No. 39: The Old Nurse’s Story, Elizabeth Gaskell

This is my tenth Little Black Classic on the blog, hurrah!

Things we’ve learnt thus far:

  1. I don’t necessarily enjoy fiction. Take Mayhew and Hakluyt.
  2. Mrs Beaton might have provided inspiration to this years Great British Bake Off, but her chicken pie is truly heinous.
  3. I enjoy a drink in the blog. See Hafez, see Hebel, see Kenko.
  4. Hardy’s marriage was genuinely sad.
  5. Mozart swore. Which was surprising.

I regarded the tenth Classic as a landmark, so I asked my marvellous Mum to choose it. A huge fan of the BBC’s adaptation of North and South, she picked Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.

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I know North and South well, having studied it at school alongside Dickens’ Hard Times. They were hard times indeed. Believe it or not, North and South offered genuinely light relief.

At university, North and South formed part of my dissertation, which looked at the birth of the publishing industry in Victorian England.

‘What a hoot!’ I can hear you say ‘Do tell us more! We are fascinated by the serialisation of novels and the first commuter market that required affordable, decent fiction for railway travellers.’

Perhaps another time, dear friend, for now we should turn to the Classic itself.

This particular Little Black Classic comprises two short stories. I’ve chosen to focus on the first, which the Classic takes it’s name from. But the second, called Curious, if True, makes for very entertaining reading – it depicts a gathering of fairytale character at a dinner table. What’s not to like?!

The Old Nurse’s Story doesn’t star such nostalgic characters.

As the title implies, the story is told by an Old Nurse, who fits more of a governess role. For those of you who don’t know, a governess was very common in Victorian Britain. She was usually a young woman, employed by a relatively monied family, and her role was that of a nanny and educator – she was teacher, nurse and friend. Perhaps like a modern day au pair.

Hester, the old nurse, takes us back to her seventeenth year when she cared for a little girl called Rosamund. When Rosamund is sadly orphaned, she and Hester move into Furnivall Manor House, Northumberland, occupied by distant relatives of Rosamund’s.

Isolated on wild moorland, an entire wing closed off from residents, the Manor is pretty damn creepy from the get go.

Upon entry to the house the two newcomers find a hall “so large, and vast, and grand” with a chandelier and organ, and countless imposing portraits.

Hester and Rosamund encounter a motley crew of residents. James and Dorothy, a husband and wife, both fill housekeeper-type roles; Agnes is their maid; Miss Furnivall is the elderly lady of the house; and Mrs Stark her companion.

The whole feel is unsettling. Dorothy and James are welcoming, but Miss Furnivall and Miss Stark are chillingly aloof, particularly the lady of the house who “looked so cold, and grey, and stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone.”

As winter sets in, Hester becomes aware of the old organ playing, usually soon after tucking Rosamund in for the night. “I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance.” Assuming it’s Miss Furnivall practicing her playing, she asks Dorothy and James about its provenance. Both refuse to speak about it, seeming shaken that she should ask.

Agnes then reveals

“she had heard it many a time but most of all on winter nights, and before storms; and folks did say it was the old lord playing on the great organ in the hall, just as he used to when he was alive; but who the old lord was, or why he played on stormy winter evenings in particular, she either could not or would not tell me.”

To add to the mystery, Hester goes to investigate the eerie organ and finds it smashed up inside. Understandably, “my flesh began to creep a little.”

On one snowy day, when Hester returns from church, she cannot find her dear Rosamund anywhere in the great house. Everyone searches for the child, even Mrs Furnivall “trembling all over,” but to no avail.

Hester runs out into the snowy moors desperately, bumping into a lowly shepherd who holds the near dead child in his arms.

When she is revived, the child reveals she watched the snow falling out the window when she saw a pretty little girl who beckoned to Rosamund. The little girl led Rosamund to a set of holly trees where a lady sat, weeping. Upon seeing the two little girls, she “smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull her to sleep.”

As Hester points out, however, there was just one set of a child’s footprints in the snow.

Cue morbid organ music.

Hester relays Rosamund’s tale to Mrs Furnivall, and the old woman shrieks “keep her from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her it is a wicked, naughty child.”

The plot thickens when, one day, Hester and Rosamund are playing and the little mysterious girl appears outside

“dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night – crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail … when, all of a sudden, and close upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering.”

Hester does all she can to protect Rosamund, physically pinning her to the floor to avoid her running out to the ghostly child.

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***SPOILER ALERT*** Ignore this section if you want to read for yourself!

After this event, Hester forces Dorothy to speak.

