“The Old Nurse’s Story” by Elizabeth Gaskell

[spoiler warning]


When a lot of people think of literature in general, what comes to mind is the traditional English novel.  Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens—  these are, anecdotally, the instinctive figures of literature for most people.  To be honest, I was never that much a fan.  Sure, I enjoyed reading them, but I just couldn’t understand the appeal of this expansive novelistic form, which seems so strongly loved that many prefer it over the frenzied, marvelous, schizogenic constructions of Modernism, or the studied neurotic flailings of Postmodernism.  But I have to say, I may now have been made a convert.  Sure, Gaskell’s writing is still that tremendous literary molasses, flowing over everything with expansive narrative networks of genealogies and tangential histories, ridden with dialectical renderings (though mercifully much more readable than James’, Chambers’, or Lovecraft’s attempts), and lacking distinctive stylistic flourish, but something about her writing has seduced me.  It might be how, despite having largely been written in the 1850s, sections of this book read like an Angela Carter-esque feminist revision circa 1980.  It might be the characters that are almost always more than just caricatures of ideas—no Gradgrinds here.  Or it might just be some subtle skill, some ability to breathe vivacity into even the longest of stories.

Interestingly, Gaskell is most well-known for her social realist novels like North and South, which carries over into these, as Penguin has chosen to title it, Gothic Tales (this is the second collection I’ve read with that exact title, the first being by the Marquis de Sade, and I have to wonder by the end of my life just how many sets of Gothic Tales will I read?).  They show an awareness of cultural differences and the difficulties that arise thereof, as well as at least a little more awareness of and sympathy for the working class than is normally encountered in the ghost stories from that century.  But in addition to that, they’re very well-written and well-structured, and as such Gaskell has been very influential on the traditional ghost story.  This is a very well-known story, often anthologized and often imitated, and even if you haven’t heard of it I’m betting you’re very familiar with the tropes.


The story is framed as a narrative told to a group of children concerning a time when their mother, an orphan, was a little girl, and the nurse was young as well.  The nurse has been hired on in care of the mother, named Miss Rosamond, before she was born.  When Rosamond is still a little girl, both her parents die suddenly due to illness, and Rosamond and the nurse find themselves living with the old aunt Miss Furnivall in the Manor House at the foot of Cumberland Fells, the ancestral home of the family (whereas the girl’s guardian lives comfortably elsewhere and presumably doesn’t want a little girl around cramping his style, so packs her off into the old place).  Miss Furnivall and her servant and childhood friend, Miss Stark, are very old and spend most of their time in the west drawing-room, doing very little.

While spending time in the house, among the old portraits they find an exceptionally beautiful one, which Dorothy [I honestly can’t figure out her direct relationship to the family despite scouring the text; she and her husband James seem something between servants and family members] explains was Miss Furnivall when young.  Then she says that the older sister of Miss Furnivall—in this context called Miss Grace because Furnivall is the last name so the older sister would be Miss Furnivall if that makes any sense—was even more beautiful, and affords the nurse a brief look at a portrait of her that is normally turned toward the wall.

Meanwhile the nurse begins to hear organ music, although James insists it’s just the wind.  Dorothy tells her that some “folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to do when he was alive” and the nurse “one day when I was in the hall by myself, I opened the organ and peeped all about it and around it … and I saw it was all broken and destroyed inside, though it looked so brave and fine; and then, though it was noonday, my flesh began to creep a little, and I shut it up, and run away pretty quickly to my own bright nursery; and I did not like hearing the music for some time after that, any more than James and Dorothy did.”

Then one snowy day the nurse has gone away to church, and when she returns Rosamond is nowhere to be found.  She sees a single set of tiny footprints running off up to the Fells.  On her path following them she runs across a shepherd carrying a bundled package: it is Rosamond, near dead from the cold.  The nurse hurries her inside and when Rosamond is revived she explains that she was following a little girl who was luring her up to a beautiful lady by a holly-tree, although the nurse contradicts her by pointing out that there was only one set of tracks.

