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.

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5 thoughts on “Fallen Women and Female Madness

  1. I’m really glad you pointed out how the “fallen” and “mad” women in this story fell short of their ropes. Initially, I was a bit disappointed with the ending of this story, but I was having a hard time figuring out why. Now it seems obvious that I expected something much more “out of this world” to be happening, so to speak. After reading your post, though, I find myself being relieved that, despite the obvious supernatural element to the story, the background was very explainable and believable because the story leading up to the haunting was a very plausible story which makes the sad circumstances that much more impactful.

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    1. At first, I had the same problem with expecting something more from this story, especially because I do have a love of gothic fiction. And honestly, I would normally prefer that the supernatural elements be unexplained, as it allows the imagination to run wild. But I agree with you in this case, the story behind the haunting is so sad that it makes the haunting itself have more impact. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. Hi Nicole,

    I agree that “The Old Nurse’s Story” definitely gives off Brontë vibes. You make a great case for Grace being the “mad” woman of the story—I would’ve guessed Maude, but it makes more sense for it to be Grace, since she’s been haunted for so long. I also really love how you’ve pointed out that neither woman fully fits her assigned label (“Fallen Woman” or “Mad Woman”), and that neither is really vilified as their counterparts often are. I didn’t realize why I enjoyed this story so much until you pointed out how Gaskell subverts so many tropes. Since the nurse is telling this story to Rosamond’s daughters, I wondered at some points if she were making it up to teach the sisters to love each other and treat each other kindly. I suppose if someone really wanted to rationalize the story, this could be an explanation, but the story is strong enough to be left unexplained, I think.

    Lauren P.

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  3. I am so glad someone else also saw the connection with Brontë’s “Wuthering Heights”! The mystery of the estate and the ghost outside the window, immediately had me thinking of it. I love what you write here about Grace. I never saw her as mad but just as hurting. With this particular piece though, I suppose you could argue that grief can lead to madness.

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  4. In the longer version of this course during a regular term, we also read Wuthering Heights. So, I’m glad this story could evoke some of the same elements and themes found in that novel. The blog post and the responses made me think further about whether Gaskell was directly influenced by the Bronte sisters (almost to the point of imitation), or, if she was simply engaging with the same Gothic tropes that the genre involves. Probably unfairly, I lean toward the former, but mainly because I’m biased in my love of Emily B and my firm belief that her novel is one of the greatest of all time 🙂

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