American reformist and early suffragist, Jane Addams, once said that, “old-fashioned ways, which no longer apply to changed conditions, are a snare in which the feet of women have always become readily entangled” (Weiss). Ghost stories written by female authors in the Victorian era demonstrate how the transformation of death is used as a way to challenge traditional ideas on gender, ultimately tapping into larger societal fears about gender nonconformity. “The Old Nurse’s Story,” by Elizabeth Gaskell, depicts the unconventional change in a young woman’s persona after she passes on into the next life. “Reality or Delusion,” by Ellen Wood, shows the unfavourable demasculinization of a man after he takes his own life and appears as a spirit. Finally, “The Cold Embrace,” by Mary Braddon, demonstrates the subtle transformation of a woman no longer bound to societal expectations once she has moved on to the afterlife. All of these examples directly challenge the gender norms of the Victorian era and play on general fears surrounding those who step outside of gender expectations.
Before considering how these authors confronted the roles of their time, it is first important to define what constitutes gender expectations during the 19th Century. In his article, “Elizabeth Gaskell: Writing Against the Angel in the House,” Siv Jansson explains that a number of influential female writers, “collectively constructed an image of the perfect Victorian woman, the image of the Madonna, an icon of perfect submission which encompassed impeccable wifehood and motherhood” (Jansson 65). Outside of cultural and technological advancements, the Victorian era is primarily known for constrained gender expectations, which dictated the lives of many people. Women were subjected to ideas of submissiveness and purity, which were perpetuated and reinforced by the popular narrative poem, “The Angel in the House.” Marriage, children and domestic duties were expected of all women and deviation from this outline was greatly discouraged. Many of these ideals were also upheld by theological arguments suggesting that a woman’s submissive role in the household was integral to her redemption for causing the fall of man.
In direct contrast, men were allotted a number of more rights and freedoms than their female counterparts, but along with the advantages came strict ideas that maintained a hypermasculine presentation of the male body. Ruth Heholt’s article, “Visible Yet Immaterial: The Phantom and the Male Body in Ghost Stories by Three Victorian Women Writers,” outlines that for men, “Victorian moral doctrine advocated for the principle of a ‘healthy mind and a healthy body,’ and presented an idealized form of masculinity that emphasized physical power and mental control” (Heholt 149). Men were expected to be physically strong, emotionally distant and most of all, intellectually superior. They were given full authority over women, with the expectation that they head all leadership roles. In today’s age, this ideal male image is defined as toxic masculinity, as there is limited room for individual’s to diverge from the norm, resulting in ostracization of those who do not comply. These strict binaries still confine men and women to very specific roles in society, despite many attempts by feminists to topple the gender hierarchy. A major reason why these ideas are continuously perpetuated is because men are directly benefiting from the social structure and have the power to keep these frameworks in place. They have found great privilege from the ability to control women, navigate freely through society and manipulate social ruling to suit their own perspectives. Since the women of the Victorian era did not have a lot of individual agency, they had to find other ways to reinsert their voice. Their reclamation of power is seen significantly in the works of progressive female authors, such as Gaskell, Wood and Braddon.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story, “The Old Nurse’s Story,” demonstrates an effective reversal of gender roles in the main female ghost, which addresses certain beliefs of the time surrounding female existence. In the climax of the story, “the last door gave way with a thundering crash, as if torn open in a violent passion, and there came into that broad [...] a stern and beautiful woman” who, “defied the old man with a fierce and proud defiance” (Gaskell). As stated earlier, appropriate behaviour in Victorian women, especially one in the presence of a man, should reflect a posture of submissiveness, humility and meekness. The female ghost of Gaskell’s story, however, is the complete opposite of this sentiment, as she is no longer bound to the rules that had controlled her when she was alive. Before her death, Mrs. Maude is described as being of such womanly value that, “no one was good enough to wed her,” limiting her worth as a person to her ability to contribute to a married relationship and nothing more (Gaskell). Mrs. Maude’s unfortunate demise results from a series of unfortunate events that place her in the mercy of her father, who chooses to use his authority over her to rid his house of her impurity. Mrs. Maude’s ghost returns many years later with an anger so ferocious that it causes everyone in the house to stop in shock and fear. She is violent, fierce and defiant towards the man that has caused so much of her pain and her bold confrontation depicts an outright disregard for the gender expectations of the moment. Instead of being meek and allowing her father to have full authority over the situation, Mrs. Maude goes against convention to assert her anger in a way that she was unable to do while she was living.
