Something to Fear in Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” is the perfect piece for the beginning student of literature. A seventeen-year-old girl is charged with the care of a young toddler-child, following the death of the child’s parents, and with the mechanics of family law in place, the two are tearfully whisked away to a mysterious mansion where the supernatural reigns with abandon. The threat of danger gets real, and in the vein of Poe’s vision for the short story, the ending is appropriate and even satisfying — our storyteller’s intentions have been realized and a chill goes spiraling down the spine as the calamity goes colliding into the mind! It’s sensational writing (provided there’s a candle by your bedside and it’s a stormy night).

A standard haunted mansion cuts the line of a cloudy sky.

And then the analytical work begins. Notwithstanding, it’s the briskness of the story flow that concerns us here, as it seems, our authoress may not have endowed her narrative with the care she put into her novels, which isn’t meant to undermine her worth as a writer at all. Dickens asked her to pen the thing and by God, she penned it. What the close reader finds, accordingly, are convoluted family-lineage paths, a vague story-point or two, and a mystery at the end that, even as we think we’ve solved the riddle, the queasiness of all that’s been written has us double-thinking our conclusions. It may be tempting to go in for the unreliable narrator because, after all, we are talking about a frazzled seventeen-year-old girl here, recalled as she is now, an old nurse; but the writers of The Works of Elizabeth Gaskell, Part I Vol 3 (2017) are politely keen to suggest that Gaskell was merely “undecided” about certain aspects of the story. Maybe it’s a little of both.

The story begins in that manner so maligned in the modern age — anti-in-media-res — but Gaskell pulls it off with such charm because she is “showing us” that she is “telling” her story to a set of children, speaking in a manner that makes us feel like we’re sitting by the fire along with everyone else. Her aesthetic appears to take precedent over accuracy, considering that if Gaskell had charted out family ancestries on a separate sheet of paper, it may have compromised her narrative beauty. As a result, what we get by the time we learn about Lord Furnivall (the younger), apart from sheer confusion, is the notion that if all the parts of the lineage had been added up with precision, the old Miss Furnivall couldn’t possibly have been his “great-aunt.” But it’s just a little ghost story, right? The effect for the astute reader, nevertheless, draws to mind a sense of whimsy that for all we know, may have been intended.

Literary scholarship takes note (#13) of Elizabeth Gaskell’s continuity issue in “The Old Nurse’s Story” (1852).

The overall form makes it something of miniaturized novel. As was the standard at the time, novelists often adorned their opening chapters with a discussion about who was who in the world, replete with social standings and what everyone did for a living. By the time such details are established, the ball gets rolling with the action, which means for the nurse’s story, that the young Hester is being carted away from home with her new charge, the adoring Miss Rosamond, as they contend with feelings of loss — the death of a mother and father, an impending unfamiliar environment on the horizon. And this is where the text really begins to sing.

Gaskell’s tender narrative voice allows us to visualize a teenage girl who travels with her little Miss Rosamond as though their “hearts would break,” with a layover in a roughened town full of “colliers and miners.” (On this point, Gaskell couldn’t resist invoking imagery that is strongly associated with Chartism, an issue she felt very strongly about.) On arriving at the mansion where they are to reside, gnarled trees are overgrown and foreboding, the residents elderly and leering, causing the child Miss Rosamond to feel “scared and lost.” Before long the house organ begins to play by itself, which comes on the heels of learning that no one is ever to enter the east wing. The dreaded east wing! Gothic atmosphere at its finest, what could possibly go wrong?

Something about thick mist can cause the branches of certain trees to become “gnarled,” making for excellent imagery in a haunted house story.

The joy of discovering that a mystery lurks, combined with the chilling atmosphere, is what underscores the lasting impression Gaskell’s story imposes on the literary canon. Which begs the question: Why scrutinize it? Didn’t Barthes teach us about the pleasures of the text? As Ruth from the Ghostwriter so eloquently quipped, leave it to a researcher to ruin a good story with “too much research.” The problem is that quality literature demands scrutiny because, in the end, doing so elevates and edifies the work so that text and author receive the credit due of which they’re completely entitled.