Dorothy reveals that Miss Furnivall had a sister, called Maude. Both sisters fell in love with their father’s musician, and he courted each in turn while their father practiced his beloved organ.

The musician married Maude in secret, and the two had a baby girl, whose identity was kept from the old lord. When Miss Furnivall learned of her sister’s disgrace, however, she told her father, who banished both Maude and her child from the house, sending them out in to the thick snow.

One November evening, when snow is falling thickly, Hester and the other residents can hear ghostly voices and the cold wind screaming outside. The door to the locked east wing bursts open, and four ghostly apparitions appear – the old lord, a younger Miss Furnivall, Miss Maude and her little girl, aka Miss Rosamund’s freaky friend.

In a strange occurrence, the scene of banishment is played out for the living – the ghosts frozen in time before the disgraced mother and daughter go to meet their snowy doom. The old Miss Furnivall begs the ghost of her father to save them from their fates. The short story closes with Miss Furnivall warning us

“What is done in youth can never be undone in old age!”

***SAFE TO LOOK***

This story was an absolute corker. I couldn’t put it down.

This Gothic tale seemed a real digression from Gaskell’s usual social commentaries, which tend to explore themes of class, family and the impact of industrialisation.

The Old Nurse’s Story really made me think of Jane Eyre, my absolute favourite book. A young woman is charged with caring and educating a little girl in a large, eerie, isolated house. The young woman also senses another living force in the house. I won’t reveal what that force in Jane Eyre is, for anyone that haven’t read it (but seriously, where have you been? Go and read it!).

Gaskell and Brontë were in fact friends, and Gaskell wrote Brontë’s biography, so it’s entirely plausible that Jane Eyre was a source of inspiration.

Having put the book down, I set upon visiting a grand haunted house like Furnivall Manor House. In a dark, damp, cobwebbed corner of my brain I recalled Ham House in Richmond is haunted.

I checked online, and sure enough there are accounts of the supernatural – an old woman scratching at a bedroom wall, inexplicable footsteps, the strange smell of tobacco and the ghostly apparition of a cocker spaniel.

Delighted at this find, I grabbed my camera and Tim (I was too terrified to go it alone).

We set out on a truly beautiful Autumnal Sunday, disembarked at Richmond and walked along the Thames to reach Ham House. With sunshine overheard, we passed cows, geese, rowers and dog-walkers. It was truly idyllic, and not in the slightest bit creepy.

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When approaching the house itself, however, it did begin to feel a little ominous. It is certainly grand, but doesn’t exude any real warmth unlike other stately homes. It’s literally dark in colour, and eerie busts stare down at you as you approach the house.

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I thought that the description of Furnivall Manor House is actually very similar to Ham House.

“Only in front of the house was all clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long many-windowed front.”

Upon arrival in the house, you find yourself in a large, light entrance hall, with portraits glaring down from the walls at us intruders, again like in Furnivall Manor House. From here we were directed through to the chapel and grand staircase, both rumoured to be haunted.

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In the case of the chapel, there are accounts of the ghost of the Duchess Elizabeth of Lauderdale, who died in Ham House, crying as she looks over a dead body, understood to be that of her husband, while a man stands behind her with his hand on her shoulder.

*Shudder.

The chapel was indeed a bit creepy – the photo below doesn’t do it justice. But then what low-lit chapel is not creepy?

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The staircase, on the other hand, was most definitely eerie. Decked in dark wooden panelling and floorboards that creak and crack, grand paintings are fixed to the walls and a chandelier swings overhead.

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At one point, Tim fell deathly silent and turned very pale. I asked him what was wrong. He said he could hear a ticking, despite there not being a clock in presence. Then, we both heard a clock chime before a lowly gust passed the both of us, like something had walked between us.

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*Jokes.

We literally didn’t experience anything.

But I could entirely imagine the great organ from The Old Nurse’s Story being placed here, playing inexplicably in the depth of winter. I could even envisage the ghostly apparitions confronting the living in the space at the foot of the stairs, and the roguish musician courting both sisters in the beautiful grounds.

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It makes for a perfect Halloween’s story and, those of you interested in haunted houses, Ham House does offer a Halloween ghost tour in search of the supernatural.

Thank you, Mum, for picking The Old Nurse’s Story – it was excellent! Perhaps you might like to borrow it?

That makes ten Little Black Classics read, 70 to go. Hurrah!

Next week I will be blogging about Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill.

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3 thoughts on “No. 39: The Old Nurse’s Story, Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Katy says:

    I really enjoyed re-reading this, it’s very well written and made me laugh. Out load, on a packed train. Belated congratulations on your tenth book and post!

    Like

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