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The Old Nurse’s Story- Superstition and Story

21st May 2020
in blog, blogsNnews, Gaskell House Blogs, Literature, other


The Old Nurse’s Story can be found in collections of Gothic stories, ghost stories and tales of the macabre, and is one of only two of Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories to include an actual ghost. It might seem odd that Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister, should write about supernatural events and hauntings; yet despite Unitarianism’s foundation in rationality, Elizabeth appears to have been somewhat superstitious.  In October 1859 she writes to George Smith, her publisher: “being half-Scotch I have a right to be very superstitious; & I have my lucky & unlucky days, & lucky & unlucky people”.

And, after a visit to Shottery, Staffordshire in 1849, Elizabeth writes to her friend, Eliza Fox, that on a 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: and had my fortune told by a gypsy; curiously true as to the past at any rate”.

Elizabeth appears to have had an ambivalent attitude to the supernatural and here we can see the rational and irrational sides of her nature in conflict. A similar ambivalence is apparent when she suggests to Eliza Fox that her daughter Florence is ‘fey, a word that denotes both vague unworldliness and supernatural qualities or clairvoyance.

Superstitions and supernatural events also constitute a large part of a letter written to her friend, Mary Howitt, in 1838. This letter formed the basis for an extract on Cheshire customs, which Mary’s husband, William, later published in his book The Rural Life of England (1838). It also contained a lengthy description of a visit that Elizabeth made to The Street, a stately home in Anglezarke near Rivington. The Street was an old mansion house, which in the reign of Queen Anne had belonged to a Lord Willoughby, a prominent Unitarian with a family property dispute going back to the 16th century:

“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”.

By the time Elizabeth visited the hall, it was falling into disrepair and part-occupied by farmers. One night while some of her friends were out walking, they asked to be admitted into the old house to explore the deserted rooms:

“The woman of the place looked aghast at this proposal, for it was twilight, and said that: ‘Lord Willoughby walked, and every evening was heard seeking for law-papers in the rooms where all the tattered and torn writings were kept”.

Opportunities for Storytelling

This was ideal material from which to compose a tale and Elizabeth never missed an opportunity. More importantly, perhaps, was her ability to tell a story. Her friends attest to her talent as a consummate storyteller. She knew exactly how to create an atmosphere and ‘bewitch’ an audience. Anne Thackeray writes of a gathering at the home of George Smith, Elizabeth’s publisher, in Hampstead where Elizabeth entertained a group with her stories:

“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… 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”.

One evening when Elizabeth and Charlotte Brontë were together, Charlotte became so afraid listening to Elizabeth’s tales that she had to retire to bed, as Elizabeth recalls in her biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë:

“One night I was on the point of relating some dismal ghost story, just before bed-time. She shrank from hearing it, and confessed that she was superstitious, and prone at all times to the involuntary recurrence of any thoughts of ominous gloom which might have been suggested to her.”

Haunted by the Past

Gothic stories were often written by women, and they did more than just offer the cosy terror of tales read in darkened rooms on stormy nights, they often carried harsh social criticisms. The ghostly trappings of Gothic literature formed a symbolic language through which women could convey the female experience generally written out of male his-stories. Therefore, when we read The Old Nurse’s Story we must consider whether it is merely a story of malign spirits, or whether its ghosts are used metaphorically for something equally terrifying, but much more real.

The Old Nurse’s Story was published at the end of 1852 in the extra Christmas number of Household Words, during the same period that Elizabeth Gaskell was producing episodes of Cranford for the same periodical. The focus in both stories is the bonds between women and how the past affects the present, although the storytelling method is very different. The Old Nurse’s Story begins in the writer’s present and covers the story of four generations of the Furnivall family from the old Miss Furnivall to the young children who are listeners as the story begins. It is a framed narrative, typical of Gothic tales and as the Nurse begins her story to the young listeners, time moves back to the childhood of their mother, Rosamond, who was orphaned and sent with her nurse to Furnivall Manor in Northumberland. By setting the tale in the more distant past, its terrors are confined to history.

The main themes of this story are patriarchal power, aristocratic pride and the repression of women. It is a story of abuse,- physical violence and mental cruelty. As with all Gothic stories, the protagonist is taken out of mainstream culture into an isolated world which becomes terrifying. Furnivall Manor House, standing on bleak moorland, is an ideal spot for hauntings:

“… 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”.

Even the flower garden had become enclosed, barren and dark as: “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”.

As the nurse and her charge settle into this Gothic mansion, they begin to experience strange happenings, the swell and ebb of organ music on stormy nights and the appearance of a spectral child, desperate to draw Rosamond to her death in the cold snowy landscape. Nevertheless, behind these supernatural occurrences there lies a tale more terrifying, one of repressed passion, sibling rivalry and aristocratic pride that leads to the violent death of a woman and her innocent child. While in the past, repressed sexual passion and patriarchal control had destroyed the bonds between sisters, in the present, the supernatural events at Furnivall manor strengthen the bonds between the women as they strive to protect the living child from this ghostly spectre.

Although Elizabeth Gaskell had no sisters of her own, she understood the destructive nature of sibling rivalry, and in a letter to Marianne 1857 she stresses her desire for sisterly harmony:

“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”.

Seen from the Outside

One last important point needs to be examined before leaving this magnificent Gothic tale, and that is her choice of narrator. Why choose a nurse, a member of the lower classes to narrate a tale about the higher social echelons? As is common in Elizabeth Gaskell’s fictions, the nurse, a servant, is an outsider not of the same class as her employers, and therefore able to provide an outsider’s viewpoint from outside the family’s story. She must learn the law and the boundaries of her position, and in her bid to protect Rosamond, Elizabeth shows love and the law in conflict. The nurse’s upbringing in the rural lower classes would suggest her susceptibility to superstition. It was in rural areas and among the poorer people that superstition tended to survive, in such a way Elizabeth also distances these beliefs from herself.  

Diane Duffy, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

Listen to a dramatised reading of The Old Nurse’s Story by the Volunteers at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

New cooks always want their own peculiar little odds & ends for cookery

Elizabeth Gaskell 1863