The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

‘The Grey Woman’

Published January 1861 in volume IV of Charles Dickens’  All the Year Round

January is a dull month after the Christmas festivities, so what could be better than brightening these cold winter days with a good Gothic tale? Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Grey Woman’ is one of my personal favourites; only just beginning to be given the critical attention it deserves. Renzo d’Agnillo describes it as ‘one of her finest and most powerful tales’ [1] and I would not disagree! For me it is a complex and disturbing narrative that never disappoints, no matter how often it is read.

All Gaskell’s stories exhibit characteristic features, one of which is the inclusion of a short travel sketch. In ‘The Grey woman’ the destination is Heidelberg, Germany, a place Gaskell visited three times: once in 1841 with William, then in 1858 and 1860 with three of her daughters. The story opens in the tea gardens of a mill on the banks of the River Neckar where in ‘184_ a traveller ‘went to drink coffee…with some friends’. Gaskell’s love of food is obvious here as elsewhere in her writing and this passage brings to mind a letter where she relates her disappointment that no tea, coffee or cake had been available to purchase on her trip to Mannheim with Flossy in 1858 [2]. In fiction you can rewrite history!

However, this opening does more than merely provide an opportunity for Gaskell to share her experiences as a traveller; it creates a comfortable domestic environment, and then shows the fragility of such a concept when  a violent storm disrupts the peace of this scene. Storms are typical features of Gothic texts, as they add atmosphere, but this storm is far more sinister, for  it reveals the darkness and violence below the surface of social gloss. ‘We had nearly finished our coffee, and our “kucken,” and our cinnamon cake, when heavy splashes fell on our thick leafy covering; quicker and quicker they came, coming through the tender leaves as if they were tearing them asunder’. The tender leaves become a metaphor for Anna and all young women as they pass from romance to marriage. Even the homely mill hides within it a dark tale of fear, repression and the abuse of power. 

Elizabeth Gaskell is masterful at presenting a surface image and then forcing her readers to look beneath, where nothing is ever what it seems. Monsieur de la Tourelle, Anna’s prospective husband, is superficially attractive but his attraction soon fades as Anna begins to be tired and then fearful of his lisping affectations, his social gloss: ‘Then he tried German, speaking it with a kind of soft lisp that I thought charming. But, before the end of the evening, I became a little tired of the affected softness and effeminacy of his manners, and the exaggerated compliments he paid me’. While Gaskell’s presentation of de la Tourelle does break conventional gender boundaries, as many critics have pointed out, it is also an example of Gaskell’s adept use of contrasts. De la Tourelle’s soft and feminine exterior is the exact opposite to his dark and cruel nature, similarly Anna’s maid/husband, Amante,  has a masculine appearance but a soft and paternal nature . In turn, these two ‘husbands’ are also contrasted to allow readers to understand Gaskell’s criteria for a successful marriage.  As a Unitarian, Gaskell saw the need for marriage to be an equal partnership, not an abusive misuse of legal power. Husbands had complete power in law over their wives until after the Married Woman’s Property Act was introduced [3]. The idea of equality in marriage is traditionally associated with Mary Wollstonecraft, but it is worth remembering that she was inspired by the Unitarian teachings of Joseph Priestley at his chapel in Newington.  

We have talked of the Gothic influences in ‘The Grey Woman’, but it is difficult not to read this text and see similarities between Amante and the ‘magnificent’ Marion Halcome, in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, published during the second half of 1859 and classified as sensation fiction. Marion too was an example of gender fluidity, a woman who had many male characteristics, not only facially with hair on her upper lip, but also in her forthright and fearless behaviour. Yet even Collins’ depiction of gender is less radical than Gaskell’s arrangement of a marriage between two women. 

