Elizabeth Gaskell’s short story “The Grey Woman” was first published in January 1861 in All the Year Round, which also contained Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. It is a piece of gothic fiction, that follows the female gothic tradition of incorporating elements of the Blue Beard story into the plot line.

Plot Summary

An anonymous English narrator is traveling and visits a German mill, where she stops to have coffee with friends. She notices a painting inside of the German home that features a strikingly beautiful woman. After requesting the family to share the story of this woman, she is handed a faded yellow manuscript. It is a letter written by the woman in the portrait, the miller’s great-aunt Anna Scherer, to her daughter, the miller’s aunt Ursula Scherer. The rest of the story is told through the letter. Anna opens the letter by apologizing to Ursula for ending her daughter’s engagement to a young French nobleman. Anna hopes that after Ursula reads the story she has to relate in the letter, Ursula will better understand Anna’s reasons. She begins with the story of how she first met M. de la Tourelle, a handsome French nobleman, while staying at the home of her genteel school-friend Sophie Rupprecht. The two were soon married and the marriage was considered by Madame Rupprecht and others as a “good marriage” for Anna, despite some hesitation on Anna’s part. She is no longer allowed to visit her family, as they are of a lower class than M. de la Tourelle, and Anna grows depressed and lonely. She is given a middle-aged housemaid, Amante, as a means to make her feel more happy. One night, Amante and Anna sneak into Tourelle’s forbidden chamber in order to get a letter from Anna’s family. However, Anna gets caught in the room when her husband unexpectedly returns with a group of men and the corpse of Sieur de Poissy, a neighboring gentleman. This night reveals Tourelle’s status as a member of brigands known as the Chauffeurs. Anna and Amante escape and flee from Tourelle’s estate. They hide in a neighboring village and don disguises: Amante dresses as a man and itinerant tailor, and Anna darkens her face and hair to take on the appearance of Amante’s wife. There are a number of close calls, but the two manage to evade Tourelle. However, Tourelle stabs a woman to death at a local inn whom he mistakingly believed was Anna. Anna gives birth to her daughter, Ursula, and the tiny family create a home for themselves in Frankfurt. One night, Amante is discovered and is stabbed to death. A kind doctor tells Anna this devastating news, but also offers to take care of her and Ursula. He marries Anna. Anna retains her grey complexion even after she stops dying her hair and skin. Tourelle makes eye contact with Anna, but doesn’t recognize the old-looking woman. Anna finally reveals that the man that Ursula had fallen in love with was the son of de Poissy, and he reminds Anna of her former trauma.

Notes & Quotes

  • In her The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel (2010), Julia Sun-Joo Lee reveals the influence of the American slave narrative to the work of four prominent Victorian authors, including Gaskell. According to Sun-Joo Lee, the slave narrative was massively influential to Victorian fiction for a number of reasons: it was a popular genre that sold well (9), it could easily connect (though problematically) to issues of gender and class (9,11), it offered sensational and horrifying plot lines (13), and it was a great medium for abolitionists and reformers to use in order to further their message. In her discussion of “The Grey Woman,” Sun-Joo Lee notes Gaskell’s ambiguous connection to the abolition movement in England: although she had “antislavery sympathies,” Gaskell also “would remain suspicious of any belief system prone to radicalism or extremism- including the abolitionist cause” (76). Gaskell also was concerned that speeches delivered by abolitionists to British audiences were not helpful to the cause. Sun-Joo Lee quotes Gaskell: “All the Anti Slavery people will attend her lectures to be convinced of what they are already convinced, & to have their feelings stirred up without the natural & right outlet of stirred feelings, the power of simple & energetic actions,…” (ibid.). Despite Gaskell’s mixed relationship with the abolitionist movement, Sun-Joo Lee notes that “she repeatedly mined the slave narrative for literary inspiration, recognizing its potency as a genre of social protest” (77). I was really amazed at how much Gaskell borrowed from the slave narrative genre in “The Gray Woman”: the story is framed with the authorizing voice of a (white) English woman at the start as well as a portrait of the story’s heroine, Anna deals with sexual violence and a level of captivity, she deals with isolation and is separated from her family, she must escape and avoid capture while being hunted, she must wear a disguise, and Anna’s complexion is constantly a focal point. Her ambiguous complexion (neither dark nor light, but grey) as well as Amante’s ability to “pass” as a man and Anna’s “passing” as nobility, then “passing” as a tailor’s wife, also connects to slave narratives like the one belonging to Harriet Jacobs, which feature a light-skinned character.
  • This short story also fits well within the “female gothic” sub-genre. It uses elements of the Bluebeard narrative and highlights female fears of marriage and childbirth. It also includes a brutal husband who seeks to destroy the heroine’s reputation. In female gothic tales, this is often done through making the heroine appear to be mad, however, here, M. de la Tourelle instead cites Anna’s disappearance as a symptom of her supposed immorality.
  • The description of M. de la Tourelle’s gloomy home reminded me a lot of Poe’s description of the house of Usher. I think, much like the house of Usher, this bit of gothic architecture could also be analyzed under an ecogothic lens:

…the place looked so dreary. On one side, the chateau looked like a raw new building, hastily run up for some immediate purpose, without any growth of trees or underwood near it, only the remains of the stone used for building, not yet cleared away from the immediate neighbourhood, although weeds and lichens had been suffered to grown near and over the heaps of rubbish; on the other, were the great rocks from which the place took its name, and rising close against them, as if almost a natural formation, was the old castle, whose building dated many centuries back.

“The Grey Woman” (1861) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.