For instance, we have — IMHO — the most perplexing line of the entire story:

“Folk did say he [Lord Furnivall (the younger)] had loved my young mistress; but that, because she knew that his father would object, she would never listen to him, and married Mr. Esthwaite; but I don’t know.”

Alright. The mistress here is Miss Rosamond; Hester is telling the story to this person’s children, also known as “my dears.” This would imply that much time has passed, so how could she not know? Even stranger: Mr. Esthwaite had just been described as Miss Rosamond’s uncle, so did she just suggest that she married him? Multiple readings fail to present answers on this note, but that she admits that she doesn’t know, it’s a curious narrative tincture on both the text and the meta-text, and even the subtext for that matter.

Another curiosity involves the paintings of Miss Grace and Miss Maude. When Hester and old Dorothy are upstairs rummaging through things, Dorothy tells Hester that with regard to Miss Maude’s portrait, she “must never let on” that she has seen it. Later in the story, turns out that portraits of both sisters have been in the state drawing-room the entire time. What’s the big deal about being secretive if everyone sees both portraits every day all the time?

Portraits of unknown beautiful women, circa 18th Century.

At the end, when trying process the thrill of the climax, the obscuring of character identity has us wondering what element of the supernatural we’re supposed to be observing. A woman had been spotted with the ghost-child in the snow; this ghost child is Miss Maude’s daughter. So, when the awful Lord Furnivall (the elder) makes his ghost-presence known visually, and he has two ghost-women with him, which are the two sisters, along with the ghost-child for good measure — then when the elderly Miss Furnivall begins yelling and hollering about the past, are we to understand that we are looking at both: Miss Maude the old in the flesh — AND — Miss Maude as a younger version of herself, superimposed upon the real world through some oddball astral phenomenon of identity projection? Was she, in fact, the woman out there in the snow with the ghost-child? Is she alive, is she dead, or is she both? I don’t know how to explain any of this, but it’s a new one and it’s certainly creative.

Gothic tales were a sensation during the late-18th Century, certain to keep readers on edge as to what the world around them may hold. (Image provided by The Imaginative Conservative)

Any discussion on Gaskell’s nurse’s story does not end without an examination of Lord Furnivall (the elder), and how his behavior stands at the pinnacle of the entire horror of the plot. He represents the patriarchal need for utter control and how this kind of thinking can ruin a family. As a lover of music, he hired a young foreign man from London to play along with him and to instruct him “every year.” This would indicate the amount of time they must’ve spent together; but because the man was “young” and “foreign” and from “London,” what are the odds that he would turn his eye to the lovely daughters roaming about the place, all lonesome amid that northerly British climate? Need I say more?

The logic that follows is that Lord Furnivall did not only exhibit concern about the interplay between the young man and his daughters, which is somewhat natural for a father, but that he was jealous as well. The young man had been attending to him for hours on end, installing a great organ for him to play even, so when Lord Furnivall felt that he was no longer the primary interest, temper tantrums ensued, described on a more whole-scale fashion as his manner of exerting “cruelty.” It’s really just a side-note that the young man was entertaining both daughters, discrediting him with regard to honor and decency; the guy was a player. What it’s really all about is the fact that some bogus marriage unfolded with one of the daughters, Miss Maude, and that she had a child. It was the final straw for Lord Furnivall, but why exactly?

Victorian men were happy so long as the household and everything else went according to plan. (Image provided by victorian-era.org)

