Background

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65) was a British novelist as well as a writer of short stories and non-fiction. Her writing is known for its inclusion of multiple social classes. She often covers social and industrial conflicts, including strained relationships between employee and employer. She was friends with Charlotte Brontë and Lord Houghton, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, and Harriet Beecher Stowe visited her home in Manchester in the 1850’s.

Elizabeth Gaskell in 1860.

“The Old Nurse’s Story” is a short story that was published in 1852 as part of a collection under the same title. It’s major climactic scene occurs just before Christmas, which makes it a perfect fit for the Victorian tradition of ghost stories being told around Christmas-time. Supposedly, Charles Dickens urged Gaskell to finish and publish this story.

Plot Summary

The story, which is told entirely by the old nurse, begins with the old nurse asking her current charge whether they knew that their mother was an orphan. After explaining the particulars regarding how both their grandmother (“a real lady born” of Lord Furnivall) and grandfather (“…just a curate, son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle but a clever, fine gentleman as ever was and one who was a right-down hard worker in his parish…”) died while their mother, Miss. Rosamond, was still young. Lord Furnivall instructs the nurse to take Miss Rosamond to the Manor House at the foot of the Cumberland Fells, where old Miss Furnivall, the great-aunt of the lord, lives. Soon after arriving to the manor, the nurse, who is just about 18 years old, begins to notice weirdness. The two girls are immediately instructed to never enter the rooms on the eastern side of the house, and to remain only in the west. The old organ (which, upon inspection, seems to be completely out of service), plays at odd hours, and the kindly servants of the house, Dorothy and James, tell the nurse that it is the dead lord of the manor, Miss Furnivall’s father, who plays. One snowy day, after the nurse returns from a church service, she notices that Rosamond is nowhere to be found. After a long search, she finds a shepherd carrying Rosamond through the snow, back to the house. Rosamond tells the nurse that a young girl urged her to follow her outside, where she was led to a lady who was weeping until she noticed the approach of the two children. This woman then took Rosamond on her knee and lulled her to sleep. Later, just before Christmas, the nurse and Rosamond were playing with the billiard-table when they both saw a little girl (Rosamond shouts that this is “my poor little girl out in the snow!”) who cries and beats against the window. The nurse almost immediately notices the uncanny fact that no noise comes from the “Phantom Child.” Dorothy finally tells the nurse the story of the ghost child: years ago, Miss Furnivall had a sister named Miss Maude and both were known as great beauties. Unfortunately, they both fell in love with a foreign musician who visited the mansion from London to teach their father to play the organ. Maude and the musician secretly married and had a daughter, which was also hidden from her father and sister. The young musician continued to flirt with Miss Furnivall and claimed to Maude that he did so in order to better keep their secret. Eventually, however he tired of Maude and ceased to come to the manor. Miss Furnivall was very jealous of the attention she felt that Maude received from the foreign man and it seems like she revealed to her father that Maude had a secret child. The father forced both Maude and the child out of the house, causing them to freeze to death and become the two ghosts which Rosamond encountered. The story ends with all three ghosts appearing in the room with the organ, replaying the fatal scene in which the father turned out his daughter and grandchild. However, a fourth ghost, belonging to Miss Furnivall appears in the scene. That night, Miss Furnivall died.

Notes and Quotes

  • There is a seduction narrative that features prominently in the story. The cause of the conflict between Grace (Miss Furnivall) and her sister Maude is the foreign musician whom their father welcomes into their house. He is an invading force coming from London into this once-peaceful country manor. Gaskell is sure to repeat his foreign-ness through descriptions of his dark face, as well as her move to not give him a name. Instead of a name, he is referred to as the foreigner or the foreign musician. The child born of the secret marriage between Maude and the musician therefore has neither pure British nor aristocratic blood and is purged by the Lord Furnivall, along with its fallen mother. Although this takes the form of a typical seduction plot, it’s interesting that the two were actually married, however it was a secret marriage. Does the secrecy of the marriage negate it? Or is it the fact that she went behind her father’s back in order to complete the pact?
  • In terms of a gothic tale, this story has everything: phantom organ sounds, ghosts, a family secret, and an old manor. This story also takes on familiar aspects of the Bluebeard story (certain rooms are forbidden to a young woman who is a newcomer to the house) which is a common feature of female gothic tales. It also takes on an ecogothic tone at some points, in which the snowy terrain itself is part of the ghostly threat. Additionally, when the young ghost child bangs on the window, she describes the “stillness of the dead-cold weather.” It seems that the ghosts reappear only during the winter season. This tie between phantoms and weather does well to highlight the claustrophobic feeling that snow can inflect upon the human mind. Therefore, this story does deal somewhat with human-nature relations.

“The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.