We all think of Elizabeth Gaskell as a brilliantly entertaining storyteller, whom Dickens addressed as ‘my dear Scheherazade’. But how many of us know her works of non-fiction? One interesting – and I might even dare to say obscure – piece is ‘An Accursed Race’, published this very month, August 1855, in Household Words.
Two years before its publication, Gaskell had travelled to France, a journey which Jenny Uglow cites as the inspiration for four Gaskell stories: ‘Traits and Stories of the Huguenots’, ‘My French Master’, ‘Bran’ and ‘The Scholar’s Story’ but ‘An Accursed Race’ could also have originated from these continental travels.
Tales of racial and religious hatred culminating in social exclusion and cruel persecution were not new, particularly after the French Revolution when British authors wanted to define themselves and their country as free, Protestant and moral in opposition to France, which they viewed as immoral and subject to the repression of the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, racial difference was important, but religion was key. In Gaskell’s writing racial persecution is key, and to our more secular society, torn by division and nationalist feelings, her work seems strangely modern.
Gaskell begins: ‘We have our prejudices in England’, and how can her readers disagree! Yet she consigns those prejudices to the past’: ‘Or, if that assertion offends any of my readers, I will modify it: we have had our prejudices in England’ which she proceeds to, confronting us with our shortcomings – a clever piece of authorial manipulation!
The people she writes about, the Cagots, a persecuted race whose home was in the Pyrenees, had previously been the subject of a novel by Thomas Colley Grattan, ‘The Cagot’s Hut’, in Highways and By-Ways; or, Tales of the Roadside, Picked up in the French Provinces. By a Walking Gentleman(1823/1827). Yet Gaskell presents the Cagots very differently from Gratton. He emphasises their deformity and ‘otherness’ while Gaskell illustrates their connectedness, emphasising their similarities with those who ostracize them thereby questioning the definition ‘accursed’, for:
the Cagots were good-looking men, and (although they bore certain natural marks of their caste,..) were not easily distinguished by casual passers-by from other men’.
To differentiate them from their ‘social betters’ they are forced to wear a defining symbol, and their human status is further reduced as they are denied a name. They are referred to as: ‘Crestiaa, or Cagots, just as we speak of animals by their generic names’. Furthermore, while Gratton presents their pale skin as symptomatic of disease, Gaskell describes it as naturally ‘fair’, a racial characteristic associated with northern Europe.
The social exclusion experienced by the Cagots has many contemporary resonances: apartheid in South Africa; the treatment of African slaves; Hitler’s Germany etc., the ethnic cleansing which has long been campaigned against by organisations such as the United Nations and Amnesty International. We are thus faced with our own social demons just as Gaskell herself, as a Unitarian, was not a stranger to prejudice and bigotry.