Heholt’s critical approach to gender representation in the Victorian era offers an explanation as to why female authors choose to upend the gender binary in their work. Heholt states that, “the appearance of the female ghost as a central feature in Victorian tales allowed for some visibility, agency and physical presence for women” (152). Since women were forced out of public spheres, these authors used, “the ghosts of those who are marginalized [to] force notice onto themselves and will not be ignored” (153). Since Victorian women were denied access to platforms that gave volume to their voices, they used the creative as a means to publicize the frustrations they had with the society around them. Gaskell uses her story to tell of injustices faced by women at the hands of men and uses the transformation of death to break gender norms in order to bring attention to these issues. Mrs. Maude does not back down from her father because she is no longer confined to the rules of society. Her ability to express herself freely as a ghost forces notice on her father’s transgressions against her and brings power back to her voice. It is not the appearance of a ghost that leaves both the narrator and the reader haunted, but the ferocity and nonconformity of Mrs. Maude that ultimately strikes fear into those who are made uncomfortable by the idea of an outspoken woman. Mrs. Maude’s unconventional actions explicitly oppose traditional ideas on gender and cause so much of an upset that Miss. Furnivall falls ill from her shock and never recovers. Therefore, Gaskell’s depiction of a female ghost challenges the gender expectations of her time and illuminates the fear within her audience of those who do not conform to these binaries.
Ellen Wood’s story, “Reality or Delusion,” depicts a gender reversal that takes place in a male ghost, which confronts ideas surrounding masculinity in the Victorian era. As one of the main characters, Maria, is out for a walk, she sees, “Ferrar standing at the front corner of the barn, looking very hard at her. She thought he was waiting for her to come up, but before she got close to him he had disappeared” (Wood). Ferrar’s behaviour in this moment does not align with how a man is expected to act according to Victorian social expectations. He does not show any of the idealized strength or leadership that is required of a man in his position, rather, he evades Maria’s advances in a cowardly way. His elusivity is assumed to be a response to his previous confrontation with Maria and Johnny, but it is instead the nature of his spiritual form that is being depicted. In the few lines that Ferrar’s ghost is present, he takes on a very passive and unremarkable role. Wood’s depiction places Ferrar outside of traditional ideas and challenges the hypermasculine trope that dictates how men are to be presented. Ferrar’s spirit is no longer bound to earthly gender expectations and is free to act in ways that do not reflect the male ideal.
In Heholt’s article, she states that, “in Victorian times, it was far more usual for a woman to need a man to act for her outside of domestic space and the Victorian ideal for men is one of self-reliance and an ability to take responsibility for oneself” (Heholt 160). In the few moments where we see Ferrar’s spirit, it is as if he is the one in need of assistance from Maria. The way he draws Maria towards him suggests that he is unable to be self-reliant and must seek the help of the woman closest to him. The dynamic created by Wood in this moment flips the gender expectation around and allows space for the man to be vulnerable. Wood’s direct acknowledgement of Ferrar’s timidness as a spirit reveals how unrealistic it is for men to maintain an uncompromisable level of self dependency at all times. However, his nonconformity creates a level of uncomfortability in the reader, as they are forced to consider that men do not always align with the gender expression that is expected of them by Victorian society. This role reversal is so drastic that even Johnny, who is relaying these events, does not believe Maria when she explains what she had seen after the fact. It is not until he has searched the area surrounding the barn that he starts to consider the possibility that Ferrar had acted in such an unmasculine way. As a result, the male ghost in Wood’s story does not comply with the masculine ideal of his time, and his actions as a spiritual apparition challenge the expectations of those who hold gender norms as truth.
