Victorian ghost stories are known predominantly to have been written to entertain, frighten, and even provoke their readers. However, certain ghost stories have “resulted from women’s rising awareness of the precariousness of their situation in the patriarchal society of the 1800’s” (Cruea 187). Victorian ghost stories have the undeniable capability of subtly revealing societal expectations, values and changes. Victorian women writers, in a time where women’s rights were practically non-existent, used this form of writing to show and document the oppression and lack of power that women faced. Writers like Mary Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freedom used this genre of writing to speak the truths and the experiences of the subjugated life of the Victorian woman. This genre of stories was a method of liberation from the societal organization which women were a part of. This essay will seek to explore the ways in which these three female writers strategically and tactically used the rising popularity of ghost stories to reveal the oppression and disempowerment that Victorian women faced from the 19th to the 20th century. This work is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
The Old Nurse’s Story, The Southwest Chamber, and The Cold Embrace are all Victorian ghost stories written by women authors who embraced the freedom that writing gave them. Each story nonetheless retaining its frightening factor, demonstrates the ways in which women were victims to the male-controlled and chauvinist ways of the sexist societies they were opposed to. The Old Nurse’s Story and The Cold Embrace are based in the Victorian era of the 1800’s where women’s rights were severely lacking. The Southwest Chamber, although being written in a time that coincided with the woman’s suffrage movement, gives some freedom to the women in the story, whilst depicting how the male dominated world that embodies their past remains prominent.
The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell borders between being unnerving and peculiar, yet simultaneously touches upon the duress and dominance exerted on women, particularly mothers in the Victorian era. Hester, the nurse of Miss Rosamand, learns of the Furnivall family’s terrible secrets that include a sibling rivalry, an over controlling father, a child out of wedlock and most importantly underlying issues of male dominance. The two sisters Grace and Maude both fall in love with the same man, an enchanting musician who amuses himself with both women, eventually marrying Maude and impregnating her, whilst still pursuing her sister Grace creating a rivalrous jealousy between the two women. The sisters live in the Furnivall mansion with their father who is described as being “eaten up with pride” (Gaskell 12). For “such a proud man was never seen or heard of” (Gaskell 12). The Furnivall mansion was a symbol for Mr. Furnivall’s governance and authority, the author “Gaskell focuses on oppression within the purportedly safe, even sacred haven of the home…never isolated from wider society, whose prejudices buttress the abuses that occur within the home” (Ludlow and Styler 9). Miss Maude and her child are kicked out of the mansion by Mr. Furnivall into the cold winter, telling those who work for him “that his daughter had disgraced herself, and that he had turned her out of doors--her, and her child--and that if ever they gave her help, or food, or shelter, he prayed that they might never enter heaven” (Gaskell 13). This shows the authoritative governance that Mr. Furnivall held, he was not just the owner of the home, but rather possessed a domesticated masculinity over those that lived there. His daughter, having not confined to the norms of the Victorian woman was ousted from the home, death was more suitable for Maude and her daughter than having her father deal with the humiliation and shame.
The focal point of this story, and the oppression that Elizabeth Gaskell is exposing, is that of a mothers. Gaskell herself underwent a similar experience, losing her son and claiming that writing aided to divert her from her distress (Davis 508). In a letter addressed to a friend named Anne Shaen in 1848, Gaskell, when discussing her dead son, states “that wound will never heal on earth, although hardly anyone knows how it has changed me” (Gaskell, The letters of Mrs. Gaskell 57). Gaskells characters are not just fictionally representative of the oppressed Victorian woman, but are also demonstrative of her lived experiences. The Old Nurse’s Story, aside from emphasizing the impenetrable wall of chauvinism in the Victorian era, has a focus on “isolated motherliness” (Davis 508), which is “the key element of Gaskells femininity” (Davis 508). The preconceived notion of how the Victorian woman was to marry and have children had severe limitations, and a child out of wedlock did not fit within this conception of unadulterated femininity. Maude’s daughter did not live in the Furnivall mansion with her, but rather was “left at the farm-house, [where] her mother used to have her horse saddled and gallop wildly over the hills to see her once every week” (Gaskell 13). This again conjures the idea of the Furnivall mansion and its governance, where Maude must not bring her daughter home so as to not have her father find out about the child. Maude’s character, who is faced with an arduous situation, is a representation of “the unheard voice of all Victorian women who were the innocent victims of brutal modern Victorian values” (Saeed 56). Maude sat in the cold, “all crazy and smiling, under the holly-trees, nursing a dead child, with a terrible mark on its right shoulder” (Gaskell 14). Maude does not die from her rivalry, fierceness and jealously towards her sister, but rather for not conforming to a society that placed such harsh restrictions on the Victorian woman.
