Let me preface this review by saying that apart from one attempt to read Mary Barton in high school, I had never read any Elizabeth Gaskell before. She’s been on my to-read-eventually list forever, but I hadn’t actually gotten around to reading anything of hers. That changed when I read her novella The Poor Clare. I read the book in two sittings one day, thin as it is, and was surprised to learn how well Gaskell does Gothic considering she’s more well known for buttoned-up ladies and critiques of society. But even within this supernatural gothic story, Gaskell manages to weave in commentary on the friction between Catholics and Protestants, and the idea that the “sins of the father are visited on the son.” It’s chilling.
The narrative begins in Lancashire in 1747, with an old man reminiscing upon old happenings, old, supernatural happenings surrounding a girl he used to know: Lucy. “Poor Lucy,” he calls her. The more time he spends in the area, the more he learns about this girl named Lucy, and the mysterious circumstances surrounding her family. He learns about a woman called Bridget Fitzgerald, an Irish woman whose daughter left her for the continent decades before, never to be seen again. Bridget mourns her daughter, whom she believes lost to her forever, and grows old as a servant on the property of a wealthy, landed Jacobite.
One day, when Bridget is still mourning her daughter, Bridget’s small dog, once owned by her beloved daughter, is slaughtered by a man named Gisborne. Gisborne kills the dog with nonchalance, simply because it got in his way. Bridget, embittered from long, lonely years exiled from her daughter, curses the man:
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 narrator tracks down Bridget’s daughter and finds that she met a man and secretly married him; their daughter is Lucy. Unbeknownst to Bridget, the man her daughter married is none other than Gisborne himself, whose daughter Lucy, Bridget’s granddaughter, is now the victim of her grandmother’s terrible curse. It is a curse that forbids anyone from loving Lucy or from growing close to her, because everywhere she goes, she is accompanied by a phantom double, a ghostlike creature who looks like Lucy, but is evil and terrifying in nature.
This slim volume manages to make a lot of insightful commentary about wealth disparity in Britain and the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and I’ve also read that this novella may be interpreted as commentary on the Irish Famine, as Bridget eventually dies of starvation. But I just loved how much it gripped me; I’ve always loved Gothic novels, and deep, Romantic emotions, and The Poor Clare didn’t disappoint. I suppose it’s the Catholic in me. Buy the book here!