Of course there’s the jealousy that results from feeling betrayed, but there is the time-period of the age to consider, and how marriages were often arranged, if at all possible, with goals for the future in mind, such as uniting with another prominent family for example. Miss Maude defied her father to marry his private music instructor, without consultation, and he was enraged. Scandal could ruin a man; Lord Furnivall saw pure hell. Some speculation has been given to the notion that because the young man was a “dark foreigner,” that somehow Lord Furnivall beat Miss Maude’s child because he was racist, but there’s not enough information to complete that argument. He hired the young foreign man to play music with him so that the “very birds on the trees stopped their singing to listen,” so I’m not feeling the racist element. I’m feeling the patriarchal need for control: Lord Furnivall couldn’t control his hired musician when he learned what was going on, and he couldn’t control his daughters to stop them from luring the man away for their walks in the woods. In the end, leave it to a man like Lord Furnivall to smack the product of all this riffraff with a stick, in a fit of fury, and with the poor child injured and exiled from the home, it’s no wonder that she froze to death in the snow.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s contribution to paranormal literature certainly doesn’t stop with the introduction of the ghost of such a terrible person. On a deeper level, the thing to fear in her story can be found in the trope of being destroyed by that which we love, or that which we think we love. Little Miss Rosamond was drawn into the cold by something she adored — and it nearly killed her, a fascinating concept to consider. It’s irony in its purest form, murderous. What thing is it that you love, which eats at you day by day? Are you perpetually seeking the affections of a man who drains you of your life’s vitality? You crave the rave, but don’t you wake up the next morning half-dead from overdoing it? Maybe Gaskell is channeling the myth of the Siren, so that when beauty calls and blinds a love-stricken man, all that’s left behind is his dead body. Or maybe you could just eat a bag of delicious chocolate chip cookies until you fall into a diabetic coma (like I do), but just make sure you’ve got one of Gaskell’s ghost stories to get you through the adventure, because she’s certainly worth the read.

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For good measure, evolving from when I labored to figure out the elements of the story, a character list has been provided, with an added note from our literary scholars, who helped as well to clear up the confusion about the character of Agnes (also known as Bessy).

Hester [narrator]: age seventeen; nurse-maid to little Miss Rosamond; from Westmoreland; good at sewing; a steady, honest girl, whose parents were very respectable but poor; brave, high-spirited [Hester is narrating the story at a time when she is much older.]

Miss Rosamond: age four or five; orphan, only child; little, sweet, bold, open-spoken; playing and pranking hither and thither, with a continual murmur; a pretty prattle of gladness; behaves pretty

James: old footman; hospitable, kind; lifelong servant at Furnivall household

Dorothy: married to James; originally from Westmoreland, lived on a farm; hospitable, kind

Agnes: servant to James and Dorothy; kitchen-maid

Miss Maude Furnivall: great-aunt to Lord Furnivall [the younger]; not far from eighty; thin and tall; face as full of fine wrinkles as if they had been drawn all over it with a needle’s point; eyes were very watchful, because of being so deaf as to be obliged to use a trumpet; wore spectacles; had been in youth prettier and prouder than Miss Grace

Mrs. Stark: lifetime servant and companion to Miss Maude, almost as old; she looked cold, grey, stony, as if she had never loved or cared for anyone except her mistress; dull; treated Miss Maude very much like a child, because of her deafness; wore spectacles

Lord Furnivall [the younger]: Miss Rosamond’s mother’s cousin; a stern proud man, as were all the Lords Furnivalls; never spoke a word more than was necessary; never married, though he thought of marrying Miss Rosamond

Mr. Esthwaite: Miss Rosamond’s uncle, brother to her father; shopkeeper in Manchester; came out of poverty, and grew a family [?with Miss Rosamond?]

Mr. Henry: servant to Lord Furnivall [the younger]

Lord Furnivall [the elder]: Maude and Grace’s father; loved music; could play many instruments; eaten up with pride; fierce, dour, awful temper; broke his wife’s heart with his cruelty; abused Maude’s child; as a ghost he plays the house organ

Miss Grace Furnivall: younger sister to Miss Maude; beautiful, proud; vindictive, seeks revenge

Musician from London: invited by Lord Furnivall [the elder] to play music with him; foreigner; secretly married Maude, got her pregnant; was a player with both sisters; eventually vacated the situation

Brother #1: Miss Grace and Miss Maude’s brother in the British army over in America

Brother #2: another brother of theirs who is “at sea”

Shepherd: finds little Miss Rosamond in the snow

“my dears”: children of Miss Rosamond

Miss Maude’s daughter: specter child; illegitimate; presumed a cottager’s child; beaten and outcast by Lord Furnivall [the elder]; died of exposure

Miss Rosamond’s mother: pretty young lady; died of broken heart, possibly miscarriage

Miss Rosamond’s father: took long rides, sometimes in the rain; died of fever from riding in the rain; came from questionable “stock”

Miss Rosamond’s grandmother: real lady born; no brothers or sisters; ventures to hire Hester as a nurse-maid

Miss Rosamond’s grandfather: Westmoreland clergyman; son to a shopkeeper in Carlisle; clever, fine gentleman; right-down hard worker

Gaskell may have written her story in a blaze of creativity, underscoring the profundity of inspiration, while explaining the mishap between the names of Agnes and Bessy, which is something that’s beyond forgivable for a story that will most certainly endure millennia.