Another similarity between these texts is the inclusion of a pale heroine, a ghostly figure in Collins and a grey woman in Gaskell’s work. Ghosts, doubles, female incarceration, all these features are taken directly form Gothic fiction, so how do we classify The Grey Woman’? Ann Cvetkovitch sees sensation fiction as more about marriage: the legal status of marriage, inheritance and property laws rather than courtship, which is the material of Gothic fiction. In Gaskell’s tale Anna is married three times, although only once legally! [4] Shirley Foster also points out the narrative connections to sensation fiction while also acknowledging  it has similar connections to the Gothic fiction of Ann Radcliffe [5].  Gothic motifs and narrative techniques are ever-present, haunting the text. For example, a hidden manuscript takes the central narrative position.  This manuscript is Anna’s story – her history – and like the story of most women throughout history (or his-story) her-story is never publicly told, never published, and thus becomes hidden from history. Some critics have suggested ‘The Grey Woman’ is a reworking of Bluebeard and there are certain similarities – hints at a previous dead wife; de la Tourelle’s determined efforts to find and kill Anna and, of course, the circumstances of her escape. Gothic romance, sensation fiction or perhaps fairy tale – how do we read this text? Genre thus becomes yet another boundary that Gaskell breaks to produce a hybrid text that defies definition. In fact no boundary seems to escape her adept pen; she even challenges the class divide by marrying the mistress of a chateau to a servant. 

However, while the narrative associations with fairy tale, fable, and Gothic romance dissociate this text from the novel of realism that was gaining popularity during the mid-nineteenth century, a genre clearly evident in Gaskell’s ‘industrial novels’, Gaskell avers that the story is ‘true’: ‘the story I am going to relate is true as to it’s (sic) main facts  and as to the consequence of those facts from which this tale takes its title’ [6].  If we exclude Gaskell’s travel sketch, we are left with two areas that have a historical basis. One is Monsieur de la Tourelle’s band of ruffians, the Chauffeurs; brigands who were active around the time of the French revolution and used to force their victims to pay ransoms by holding their feet in fires. Gaskell’s de la Tourelle takes this torture even further; he is careless of other’s lives and has on many occasions resorted to murder. But an even more central connection to real events is Anna’s marriage to a handsome, but deadly, husband. Anna’s history as the wife of Monsieur de la Tourelle has close links to a narrative from French history which Gaskell reproduced in ‘French Life’, a work published in parts for Fraser’s Magazine between April and June 1864. 

This tale of the marriage and murder of the Marquise de Ganges by her husband and his brothers is well documented. Gaskell was allegedly introduced to it during a journey through France in 1863, although it had previously appeared in Alexandre Dumas’ collection of Celebrated Crimes translated and published by Chapman and Hall in 1843.  In part III of ‘French Life’ Gaskell comments on the way a woman is vulnerable even in her own home, but, of course, consigns this position of vulnerability and disempowerment to history:

It gives one an awful idea of the state of society in those days (reign of Charles II. in England), to think of this helpless young woman, possessed by a too well-founded dread, yet not knowing of any power to which she could appeal for protection, and obliged to leave the poor safety of a city to go to a lonely house, where those who wished her evil would be able to work their will.

However, a hundred years later the position of women in marriage had not improved. William Blackstone states in his Commentaries on the Laws of England 1765 that: 

The husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage, or at least  is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband’. 

And on New Year’s Day 1856, Gaskell makes it quite clear that the disempowerment of women was not just a thing of the past. In a letter to her friend Eliza Fox she writes:

A husband can coax, wheedle, beat or tyrannize his wife out of something and no law whatever will help this that I see (L. p. 379).

Whether there is any improvement in our modern world is for you to decide!

Diane Duffy 


[1] Renzo d’Agnillo, ‘Physical and Linguistic Metamorphosis in Gaskell’s The Grey Woman in Sandro Jung, ed. Elizabeth Gaskell: Victorian Culture, and the Art of Fiction: Original Essays for the Bicentenary (Academia, 2010), p. 39.

[2] Chapple and Pollard, Letters p. 515.

[3] Initially introduced  in 1870 and revised in 1874, this act was restructured in 1882 to give women more rights.

[4] Ann Cvetkovitch,  Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1992), p. 46.

[5] Shirley Foster , Literary Lives: Elizabeth Gaskell (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), p. 151.

[6] Graham Hadley, Elizabeth Gaskell Chronology (Basingstoke: Palgrave , 2005), p. 201. Hadley quotes Rubenius, 279 from the MS.