The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1852

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by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1852

Charles Dickens greatly admired Elizabeth Gaskell, whose story "Lizzie Leigh" opened the first number of his weekly Household Words on 30 March 1850. She became a regular contributor (Cranford and North and South, among other items), though her craftsmanship often vexed him and she could be patronizing about the "Dickensy periodical … I did so hope to escape it." She also regarded as "good enough for Dickens" stories unworthy of classier magazines. "The Old Nurse's Story," her first ghost story, was contributed by invitation to the 1852 special Christmas issue, A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire, and several others appeared in later issues. The story was collected in 1865 in Cousin Phillis and Other Tales. Gaskell loved telling ghost stories, and on one occasion she claimed to have seen a ghost.

Dickens called "The Old Nurse's Story" "a very fine ghost-story indeed. Nobly told, and wonderfully managed." In his six letters about it he suggested, and even sent a draft of, an alternative ending, claiming that her conclusion weakened the terror. Gaskell did alter the ending, but not in his fashion.

In the story the old nurse Hesther tells how, when she was 17 years old, she took her beloved five-year-old charge, the recently orphaned Miss Rosamond, to Furnivall Manor house, an impressive though run-down mansion near the Cumberland Fells. The house was owned by the girl's relative, Lord Furnivall, though it is now inhabited only by his aged and "hard sad" great-aunt Miss Grace Furnivall, her "cole and grey, and stony" companion Mrs. Stark, and a few servants. Strange and sinister events occur. An organ plays weird music, and although Hesther finds that its mechanism is broken ("my flesh began to creep a little"), she gets used to it (it "did one no harm"). One wintry evening Rosamond is lured up the fells by a pretty little girl who beckons her from the garden. She is discovered frozen and asleep, and when revived, she tells how a weeping lady had welcomed her there and lulled her to sleep. But only one set of footprints lead up through the snow. The girl continues to haunt Rosamond, beating at the window to be let in. Hesther's fellow servants are reluctant to disclose the family history underlying these mysteries, but eventually she discovers that the special organist is an earlier Lord Furnivall, a vicious tyrant who nevertheless was an ardent lover of music. His two beautiful daughters, Grace and Maude, both fell in love with a foreign musician who annually visited the manor to perform. He flirted with both, but he clandestinely married Maude, who bore him a daughter. Enraged by this disgrace to a noble family, Furnivall turned the mother and child out into the snow, where the girl soon died and her mother went crazy. The climax comes with a reenactment of the event, on a suitably tempestuous January night, that is witnessed by all of the household. The aged Miss Furnivall tries to stop her father from striking the child, but her younger self is seen mercilessly looking on. The old lady drops "death-stricken" and dies realizing that "what is done in youth can never be undergone in age!" Through Hesther's heroic efforts to prevent Rosamond from being lured to her death by the phantoms, she survives and prospers.

As Miriam Allot has pointed out, the storm is a link between Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (a spectral girl clamoring at the window to be let in, an old house in northern England, tempestuous weather) and Henry James's The Turn of the Screw (another story told "round the fire" at Yuletide and one involving a mansion, gothic weather, and a young governess who gradually becomes aware of a supernatural threat to her charges and who strives, vainly, to save them). Like Brontë's Nelly Dean and James's Mrs. Grose, Hesther is a sensible, wholesome down-to-earth domestic whose very ordinariness helps make creditable the strange, disturbing, and violent narrative she tells.

Dickens's notion for "a very terrific end" was that in the climactic episode everyone should hear the noises and see the ghost child but that only Rosamond should see the other spectral figures, "crying out what it is she sees, and describing the phantom child as shewing it to her as it were." The editors of Dickens's Letters have argued that this would have made a stronger ending, but other commentators have argued differently. It is unfortunate that Gaskell's original ending, Dickens's draft revision, and her replies to his letters have not survived.

—Philip Collins

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The Old Nurse's Story by Elizabeth Gaskell, 1852

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