The Grey Woman by Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was born in London in 1810 and died in the country in Hampshire in 1865. She was one of the most famous women novelists of the Victorian period.

As well as being a novelist, she was a biographer and wrote a biography of Charlotte Bronte which was published in 1857.  Apparently she did a bit of editing and only put in the nice things in Charlotte Bronte’s biography, judging herself that certain aspects should be left out.

Her most famous novels are Cranford, published between 1851 and 1857, North and South between 1854 and 1855, and Wives and Daughters published in 1865—the year of her death.

Her father was Keeper of the Treasury Records and she was born in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, London which is now a billionaires row and was probably for the well-to-do even in 1810.

Her mother was from the North of England which may have prompted her interest in the division between the North of England dominated by the Industrial Revolution and the south of England which did not have the heavy industries of coal and iron extraction.  She spent much of her childhood in Cheshire in the North.  She also spent time in Newcastle upon Tyne.  When she was married she lived in Manchester. She visited Edinburgh and Whitby and then when she visited a house she had both in Hampshire, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Unlike some women of her class, she did attend school and was educated privately at Stratford Upon Avon. She read the classics and travelogues sent to her from her brother in the navy.

The Grey Woman

This story was published by Mrs Gaskell in 1865 in London in a collection known as *The Grey Woman & Other Tales*.   By this time, Mrs Gaskell was a the very famous author of a number of blockbuster novels. This was also the year in which she suddenly died.

She was influenced by German literature and travelled in Germany in 1841. A number of her short stories, not just her ghost stories, have a German theme or setting.

One of the themes of the story is the difference between the sophisticated and effete French and the simple straightforward Germans and the rivalry and mistrust between them.

The first thing that strikes our ear (or our eye) is the vivid descriptions of the mill, the gardens, the scoured dishes, the red-tiled floor and the river Neckar murmuring outside the mill. Gaskell is a great writer of descriptions and talented at the ancient rhetorical art of *enargia*—which is the skill of drawing the listener into a scene by activating each of their senses through well-written description.

This description of the rain in the garden of the mill turned cafe strikes me that it might have been lifted from a real incident that happened to Gaskell while she was in Germany and borrowed into her writing.

Again we see the distance device. To quote M R James (again) — ghost stories should be distanced from the reader through placing them at a pint in the past far enough away so we can believe things we wouldn’t accept if they were set in our modern world but close enough so that we can still identify with the situations in  it —so this story written in the late 1840s say at the earliest has its incident in 1789.

Early on we get a little foreshadowing: we are told that the portrait of Anna Scherer shows she was very beautiful, which is important later in the story as explaining how she married the French nobleman, even though only from a miller’s family, and also that in the portrait she is full of colour, but lost that colour due to fright.   The details of this fright are not available when they are mentioned.

That sets us up for a ghost story.

The next mystery is when she returns to the mill and sees her brother Fritz and his evil wife Babette again. They thought her dead. Why? Another little open loop for us.

And then Anna begins the story of her early life and it sounds like a German version of The Waltons at the Old Mill.

Contrast this with the effete posh boy M. De La Tourelle with his fancy ways who looks down on our honest millers. He has his castle in the Vosges and when we learn of its remote setting by some high cliffs and the intricate passages and lonely corridors and then the unfriendly servants, and the reflections with candles in mirrors, we know we are in proper Gothic country.  She sets up the long passage into which all the doors of her apartment open. I feel this is foreshadowing. It is like Chekov’s gun. It must do something later, or why mention it so prominently?

Also the nasty servant LeFevbre is being set up for something. He has authority of his master which Anna cannot fathom. He is very sly. We need to watch him.

Anna Scherer has a complexion of lilies and roses, which is nice. Or as we might say: strawberries and cream, which I am about to eat!

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