The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ can be found in collections of Gothic stories, ghost stories and tales of the macabre, something which might seem odd for a woman who was the wife of a Unitarian minister and, as a Unitarian, a believer in the rational. So what exactly was Gaskell’s attitude to the supernatural – or at least superstition – and how might this attitude inform her so-called ghost stories? In fact, perhaps it is even more relevant to consider just how far this is a story about malign spirits, or whether these ghosts  are being used  as a metaphor for something else, equally terrifying, but much more real.

We know from her letters that Gaskell understood local traditions, as in 1838 she writes about them to Mary Howitt, information which was later printed in William Howitt’s publication The Rural Life of England . Gaskell also makes a number of references in her letters which suggest a superstitious element in her nature, although some may be slightly tongue in cheek.  In October 1859 she writes to George Smith:

somehow or another my luck is against me in any intercourse with him (Thackeray) & being half-Scotch I have a right to be very superstitious; & I have my lucky & unlucky days, & lucky & unlucky people” (Letter 442). P. 576

Perhaps it was an unlucky day when she found the Lawn in Alton, chosen as a retirement home for William, as she writes: ‘it is an unlucky house [which she italicises for emphasis] and I believe I was a fool to set my heart on the place at all’. Unlucky possibly, because it began to cost her more in money and time than she intended. In fact the place proved extremely unlucky, as that was where, three months later, she died. 

Gaskell also confesses to Eliza Fox that ‘Florence is turned so sweet and good she quite frightens me. Did you ever hear of people being ‘fey’? (p. 253) Fey, again, is a significant word, as its meaning is ambivalent – it can mean vague unworldliness or mystery, but it can also suggest supernatural qualities or clairvoyance. And ECG is not averse to admitting to seeing ghosts.

on one long drive “(to a place where I believed the Sleeping Beauty lived, it was so over-grown and hidden up by woods) I SAW a ghost! Yes I did; though in such a matter of fact place as Charlotte St I should not wonder if you are sceptical (Letter 48 p. 82). 

And on the same visit to Shottery [Stratford] she explains: ‘had my fortune told by a gypsy; curiously true as to the past at any rate’.

These references show the tension between the rational and the supernatural that is present in many tales written during the mid-19th century and Gaskell’s are no exception.

However, it is not just the tale, but also the telling that marks a good ghost story from a mediocre one, and Gaskell’s friends found her storytelling bewitching [a good word for Halloween]. Anne Thackeray says: 

the remembrance of her voice comes back to me, harmoniously flowing on and on, with spirit and intention, and delightful emphasis, as we all sat indoors one gusty morning listening to her ghost stories… As I think it over I am suddenly struck by the immense superiority of the ghosts of my youth to the present legion of unclean spirits which surround us…wielding teacups, smashing accordions and banjos, breaking furniture in bits. That morning at Hampstead,… was of a different order of things, spiritual and unseen; mystery was there, romantic feeling, some holy terror and emotion, all combined to keep us gratefully silent and delighted.

Yet Gothic stories were often written by women to do more than just offer readers a tale of terror, to be read in a darkened room on stormy nights, they often carried harsh social criticisms – ‘Truth in disguise’ as Carol Martin calls it.

‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ was published at the end of 1852 in the extra Christmas number of Household Words. This was during the same period that she was producing episodes of Cranford for the same periodical. The focus in both publications is a community of women, or at least bonds between women which Gaskell felt to be so important. Five years later she is still concerned about these bonds, particularly between sisters, and writes to Marianne: 

I could not bear my life if you & Meta did not love each other most dearly, and it is little unspoken-of grievances rankling in the mind that weaken affection, & it is so dreary to see sisters grow old, (as one sometimes does,) not caring for each other, & forgetting all early home-times” (Letter 330), p 435. 

 Gaskell’s letters give us some amazing insights into the ideas that underpin her writing – they too are worth a read.

Diane Duffy

We will be discussing this story at The Elizabeth Gaskell House, 84, Plymouth Grove on September 22nd 2019 at 1pm. Do come along and join us – all are welcome. 

Points to Ponder….

 1.  The imagery here provides a great deal of information about the house and its inhabitants (I have highlighted some significant parts). What impressions do you get from this passage?

The road went up about two miles, and then we saw a great and stately house, with many trees close around it, so close that in some places their branches dragged against the walls when the wind blew; and some hung broken down; for no one seemed to take much charge of the place;—to lop the wood, or to keep the moss-covered carriage-way in order. Only in front of the house all was clear. The great oval drive was without a weed; and neither tree nor creeper was allowed to grow over the long, many-windowed front; at both sides of which a wing protected, which were each the ends of other side fronts; for the house, although it was so desolate, was even grander than I expected. Behind it rose the Fells; which seemed unenclosed and bare enough; and on the left hand of the house, as you stood facing it, was a little, old-fashioned flower-garden, as I found out afterwards. A door opened out upon it from the west front; it had been scooped out of the thick, dark wood for some old Lady Furnivall; but the branches of the great forest-trees had grown and overshadowed it again, and there were very few flowers that would live there at that time.

2 How does ECG create the dramatic tension here?

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—fast enough to blind anyone who might be out and abroad—there was a great and violent noise heard, and the old lord’s voice above all, cursing and swearing awfully, and the cries of a little child, and the proud defiance of a fierce woman, and the sound of a blow, and a dead stillness, and moans and wailings dying away on the hill-side!

3  You may remember a story Gaskell tells of a visit to The Street, a stately home in Anglezarke near Rivington, where: 

‘Lord Willoughby, The President of the Royal Society, and author of some book on natural history…left two daughters, and the estates were disputed and passed away to the male heir by some law of chicanery.[Legend says] ‘Lord Willoughby walked, and every evening was heard seeking for law-papers in the rooms where all the tattered and torn writings were kept’ (L. 12).

How does the substitution of the organ/ music for legal documents change the focus of the story? 

4  Why does ECG choose servants, the old nurse, and Dorothy, to tell this story?

5 What is the role of the male music teacher? What does his character and actions reveal about Lord Furnivall, class and gender relations in the mid-nineteenth century.

6 Who is haunted in this story and what haunts them? Does ECG reveal anything surprising here?

7 Gaskell uses many recurring themes in her novels and stories. What themes do we see here that are also present in her longer works?

8  We noticed echoes of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in North and South, what echoes of Austen’s Northanger Abbey can we find in this tale?

9  In what way might this story serve as a cautionary tale, warning of the dangers when familial bonds are broken? How might this be seen as the reverse side of Cranford?

10 Let us now consider the opening and closing of the story. 

It opens: 

You know, my dears, that your mother was an orphan, and an only child; and I daresay you have heard that your grandfather was a clergyman up in Westmoreland, where I come from.

And closes: 

Yes! she was carried to her bed that night never to rise again. She lay with her face to the wall, muttering low, but muttering always: ‘Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age! What is done in youth can never be undone in age!’What effect does this narrative style have on our interpretation of the story, its ending and its generic associations? 

Finally, if you were asked to catagorise this tale into a specific genre, which would you choose and why?