Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)
Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.
— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)
Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.
The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.
This is the setting for a distinctly Gothic ghost story with a mystery at its heart. Rosamond’s relative, Miss Grace, is a decrepit spinster who lives alone in Furnivall with her servants; like Dickens’ Miss Havisham (who was later to feature in Great Expectations in 1861) she has dark secrets which only gradually reveal themselves during the course of the narrative. Furnivall is the classic Gothick mansion, prey to decay and neglect and with areas of the house shut off. There are family portraits, one of which is turned to the wall; hushed whispers of a foreign musician beloved of two sisters; there are echoes of organ music heard at odd times even though the only organ — once played by Miss Grace’s eccentric father — lies unused and unplayable. And above all there is the young girl whom Rosamond, to her great distress, sees and hears crying at the windows in the depths of a bitter winter.
If you are one of those with “natural Fearfulness” then ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ will certainly play well on your imagination. The climax of the tale begins “one afternoon, not long before Christmas-day” and continues without much respite until “one fearful night, just after the New Year had come in, when the snow was lying thick and deep, and the flakes were still falling …” Shakespeare’s phrase from The Winter’s Tale — “a sad tale’s best for winter” — best sums up this masterfully told narrative.
The other story in this Penguin Little Black Classic (one of a collection of titles to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books in 2015 and sold in the UK for 80p) is ‘Curious, if True’. Supposedly an extract from a letter by Richard Whittingham, the narrator begins in realistic fashion by describing his researches in France; here, in the town of Tours, he is trying to trace collateral descendants of the religious reformer John Calvin, whose sister Katherine (or Catherine) married a certain William Whittingham in the 16th-century. (Note that this is Richard Whittingham, not Richard Whittington, the famous “thrice Lord Mayor of London” according to the original legend which is enshrined in the modern pantomime.)
On Thursday the 18th of August 1859 our Victorian protagonist Whittingham finds himself lost in woods around Tours at night. Unexpectedly (but with a sense of relief) he stumbles across a château ablaze with lights. Here he is welcomed in a manner that suggests he has been mistaken for someone else, and finds himself in the company of a curious but yet oddly familiar array of aristocrats and extraordinary individuals dressed in the fashions of yesteryear. An early clue as to what is happening is furnished by the observation that a Monsieur le Géanquiller has not accompanied him; I’ll not spoil the solution by revealing any more, though you’ve probably guessed the outcome if you repeat the phrase ‘Monsieur le Géanquiller’ enough times in a suitably French accent.
In these two short stories Elizabeth Gaskell reveals herself an accomplished writer in two very different genres, the gothic and the literary burlesque. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (2000, edited by Jack Zipes) notes that she was “a keen storyteller and lover of ghost stories”, approvingly highlighting ‘Curious, if True’ and its Englishman who “comes across a château full of strangely familiar guests”. I would imagine these two tales are perfect tasters for her other short stories.
- In my Reading Challenge ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ fits comfortably — just, a little like Cinderella’s glass slipper — into the category ‘a book set during Christmas’