The old ladies demand an explanation of what has been happening, but when the nurse repeats the story, expecting to get into trouble, Miss Furnivall calls out “Oh! Heaven forgive!  Have mercy! … keep her from that child!  It will lure her to her death!  That evil child! … Wilt Thou never forgive!”

Not long before Christmas, they are playing in the nursery when Rosamond suddenly calls out about a girl in the window and sure enough there is a girl there.  The nurse restrains Rosamond, and realizes that though she is calling out and pounding on the window, the girl makes no sound.

“‘What is the matter with my sweet one?’ cried Dorothy, as I bore in Miss Rosamond, who was sobbing as if her heart would break.

“‘She won’t let me open the door for my little girl to come in; and she’ll die if she is out on the Fells all night.  Cruel, naughty Hester,’ she said, slapping me; but she might have struck harder, for I had seen a look of ghastly terror on Dorothy’s face, which made my very blood run cold.”

They shut Rosamond in and Dorothy finally tells the story.  The two young ladies Furnivall, Miss Maude and Miss Grace, both began courting a mysterious foreigner who taught the old lord organ playing, but Miss Maude finally gained his attention, and they were secretly married.  However, under the conditions of the secret marriage and the foreigner’s continued courting of Miss Grace, supposedly as subterfuge, Miss Maude became increasingly unpleasant to be around, and the foreigner began spending more time away and then finally deserted the family, leaving Miss Maude illegitimately wed, and with a little girl.  Apparently at some point in the desperation of her situation she mocked Miss Grace and told her that she had won the foreigner’s attentions, and soon the old lord in all his fury appeared and cast out Miss Maude and her child for disgracing the family, Miss Grace by his side all the time.  “But the old lord never touched his organ again, and died within the year; and no wonder! for, on the morrow of that wild and fearful night, the shepherds, coming down the Fell side, found Miss Maude sitting, all crazy and smiling, under the holly-trees, nursing a dead child, with a terrible mark on its right shoulder.  ‘But that was not what killed it,’ said Dorothy: ‘it was the frost and the cold.'”

As the winter progresses, the haunting gets worse, and they are forced to pretty much completely lock Rosamond in to prevent her trying to follow the little girl.  One night the nurse is summoned by the bell down to the drawing-room and brings Rosamond so that she will not be tempted when there is a great commotion, and then, suddenly, the whole drama appears before them in ghostly form—the raging old lord striking the little girl with his crutch, the terrified Miss Maude, the stolid Miss Grace watching everything—and “Miss Furnivall, the old woman by my side, cried out, ‘Oh, father! father! spare the little innocent child!'”  The lights go out “and Miss Furnivall lay at our feet stricken down by the palsy—death-stricken.

“Yes!  she was carried to her bed that night never to rise again.  She lay with her face to the wall, muttering low, but muttering always: ‘Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!'”

For me, this is pretty much just the perfect ghost story.  It’s very cliché of course, but such is to be expected of an early influential work.  It is creepy, but like many great ghost stories the final horror is not the supernatural, it is the evil that people do to each other, and the feeling of dread and horror comes from the sensation that we cannot ever revise the past.  This, I think, is one of the most successful deployments of that idea of haunting, comparable with Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which I know is more famously considered as a masterful commentary on slavery, but should also be recognized as an accomplished horror novel in its own right).

The great thing about Gaskell’s work is that she is very multi-talented.  This is really the only traditional ghost story in collection; others run the gambit from a dramatization of the Salem Witch Trials to stories of witch’s curses to proto-crime fiction to what is practically a Greek tragedy.  She has a fantastic grasp of how to use narrative and drama to make social commentary, but she approaches this with subtlety and without pedantry.  I am fully comfortable recommending not just this collection, but all of Gaskell’s works, gothic and otherwise, to anyone who likes good literature.

Well, this is the last post for this week, and next week is the final run.  Three more days, three more authors, but a whole lot of reading for me to do (you’ll see why on the final day).  Monday we look at supposedly the best writer of Lovecraftian horror next to Lovecraft himself: Clark Ashton Smith.

All quotations from Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell, published by Penguin Classics in 2004.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.


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