The Old Nurse's Story

by Elizabeth Gaskell

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Last Updated on May 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1259

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810–1865) was a prominent writer and biographer during the Victorian era. She is known for writing the biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) and for writing Cranford (1851-53) and North and South (1854-55). Gaskell was also known for writing short, gothic tales, often with the support of Charles Dickens. One such tale, “The Old Nurse’s Story,” published in 1852, depicts a classic gothic ghost story with a moral lesson. Told as a framed narrative and filled with ominous elements, “The Old Nurse’s Story” highlights Gaskell’s gothic writing and cathartic story-telling abilities.

Plot Summary

“The Old Nurse’s Story” begins with an old nurse, Hester, telling children a story about their mother, Rosamond. Hester explains that Rosamond was an orphan from an early age. Rosamond’s mother, Miss Furnivall, was married to a gentleman curate. Rosamond’s father died of a fever, and her mother died two weeks later after giving birth to a stillborn child. Soon after the deaths of Rosamond’s parents, Lord Furnivall—Miss Furnivall’s cousin—and Mr. Esthwaite, the brother of Rosamond’s father, came to settle the estate and decided where to place Rosamond. Lord Furnivall decided to send Rosamond and Hester to Furnivall Manor, an old and stately house occupied by the elderly Miss Furnivall, great-aunt to Rosamond’s mother. According to Hester, the manor had not been occupied by most of the Furnivall family aside from the elderly Miss Furnivall for some time.

Furnivall Manor is located below the Cumberland Fells, which is a barren and hilly landscape. The east wing of the manor is locked up, but the west wing is filled with warm, comfortable rooms. Hester and Rosamond meet Miss Furnivall, who is eighty years old and mostly deaf, and her caretaker, Mrs. Stark, who is cold and stern. The footman, James, takes Hester and Rosamond to their rooms, where they meet his wife, Dorothy, and their servant, Agnes. Hester, Rosamond, and Dorothy walk around the house, and Dorothy shows the portraits of the family to Hester. She points out a picture of old Miss Furnivall, who was called Miss Grace when her elder sister was still alive. Hester asks to see a portrait of the elder Furnivall sister. Dorothy shows Hester a painting of her, but only after they have sent Rosamond away. Dorothy is very nervous about showing the painting and believes that Rosamond would tell Mrs. Stark or Miss Furnivall about it. Dorothy then quickly shows Hester the painting, which has been taken down and turned to face the wall.

Not long after, Hester begins to notice the sound of someone playing on the great organ in the house, especially on stormy winter nights. She asks James and Dorothy about it. James claims it is the wind, and Dorothy looks fearful and refuses to explain. Hester then asks the kitchen maid, Bessy, who hesitatingly tells Hester that it is the ghost of the “old lord” playing the organ, as he did when he was alive. Hester inspects the organ, unable to believe the story, and finds it is broken and unplayable.

The winter days wear on, and it becomes colder. Hester notices that the organ is being played by the old lord more often. One Sunday, Hester decides to go to church. Since it is very cold and liable to snow, Hester decides to leave Rosamond under the care of Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark while she attends. During the church service, it snows heavily. When Hester returns to the manor, she is unable to find Rosamond. Everyone in the household searches for her. Hester finally notices Rosamond’s footprints in the snow outside the manor and follows the footprints up to the Fells. She then meets a shepherd in the Fells, who is carrying a nearly frozen Rosamond. Hester takes Rosamond back to the manor and cares for her throughout the night.

When Rosamond awakens, she tells Hester that she went outside to the Fells with another young girl. Rosamond explains that the young girl took her to a woman, who hugged her and lulled her to sleep in the snow. Hester does not at first believe Rosamond, but out of fear she does not let Rosamond out of her sight. Hester decides to tell Miss Furnivall what happened. Upon hearing of Rosamond’s story, Miss Furnivall reacts emotionally and asks for mercy. This makes Hester more fearful and uneasy. Later on, Hester and Rosamond are playing in the billiard room. Rosamond tells Hester that she sees the phantom child that led her to the Fells standing outside. Hester looks and sees a small girl banging on the window, but cannot hear any sound. Hester grabs Rosamond, drags her away from the window, and runs to Dorothy. She tells Dorothy that she will leave the house with Rosamond, because she feels Rosamond is in danger. Dorothy tries to convince Hester to not do so and finally tells Hester the story of the manor.

Dorothy explains that the old Miss Furnivall, or Miss Grace, and her elder sister, Miss Maude, were at odds with each other. Their father was prideful and ill-tempered, but he loved music. He hired a talented foreign music instructor. The foreigner courted both daughters, causing them to be jealous of one another. However, Miss Maude managed to secretly marry the foreigner and have a daughter with him. The foreigner, despite being married to Miss Maude, also continued to court Miss Grace. This made Miss Maude jealous and cruel toward her sister. Their father grew older and more infirm, and finally the sisters took control of the manor. Maude lived on the east side with her daughter hidden there in secret, and Grace lived on the west side. The foreigner became weary with the two sisters and never returned to the manor. Miss Maude wanted to hurt Miss Grace and told her that she had married the foreigner and had a daughter with him. Miss Grace, who had loved the foreigner, was heartbroken by this. She vowed revenge against her elder sister. One night, Grace told their father of Maude’s secret. He attacked Maude and her daughter, and turned them both out of doors in the middle of the winter. Grace stood by and watched. Dorothy finishes the story by explaining how Maude was found the next morning on the Fells, crazed and nursing her dead child in her arms.

Just after New Year’s day, Hester is called to see Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark. Hester brings Rosamond with her, fearing she’ll lose Rosamond to the ghost child. While helping Miss Furnivall with some sewing, they all begin to hear screaming coming from the locked east wing of the house, where Maude used to reside. Miss Furnivall walks out toward the wing, followed by Hester, Rosamond, and Mrs. Stark. They witness the ghosts of the old lord, Maude, and her daughter. The ghosts are reenacting the dreadful night when the old lord injured Maude’s daughter and turned them out of the house. Just as the old lord is about the hit the ghost child, Miss Furnivall cries out and begs him to stop. However, another phantom appears: that of Miss Furnivall when she was young, watching the scene with a cold disdain. Upon seeing her phantom younger self, Miss Furnivall falls to the ground in a paralyzed shock. Hester explains to her audience that they took Miss Furnivall to her bed, who before dying says, “What is done in youth can never be undone in age!”

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