald:
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 that I was helpless, because he saw me lonely and poor; but are not the armies of heaven for the likes of me?
And then, when the hunter, one Squire Gisborne, tries to placate her:
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. Hear me, O holy saints, who never fail them that have no other help!
The curse plays itself out, but in a way that heaps sorrow on both the dog-killer and the curse-wielder, for the thing that Gisborne loves most turns out, down the years, to be his daughter, born to his wife, who died soon after the birth – and this wife was none other than the daughter of Bridget; she had left her little dog Mignon in her mother’s care when she went off to find excitement and independence.
The curse, then, has an intricate and bitter trajectory, and it is the piecing together of its origins and destination that is the work of the book, and the work of the nameless narrator, who, like Jonathan Harker in Dracula or Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black, makes the life of a lawyer seem far more exciting than it is now. (In fact this once traditional, now lost role of the lawyer as active investigator does get dragged back into play by writers and screenwriters today, but here the convention chafes against the realities of the world. How often have we seen lawyers, in mystery films and miniseries, take on the role of detective to solve the case they are supposed to be proving, and how often have we groaned, from the sofa, That’s not your job! You’ll be fired! You can’t all be mavericks! )
But even as the narrator is discovering and piecing together the various elements of the tale, it is strange what Gaskell has him focus on, and what leave out. At the heart of this is the novella’s treatment of the curse in action. This part of the story is told to the narrator by Lucy herself, Gisborne’s daughter, the innocent target of her grandmother’s blindly shot arrow – “poor Lucy” as the narrator describes her on the first page of the book, and there’s more here that’s not being told, because he falls in love with her the moment he meets her, and is instrumental in trying to lift the curse for her sake, and his own, for she will not marry him while cursed. I’ll return to this conundrum in a moment.
The way the curse manifests itself is this: sometime in her teenage years, her father, Gisborne, declares she is the thing he loves most, and from this moment she is afflicted by a hideous double, a second, evil Lucy that others can see flickering behind her though she never can, and romps off to do dastardly things like stomp through the flower beds and laugh “boisterously” and chat with the stable boys. The lawyer himself sees it at one point:
Just at that instant, standing as I was opposite to her in the full and perfect morning light, I saw behind her another figure – a ghastly resemblance, complete in likeness, so far as form and feature and minutest touch of dress could do, but with a loathsome demon soul looking out of the gray eyes, that were in turns mocking and voluptuous. My heart stood still within me; every hair rose up erect; my flesh crept with horror. I could not see the grave and tender Lucy – my eyes were fascinated by the creature beyond. I know not why, but I put out my hand to clutch it; I grasped at nothing but empty air, and my whole body curdled to ice. For a moment I could not see; then my sight came back, and I saw Lucy standing before me, alone, deathly pale, and, I could have fancied, almost shrunk in size.
You don’t have to be an adept of Freud or Lacan to see sex writ large in this description. Not just in characterisation of the double’s gaze as “voluptuous” (which indeed comes as something of a shock; it is the first time in the narrative that sex rears its head, and the moment you realise how well and deeply it’s been repressed) or those “erect” hairs, but in the final lines, which seem to me like a particularly wicked and brilliant picture of the male psyche at its worst – before, at the moment of, and after orgasm. Elizabeth Gaskell, get out of my head!
But what’s strange – what pushes against my understanding of how genre conventions change over time – is that Gaskell is not that interested in the double. Lucy fades from the story, as she and the young lawyer realise the presence of “the fearful Third” at their meetings precludes their happiness. I expected (I wanted) the lawyer to move ever closer to Lucy in an attempt to both lift the curse from the tender lover, and bring himself into further contact with the sexual double that so terrifies and fascinates him. Or imagine if Gaskell had allowed Lucy some level of agency in the story – this double comes 30 years before The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Instead, the narrative shifts to the ‘parents’ – Gisborne and Bridget – and their attempts to lift the curse through religious devotion and a reconciliation that hangs on the Catholic/Protestant antagonisms of the time. The story ends caught up in a tangle of spiritualism and doctrine, as Bridget retreats from society and becomes the Poor Clare (a type of nun) of the title.
What I don’t understand – what sets me unsteady on my feet as I step out of the rollercoaster car, with a look on my face that might unnerve or even disappoint those queuing across from me to take their turn, though they shouldn’t be disappointed; I’ll be going straight back to the end of the queue for this ride – is how far Gaskell understood what she was, in my view, leaving out, or even retreating from.
To me, Lucy and her double are the crux of the story. The sin of the father is visited on the innocent daughter, but no attempt is made to explore the theory of female sexuality that results, so forcefully, from this. This is almost irrelevant to the narrative, which instead focuses on the effect of the curse on the giver. What’s strangest of all is the crucial information that the narrator, that otherwise entirely reliable young lawyer, fails to give us.
The narrator, who loved Lucy, was loved in return, wanted to marry, and was wanted in return, finishes his story by telling us the curse was lifted, but he tells us nothing beyond that moment, except… turn back to that first page, and there you’ll find his description of her, before we even know who she is, as “poor Lucy”. Did they marry? Is the curse was successfully lifted, why is she still “poor”? Something is missing, and when something is missing, you can never really know if that absence is intended – is alive – or if accidental. The Poor Clare leaves me unsatisfied, narratorially, but is that the point? This is where the conventions of genre are supposed to help, so that you can be sure that you here where you stand, where the author has led you and left you, is where you are supposed to be.