My first experience with Elizabeth Gaskell was hearing that she was on a reading list my freshman year in high school. Friends of mine were studying for an exam which required them to memorize authors and the books or stories they had written. I remember my friend mentioning Gaskell over and over again in an attempt to memorize and prepare for the test. The name of the story escapes me now, but I still remember Gaskell’s name and that moment in the lunchroom from all of those years ago.
Originally, I had wanted to read a Gaskell biography, but after checking out my options it didn’t seem as if I would be able to make that work for me. A lot of her biographies were either really old and unavailable, or too hard to get and too long to read in the time I had before my tour date. Since I was choosing what to read back in October, and was in a spooky Halloween mood, I decided to read a collection of Gaskell short stories entitled Gothic Tales.
The one thing that usually comes up with me while I am in the midst of reading short stories is the purpose that they serve. Sometimes it’s just hard to get what is being conveyed in a short number of pages where character development is minimal and plot lines are sparse. I didn’t have that general problem since this is a collection of stories, which, I’m assuming from the title were intended to be creepy. They were creepy.
Some stories featured historical plots drawing from the Salem Witch trails, some murder and mayhem, and still others explored incidents in Gaskell’s own neighborhood- scandalously mimicking true events much to the discomfort of her neighbors- almost to the verge of plagiarism as the introduction notes. I found that I really needed to concentrate with these stories since Gaskell isn’t at all shy about introducing the reader to several characters in stories which were as few as fifteen short pages. She also plays fast and loose with their titles, and several names and phrases can be used to talk about the same characters which can throw you for a loop if you are not careful.
There are footnotes for each story at the end of the book and I found that I needed to avail myself of not only them but the aforementioned introduction at the front of the book. Disappearances, for example, was rooted in references that I would not have gotten at all. To me it seemed like a story about a string of disappearances, none of which were particularly gruesome or frightening, but after reading the notes and discovering that these had been based on real cases, and at the time people were disturbed by the way Gaskell mixed fact and fiction, I was able to appreciate and regard the story in a new light.
The Squire’s Story was much more accessible, and I really enjoyed the Pride and Prejudice feel with regard to The White House and the excitement engendered when a handsome stranger come to “let” the house. Gaskell’s liberal use of characters came into play again here but I really enjoyed trying to figure out this story.
Gaskell is a natural observer of people, and though it often wasn’t readily apparent to me who her narrators were, I really liked the humor and wry observations that she injected within the narration, and her descriptions life in general and the roles of women in the home and society- explored in many of her stories, like Lois The Witch.
If you have the time and the inclination for exploring classic short stories I recommend giving these a read. They are rich in the culture and customs of another time while still bearing on modern themes and issues, and they might just send a shiver down your spine or at least make you check that you have locked your door.