Similarly, Freeman's The Southwest Chamber, a text coinciding with a changed era for women, is a ghost story written in a time where women’s rights were slowly but steadily being reclaimed. The theme of male governance in relation to domesticity such as in The Old Nurse’s Story, is a topic that is more loosely explored in The Southwest Chamber. Both Amanda and Sophia are two sisters that live in a boarding house, a standard of living that would have been an unfeasible opportunity for the Victorian woman in the 1800’s, demonstrating that this text is already transcending the previous restraints imposed upon women. Nonetheless, this is not to say that Freeman’s text does not possesses a rich profusion of underlying masculinity as the story investigates the lives of women that are constantly yet imperceptibly being threatened by male patriotism. Both Sophia and Amanda come from a long line of family turmoil, born to a mother who was banished from the family for marrying a poor man by the name of William Gill. Their mother’s sister, known as Aunt Harriet dies and the house is inherited by both Amanda and Sophia, with a future inheritance to be given to Flora, the daughter of their mother’s sister who has passed away. However, it is important to note that their “Aunt did not wholeheartedly leave the house to the two sisters” (Fogels 7), the reason being for her hatred towards her own sister and her marriage. Not only do the sisters inherit the house, but they “inherit a feud linked to female desire and masculine property” (Fogels 7). Aunt Harriet inherited the house from her parents, therefore the father was the proprietor of the house. Aunt Harriet, who is the ghost protagonist of the story, makes the reasoning’s for the hauntings very clear. Ensuring that her father’s house is untenantable for the daughters of the scorned mother, leading Sophia to sell the house, subsequently “depriving Flora of the family property” (Fogels 8), as she was the next successor after Sophia and Amanda.
The masculine presence, although not directly flagrant in the story, is still a dominant force, for the women are “unable to go against the law of the father” (Fogels 8) in spite of the fact that they have full ownership over the house. It should be noted that the male authority in this story does not solely reserve itself to domesticity, it touches upon the ways in which women were subjected to doubt, silence, and distrust when compared to their male counterparts. In Christine Junker’s The Domestic Tyranny of Haunted Houses in Mary Wilkins Freeman and Shirley Jackson, it states that “the women know there is something wrong, but they cannot voice or articulate that sentiment and, as a result, internalize and interpret the discrepancy between what they know to be true and what they can say to be true as inherent and intractable feminine weakness” (Junker 6). This is mainly exhibited through the character of Amanda, who is constantly being admonished by her sister Sophia, whose “masculine rationality will accept no such women’s storytelling” (Fogels 11). This leads Amanda to suppress her experiences, “she realized that she could not tell her sister what had happened…she knew what Sophia would say if she told her…Amanda Gill, have you gone stark staring mad?” (Freeman). This created an inevitable tension between the two women from the start of the story and highlighted the inability to voice concerns or troubles as a Victorian woman.
Moreover, focusing on Sophia’s demeanour towards these supernatural experiences, it exposes a different kind of problem with femininity in this story, one that shows “the root of her disgust with the feminine that is closest to her” (Fogels 12). Sophia is the last person to attempt to sleep in the southwest chamber, hoping to prove that the allegations and experiences perceived in the room by the others are fabricated. The room evoked new thoughts and feelings for Sophia, ones that highlighted a “bitter resentment of herself…she felt malignant towards her mother…and felt malignant toward her own self, and her sister Amanda and Flora” (Freeman). Sophia starts to hate the femininity that not only surrounds her life and her family, but the very femininity that “threatens to dilapidate family fortune” (Fogels 12). It is something that should be avoided, despised, and supressed, something that the chauvinist society she belongs to endorses and instills in the Victorian woman. Freeman capitalizes on these societal expectations and seamlessly exposes them through the hauntings of Aunt Harriet.
Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Cold Embrace explores issues within femininity in the Victorian Era in ways that correspond closely to those of The Old Nurse’s Story and The Southwest Chamber. Between the characters of Gertrude and her German cousin, transpires an unimaginable love story, one that ends in death for the both of them but one that also reveals “the significant social dimensions of women’s ghost stories” (Fick 82). Similar to Maude in The Old Nurse’s Story, Gertrude is left waiting for her lover, a man who “loved her no longer” (Braddon 26). Instead, “a young Florentine, who had sat to him for a model, had bewitched his fancy…and Gertrude had been half forgotten” (Braddon 26). Gertrude becomes dependant on the German artist, she goes to the post office daily to see if she’s received a letter while he’s in Italy, “the lover writes, often at first, then seldom – at least, not at all” (Braddon 26). Gertrude is personified as a woman who does not have other duties in her society besides waiting for her lover to return so that they can tell her father and get married. However, to her dismay, she is faced with an arranged marriage, another common societal norm for women in the Victorian Era. Her father “is determined, she is to marry at once. The wedding day is fixed…” (Braddon 26). A veering cloud of masculine control, that of her fathers, glooms over Gertrude’s head as the days counts down to the wedding. Her father makes her decisions for her, and as soon as “the rich suitor appears on the scene” (Braddon 26) he decides that they must be married. This is similar to The Old Nurse’s Story, specifically the character of Mr. Furnivall. Both these men exhort a prominent dominance on their daughters on a basis of their patriarchal expectations for how women should behave and be viewed in society.
Braddon’s representation of Gertrude strives to “depict women who are attempting to escape from their limited social spheres” (Schroeder 101). Gertrude wants to decide on her own who she wants to marry, however that choice is revoked from her, alongside her impending arranged marriage and agonizing wait for her fiancé to return. Beyond the theme of chauvinist fathers, Braddons text also evokes the theme of victimization of the Victorian woman, they are the victims of the society in which they live in and are victimized by the men which they love. This ties into the theme of the revenge ghost, relating directly to the ghost of Maude in The Old Nurse’s Story who carries out vengeance on her sister. In Braddon’s text Gertrude tells her lover that “it is only the suicide door of Paradise – whose unholy spirit haunts the footsteps of the living” (Braddon 26), only to have her lover find out that she dies from suicide. It is only when Gertrude is dead, that she is able to seek out vengeance on her cousin. Her presence and her societal role when she is alive is not valued, and it is only in the spiritual world where her function as a Victorian woman becomes irrepressible. In Authentic Ghosts and Real Bodies: Negotiating Power in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Ghost Stories Thomas H. Fick states that “the authentic ghost story render in dramatic terms the nineteenth century woman readers desire” (Fick 95). Braddon evokes a sense of satisfaction amongst the readers, who watch the selfish German artist who is grabbed by her cold embrace, unable to understand or rationalize the sensations that he is feeling. The student dies “from want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a blood vessel” (Braddon 28), however his fears came in successions, just as the feelings of loneliness did for Gertrude who was left waiting for his return and his letters. Braddon exemplifies the scorned fiancée as a symbol for women’s disempowerment in the Victorian era, her text is a vengeance not just against the German artist, but against his symbolism of his character’s male dominated attitudes that were exerted over Gertrude and the Victorian woman as a whole.
Finally, it may be concluded that although Victorian ghost stories have a lot to offer in terms of horror and eeriness, they are also forms of documentation in which women can explore and ascertain the repression and tyranny not only faced by the females in these texts, but also in the common life of the Victorian woman. Each one of these stories, in ways that compare and contrast, all establish and prove that “not all nineteenth-century ghost stories concerned the supernatural” (Fick 82). The Old Nurse’s Story and The Southwest Chamber both include themes of male domesticity, the idea that the male that governs the house is the most powerful in the story. This exhorts authority and power on women like Amanda and Sophia, who are single and living alone, or Maude, who has an illegitimate child which deems her unworthy of living to her own father. The women in these stories are subjected to fear, silence, and apprehension, knowing well that their roles in society place them at a disadvantage. The Cold Embrace, although not touching on the themes of domesticity, intertwines with The Old Nurse’s Story from the theme of abandonment, both Maude and Gertrude are left waiting for their lovers, who fail to ever return, rendering the idea that a Victorian woman without a husband was viewed as not obliging to her societal norm.
The disempowerment that women were inevitably experiencing in the Victorian age, though exceptionally disappointing and unfortunate, has consequently opened up a whole new aspect of ghost stories. This type of expression ultimately gave Mary Braddon, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freedom the freedom, right, and opportunity to provide a voice to the experiences of the Victorian woman as a whole. Although these stories don't necessarily provide happy endings for the women and are fiction, they show the reality of what was happening in these time periods, ranging from the 19thto 12thcentury. It reveals that even in 1902 when The Southwest Chamber was written, women’s rights though having been starting to change, were still far from being considered “fair.” All three of these authors, today having possibly been referred to as feminists, took part and in many ways shaped the society that exists today, one that has “promoted a series of new images for women” (Cruea 187), ones that were unattainable previously, but ones that are attainable today thanks to powerful women writers and influencers.
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