The Old Nurse’s Story

In which an elderly caretaker reminisces about how hard things were in the old days.

By Elizabeth Gaskell

First published in 1852

Collected in Curious, If True: Strange Tales (Available via Project Gutenberg)

The earliest kind of ghost story is what I call a “Hamlet’s Dad” narrative. No matter when these were written (and there are examples going back to the 1st century BC), they all have certain elements in common.

Specifically, the ghosts in these stories are…

…dramatic, perhaps overly so.

They make grand entrances, either in person, or via disembodied howls, loud creepy music with no obvious source, paintings whose subjects move, etc.

…back for a specific purpose.

Far from being incorporeal dilettantes just wandering through, these entities are highly-motivated self-starters (at least that’s what it says on their resumes). They have serious goals, and won’t let being dead get in the way.

…unambiguous when it comes to communication.

These ghosts will either:

Tell you exactly why they’re back (just like, you know, Hamlet’s dad), or

Cause some currently-living guilty party to announce why they’re back, as in this fictitious example: “Why, it’s the late Major, returned from the beyond to indict me for hitting him on the head with an oar when we was kids!”

For millenia, the Hamlet’s Dad was the standard ghost story format. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, writers developed a fondness for inarticulate, cryptic spirits.  Audiences followed suit.

These new-model stories spelled the downfall of Hamlet’s Dad, a process accelerated by psychiatry, literary Modernism, and increasingly sophisticated tastes in popular entertainment. By the twentieth century, the traditional ghost tale had been eclipsed, except for the occasional success, such as Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Such has been the trend of the last century-and-a-half.

“The Old Nurse’s Story” is pure Hamlet’s Dad. Operatic and colorful, it’s easy to imagine this as the source material for a early-60s Roger Corman film starring Vincent Price — or it would be, if “Nurse” contained any major male characters. Substitute Barbara Steele for Vincent and you might be onto something, however.

Before continuing, I should introduce the author. Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the major UK writers of the 19th century, wrote prolifically about the various strata of British society and their interactions. She’s best known for her 1855 family saga/industrial critique North and South, as well as her 1857 Life of Charlotte Bronté.  She wrote under the name “Mrs. Gaskell,” so that’s how I’ll refer to her.

“The Old Nurse’s Story” is a monologue spoken by the eponymous character to the children of a woman once in her care. The opening two to three pages are dense with family history, and can be a bit of a slog; you’ll find yourself frequently asking “now, who is this?” Once you get past this section, the story takes off.

The nurse, when she was in her late teens, was charged with the care of five-year-old Rosamond Furnivall, recently orphaned by a string of extremely bad luck. Displaced from their former home, nurse and child were moved to the unkempt mansion of Rosamond’s mother’s cousin.  Mrs Gaskell describes the trip vividly and succinctly in this paragraph:

“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.”

(That is some Edward Gorey imagery, right there. I don’t know if he ever illustrated “The Old Nurse’s Story,” but he should have.)

Once in the house, nurse and child are met by the senescent Lady Furnivall, her maid, Mrs. Stark, and the household staff. The lady and her maid are rather indifferent to our heroines, but the domestics welcome them wholeheartedly. And so things settle down for awhile.

Soon enough, however,  the nurse starts hearing distant organ playing that can’t be ascribed to any known source. An encounter with a family secret — in the form of a painting that must never be displayed — does nothing to lighten to the mood.

Soon thereafter, the nurse learns that there are many spirits at work in the house, and that they want Rosamond to join them in death. They didn’t count on our heroine, however…

As a ghost story/Gothic thriller hybrid, “The Old Nurse’s Story” succeeds where many a longer work fails, managing to be both spooky and suspenseful at the same time. Despite what you might think, many ghost stories are suspense-free; their object is to disturb you on a metaphysical level rather than a physical one. But when Mrs. Gaskell establishes that these ghosts are capable of homicide, the tension ratchets up. The end result is a work without irony or deep psychological insight, and all the better for it. The story’s devices are so old-fashioned that they now approach avant-garde.

Should you decide that you like “The Old Nurse’s Story,” you’re in luck: Mrs. Gaskell wrote many other tales in the same vein. In addition to being highly effective, they’re also a reminder that L. P. Hartley was right when he wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”