A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

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’

11 thoughts on “A sad tale’s best

  1. I had no idea Mrs Gaskell wrote so many short stories – only having known her for North and South and Wives and Daughters. The Old Nurse’s Story in particular sounds as if it has it all – Christmas, Gothic setting, big spooky house in the countryside. Perfect.
    I recently read a collection of M.R.James stories and really enjoyed them. A lovely, Edwardian assortment of fusty academic bachelors being driven to terror and depair by the inexplicable. Nothing gory, just slow, creeping dread, that grips you by the shoulder on dark winter nights before the fire (the only setting in which to read them of course 🙂 ). The late Christopher Lee read some for the television a few Christmases ago and he was very good.
    Also loved Turn of the Screw – Henry James this time – with added creepy/possessed children. Marvellous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I confess this is the first Gaskell I’ve read (I don’t count watching the enjoyable Cranford TV series as actually reading her), and I really warmed to her style — very accessible. ‘Curious, if True’ is very much in that fusty academic M R James style, though before James was writing of course.

      Ditto Turn of the Screw as an unread classic — must get a move on!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Too many books, too little time! Turn of the Screw was a bit fusty, you’re right. Of it’s time in some ways, though a truly sinister premise.
        I might try Gaskell’s short stories, then. I do like a ghost story. I read Christmas Carol every Christmas for years – odd and obssessive, but true 🙂

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  2. I like Gaskell’s novels better than the short stories, but maybe that’s because I’m not a huge fan of short stories in general. I haven’t seen the Cranford series but love the book, and Wives and Daughters is also a favorite. Still, a small taste of Gaskell is better than none.

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    1. I’m a relative latecomer to fiction generally, Lory, and that’s despite having been introduced to many classics as a kid and while at school — I just wasn’t at the right age or of the right temperament then to appreciate most of the nuances. As you say, a small taste is better than none, and I’m looking forward to Gaskell, the Brontes, more Dickens, James, the rest of Austen, Woolf and all those staples.

      Actually, when I look back at my childhood reading and school studies I was introduced to a great range of authors — Stevenson, Rider Haggard, Hardy, Dickens, the poetry of Yeats and Goldsmith, the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, Shaw — but singularly missing were female authors — Alcott, Sewell, Austen, the Brontes and Gaskell for example — maybe because I went to an all-boys school but probably because female literature was still somehow regarded as inferior. So please excuse my belated conversion!


  3. I can imagine that despite the brevity she manages to turn the screw s…l…o…w…y, as will provide a ghost story more effective than any of the two-gruesome-murders-per-page type. Dornford Yates (now out of print and completely out of fashion) had a couple of lovely subtle ones.

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    1. It is a perfect descendant of the classic Gothick tales of half a century or so before, but with no hint of parody or pastiche. The violence is scarcely hinted at till near the end, and while quite distressing wouldn’t compete with 20C writing, let alone 21C.

      And no, despite your urgings, I still haven’t got round to Dornford Yates …

      Liked by 1 person

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