Mary Barton

The urge label Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) a bildungsroman is tempting. The titular heroine Mary Barton transforms from a misconceived young girl to a mature young woman by the end of the novel. The nature of her growth involves being on the verge of marrying into wealth to realizing her true feelings for the man she really loves; yet according to the events as they unfold, how she develops does not equate that of a complete psychic change. In Mary’s case, a thorough psychic change is not even wholly necessary.

Where parts of the narration might suggest that Mary is a schemer, at an early age, she most pointedly is not. After dinner one evening, before the trade-market crashes and the entire neighborhood becomes destitute, a suggestion is made by the locals to enjoy more evenings of brotherly joviality. After innocently making an untoward comment, a friend of the family becomes inclined to exclude herself from such gatherings, because she feels she’s humiliated herself. Mary hugs her — bringing tears to her eyes — and condemns the idea, implying that everyone makes mistakes. She brightens the atmosphere of the moment by even assuming a portion of the blame. The narration then tells us that years later, Alice did “bless Mary Barton for these kind and thoughtful words” (19). During this stage of the storytelling, we get the feeling that Mary was, in essence, from birth an incarnation of goodness. Her ideas about marrying into wealth are more about deflecting the traumas of family poverty than they are about a woman trying to secure wealth for herself to serve her ego.

Mary’s beauty is the means by which she intends to advance her circumstances, by marriage, but this beauty cannot act as a life-solution in the event of her mother’s death, nor in other instances of shock. At the age of thirteen, she helps in “all the last attentions to the dead” and calmly cries, but reserves “the full luxury of a full burst of grief till she should be alone” (21-22). These emotions derive from her innate goodness. A few years later, as she comforts Mrs. Davenport upon the death of her husband, “she ended by crying herself as passionately as the poor widow” (72). And when the Wilson twins die, “Mary’s heart melted within her as she witnessed Jem’s sorrow” (78). Mary Barton has been subjected to emotional trauma throughout the span of her teenage years, the specter of death haunting her around every corner. Sorrow and compassion, they act as catalysts in conjunction with her good nature so that she seeks to make life better, by whatever means possible, to keep her father from meeting with the same fate as her mother and others.

Following the pivotal shift of her attention, the realization of who she really loves, Mary’s tortured experiences meet with the same kind of emotional reactions. One instance involves the mishap of Jem’s misunderstanding, which causes him to avoid her. With the thought of her father’s failing health combined with Jem’s avoidance, “Mary’s cry was ever the old moan of the Moated Grange” (157). Though this cry is different from her reaction to Margaret’s singing, “to keep in a tear which would have fain rolled out” (97), both are grounded in the same principle of goodness. Though some of Mary’s behavior had been guided by her ability to attract men, Mary’s virtue as a human being has remained principally intact and comes from a steady pattern of knowing how she truly feels.

The Free Dictionary defines the bildungsroman as “a novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character.” To be fair, Mary Barton could be labeled a semi-bildungsroman. Mary’s development is based on a mixture of natural morality combined with the ambition to make life better, alongside a dose of hormones which probably drove her to flirt with her “other lovers” (43). While Mary does experience something of psychological and intellectual development as a result of her desires for life-betterment, her moral compass towards the end of the novel functions in nearly the same manner as it did when the novel began. She’s always been a good person, whereas a bildungsroman tends to consider characters who are more to the extreme in their defects with regard to the navigation of their lives.

Now, if any argument could be made, it would be that Mary actually behaves immorally when she declines the offer to marry into wealth, for as a result of this action, her father ends up dying.