There are some pretty strong Bronte-vibes coming off of Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story. No wonder she was asked by Charlotte Bronte’s father to write a biography of her. Both are writers of gothic stories, and Gaskell’s has some things in common with Jane Eyre: the old, gloomy, ancestral setting; the “mad” woman (though Gaskell’s is less clearly mad, and not in an attic), the brooding love interest (though not of the narrator in Gaskell’s story). Gaskell takes her gothic-ness a bit further, by adding in actual ghosts. There’s also the touch of Emily Bronte in Gaskell’s story, as one of the characters falls in love with a “dark foreigner,” much to her father’s chagrin, recalling Catherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights. There’s a lot of implications there that can be explored further, but alas, I am going to be focusing on the “madness” of female characters so prevalent in Victorian writings and the idea of the “fallen woman.”
In Victorian England, there were two major categories that women could fall into. The Angel of the House was the ideal Victorian women, a domestic goddess of sorts, that dutifully and graciously waited on her husband and tended her children, putting their needs above her own. Contrasting this is the Fallen Woman. The name conjures the idea of Eve, and most often was used to describe prostitutes, but could also refer to the “loss of chastity for an unwed woman.” Gaskell does not follow this exactly. Her “fallen woman,” Maude Furnivall, does actually marry the father of her child. However, even if she did marry him, it was in secret, and it would be quite easy for someone to dismiss it. Maude plans to wait until her father is dead before having the marriage acknowledged. Until then, she lives in the same house as her father, raising her daughter, but pretending the girl is another’s daughter. This undeniably goes wrong when Maude’s sister tells their father the truth of the situation, because of course the two sisters had been competing for the same man. It’s clear that the father sees Maude as a fallen woman, even with her claiming to have been married. Her punishment? Being sent from the house with her young daughter on an extremely cold night, leading to their deaths.
Maude herself is not the “mad” woman of the story, though her actions may have had her deemed as such. That honor belongs to her sister, Grace, who is an old woman when we meet her, and feels guilty for her part in the death of her sister and niece. She hears her father’s voice and then sees the specters of her family on the night her sister was cast out. In a subversion of the mad woman trope, everyone is able to see these ghosts, though Grace collapses and later dies from the shock of it. Grace does not ever strike me as being mad, at least not in the traditional gothic fiction sense of the world. She’s definitely not first Mrs. Rochester mad. She just feels guilt. Just as she subverted the trope of the fallen woman, Gaskell also subverts the trope of the mad woman. Her fallen woman is not very fallen, and her mad woman is not very mad. Neither woman is demonized for their actions, as they so often are in other writings of the time. The story reflects gothic and Victorian writing styles, but Gaskell puts her own spin on both, not conforming to either entirely.