In Gaskell’s melodramatic tale “The Doom of the Griffiths” (1857), the fourteenth century Welsh nationalist figure of Owain Glyndŵr is plotted against by his lifelong friend, Griffths, during his victorious battle against the English. In return for such betrayal, Owain conjures the curse that the Griffiths’s “line would end with the murder of the eighth generation Griffiths by the ninth” (Pryke, 1999) and, here, Gaskell lays the basis of her plot. With the Griffiths family condemned to a future of “damp, dark ruins” (pg.4), Gaskell accounts the tragedy of Owen Griffiths, the wealthy, family cursed protagonist, who falls in love with Nest Pritchard, a young and beautiful peasant girl. Their secret marriage combines with this forgotten family curse to form the crux of this disturbing gothic horror story in which Gaskell engages with tropes of myth, revenge, murder and the societal position of women.
In returning home from college, Owen marks that “a great change had taken place in the outward manifestations of his father’s character; and, by degrees, [he] traced this change to the influence of his stepmother; so slight, so imperceptible to the common observer, yet so resistless in its effects.” After the revelation of his marriage, “Father, that woman is my wife” (p.4), the Robert Griffiths darkly retaliates and murders his son’s only child. Here, Owen assumes the role of a vengeful father and, subsequent to an intense period of mental torment and suffering, “pushed [his father] hard, and drove him on to the great displaced stone” (p.4), claiming murder for murder. Owen, Nest and her father then seek refuge by setting out for Liverpool, but are lost at sea. Thus, the curse is fulfilled, the line is ended, and “a Saxon stranger holds the land of the Griffiths” (pg.4).
Originally a Welsh landowner, Owain Glyndŵr led a series of uprisings against Henry IV and Henry V between 1400 and 1412, proclaiming himself at one point Prince of Wales. He figures in many Welsh legends as a magician, and as a pioneering Welsh nationalist. This Welsh backdrop of Gaskell’s tale immediately caught my interest as I have visited Anglesey, North Wales a countless number of times with a static caravan situated there since my early childhood. I, therefore, had a brief knowledge of this Welsh leader and recognised many of the places in which Gaskell sets her tale. It is interesting to note that “the image of Wales [was] increasingly popularised in the nineteenth century as a place with distant, romantic past, people of pure, non-Saxon, non-Norman blood, and its own ancient language” (Pryke, 1999).
I found it most compelling, in my reading, to consider the distinction between the events in the tale that arise from the forgotten family curse and those that from the human emotions of power, pride, jealousy, idolatry and neglect. It is interesting how, with superstition providing the ideal scapegoat, the impulses of human behaviour may be disguised with myth and metaphysical forces.
The performance of gender in this tale is also notable with parallels being drawn between men condemning men and women criticising women. For example, I have already explained that Owain curses Griffiths and Owen murders his father, while I will now explain how Nest is denounced by Owen’s stepmother and local landlady. The women in the tale dislike Nest and her reputation for inconsistency, pre-marriage and lower social status. She is repeatedly named “giddy” and, in the landlady’s warning against Owen’s marriage to her, the Welsh idiom translates “three things are alike: a fine barn without corn, a fine cup without drink, a fine woman without her reputation”. It is these women, denouncing the courtship of Nest and Owen, who catalyse Robert’s fury and brutal murder of their only child.
Lastly, I think that Gaskell’s rhetorical question,”How often do we see giddy, coquetting, restless girls become sobered by marriage?” (pg.4), has great potency in inviting a wider consideration of other character formations in literary texts and is a concept that I could further investigate in my degree.
Therefore, I enjoyed Gaskell’s gothic tale as a short, yet undeniably disturbing, read. I will definitely be reading more of her gothic fiction soon.
Many thanks for reading,
Gaskell, E. and Kranzler, L., 2011. The Doom Of The Griffiths [In, Gothic Tales: Edited With An Introduction And Notes By Laura Kranzler] (Penguin Classics). Cambridge [England]: Proquest LLC.
PRYKE, JO. “Wales and the Welsh in Gaskell’s Fiction: Sex, Sorrow and Sense.” The Gaskell Society Journal, vol. 13, 1999, pp. 69–84. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/45186103. Accessed 18 June 2020.