Furthermore, Mary Braddon’s story, “The Cold Embrace,” presents a less explicit example of a woman defying gender expectations once she has passed on into the next life. Before her death, Gertrude is described as loyal, patient and submissive. When her unfaithful fiance fails to save her from an arranged marriage, resulting in her suicide, Gertrude’s unspoken pain is brought to light in her relentless haunting of the man who spurned her. On his last night alive, her fiance agonizes about Gertrude’s, “cold arms are around his neck - they whirl him round, they will not be flung off, or cast away [...] he can feel the long slender fingers, and the ring which was his mother’s” (Braddon 28). While Gertrude’s ghost does not make a physical appearance, her influence as a spiritual entity inflicts a great deal of damage on those her anger is aimed against. Her wrath is unforgiving and determined, and ultimately causes the unnerving demise of her fiance, who is driven mad with exhaustion and paranoia. Her actions are in no way reflective of the female ideal, but rather defy gender expectations in an effort to assert the pain she feels by the betrayal of the only man she ever loved.
Jansson’s article points out that, “the fact that all the major female Victorian novelists created problem heroines in the midst of unresolvable situations suggests an awareness on their part that the ideal Victorian woman was an impossible creation” (Jansson 66). Braddon shows this self awareness in her representation of Gertrude as a spirit. The conflict Gertrude creates opposes the gentle and passive binary she is supposed to conform to and draws attention to the immoral actions of her fiance. Her refusal to submit to the female ideal plays on larger societal fears surrounding those who do not conform to expectations. A woman who seeks unrelenting revenge is not a believable concept in this time and thus leaves her fiance to deal with her lingering presence in isolation, as the people around him refuse to accept this possibility of truth. Therefore, the female ghost in Braddon’s story violates specific gender roles and challenges the beliefs of those around her.
The following trick photo by William H. Mumler depicts an arrangement of people that aligns with the gender expectation of men and women, regardless of the state of their souls. Here a woman sits with her head down and her eyes closed, arguably taking a passive role to allow the male ghost behind her to maintain his position as leader. The man’s stance behind the woman, and his raised hand, suggests an air of authority, despite him no longer being tied to his physical body or the rules of the society he once lived in. This arrangement emphasizes the importance the Victorian era placed on proper gender representation and stands in direct contrast to the works of Gaskell, Wood and Braddon.
In conclusion, ghost stories written by female authors in the Victorian era directly challenge gender expectations by using death to allow characters to step outside of their assigned binary. In doing so, this confronts those in society who value conformity over everything else. “The Old Nurse’s Story,” by Elizabeth Gaskell depicts the explosive anger of a female ghost. “Reality or Delusion,” by Ellen Wood shows the spirit of a passive and cowardly young man. Finally, “The Cold Embrace,” by Mary Braddon portrays the destructive power of a woman who finds strengths in the afterlife. All of these stories tap into subconscious beliefs about gender and the value that is placed on conformity in order to bring attention to the inequalities within this system. With this in consideration, perhaps it is not the ghosts themselves that create a feeling of fear, but rather the possibility that we are not limited to social expectations or the opinions of others that shakes us to our core.
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Gaskell, Elizabeth, and Richard Scott. The Old Nurse's Story and Other Tales, Project Gutenberg of Australia, 8 Aug. 2006, gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605581h.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2020.
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Price, Ellen, and Johnny Ludlow. “Reality or Delusion?” Wood_RealityOrDelusion_1868. Pdf, Leipzig Bernhard Tauchnitz, eclass.yorku.ca/eclass/pluginfile.php/478949/mod_ resource/content/1/Wood_RealityOrDelusion_1868.pdf. Accessed 27 Nov. 2020.
The J. Paul Getty Museum, and William H Mumler. “[Unidentified woman with male "spirit" pointing upwards].” The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles, 6 Feb. 2005, http://www.getty. edu/art/collection/objects/95741/william-h-mumler-unidentified-woman-with-male-s pirit-pointing-upwards-american-1862-1875//. Accessed 26 Nov. 2020.Weiss, Suzannah. “6 Feminist Quotes From The 1800s That Are Still Relevant Today.” Bustle, Bustle, 23 Apr. 2016, www.bustle.com/articles/155486-6-feminist-quotes-fro m-the-1800s-that-are-still-relevant-today. Accessed 1 Dec. 2020.
Powerful Women and Vulnerable Men: Gender Reversal in Victorian Ghost Stories by Taylor Grigg is licensed under CC0 1.0