‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Elizabeth Gaskell: An Excellent Classic Ghost Story for Christmas

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A ghost story is always particularly enjoyable at Christmas.

Last Christmas, I recommended ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen, a comically grotesque ghost story.

A few weeks ago, I recommended a modern one – Mari Biella’s modern ghost story, the stirring  ‘Dark Moon Fell’ as excellent reading in the run up for Christmas.

Here is one of my favourite classic ghost stories,  a decidedly spine chilling one, which I first read many years ago when I was about twelve. It is called ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’  and  was the first story I read by Elizabeth Gaskell’.

This story, which is to be found in various anthologies of classic ghost stories, was written for the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ ‘Household Words’ in 1852.

The tale is recounted in the first person by, naturally, the said ‘Old Nurse’ and is about a chilling experience she shared with their mother, ‘Miss Rosamond’ then a small child newly orphaned. Hester has been working for Rosamond’s  mother, who was the grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall in Northumberland, who had married a curate and lived with him in his Westmorland parsonage.

On the sudden death of Rosamond’s young parents, Rosamolnd is sent with Hester to live with a maternal relative, the great-aunt of the current Lord Furnivall, at  Furnivall Manor House at the foot of the Cumberland Fells.

The house is a rambling  isolated mansion and Miss Furnivall and her companion Mrs. Stark are very old and melancholy. Altogether, the surroundings fill both the young nurse and her charge with awe:

‘At one end of the hall was a great fireplace, as large as the sides of houses in my country, with massy andirons and dogs to hold the wood, and by it were heavy old fashioned sofas. At the opposite end of the hall, to the left as you went in – on the western side – was an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end…’

However, the two old servants, James and Dorothy are friendly. They, and a maid to do the rough work, make up the staff. The aged Miss Furnivall and Mrs Stark soon become very fond of Rosamond.

The east wing of the house is shut up, but Rosamond takes Hester exploring all over the north and west parts of the house,. Here they find many fascinating things, though the windows are darkened by the sweeping boughs of the trees and the ivy growing up the sides of the building.

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They come on portraits of Miss Grace Furnivall as she had been in her youth, and another young women resembling her, whom Dorothy says was her sister.

There is a sinister atmosphere about the house.  Now the winter sets in, and after dark, Hester she often hears peals of someone playing the organ in the hall. The other staff insist that it must be the wind; but Bessy, the kitchen maid, tells Hester that: ‘Folks do say that it was the old lord playing on the organ in the hall just as he used to do when he was alive.’

When Hester peeps into the organ, she sees that it has fallen into ruin inside, though it still looks impressive from the outside.

‘That winter was very cold. In the middle of October the frosts began, and lasted many, many weeks. I remember one day at dinner, Miss Furnival lifted up her sad, heavy eyes,and said to Mrs. Stark, ‘I am afraid we shall have a terrible winter,’ in a strange kind of meaning way. But Mrs. Stark pretended not to hear, and talked very loud of something else…’

One day Rosamond goes missing after dark, and after searching all over the house, Hester thinks to  look outside, and sees her footprints in the snow going across the court and out onto the Fells. Hester follows them and comes upon Rosamond being carried by an old shepherd, who had found her under a holly tree:  ‘In the terrible sleep which is frost begotten’.

When back at the hall they revive her.  She tells them that she saw a little girl out in the snow, beckoning for her to come out. Hester only saw one set of footprints, and rebukes her charge for making up stories. Rosamond weeps and says that she is telling the truth; that the little girl took her by the hand – and hers was very cold – and led her up to the holly trees on the Fell, and there was,  ‘A lady, weeping and crying; but when she saw me, she hushed her weeping, and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep…’

Old Nurse's Stolry

Furnivall Hall is indeed haunted, and these ghosts scheme to lure little  Rosamond away with them.  At last, Dorothy tells Hester the tragic old story behind these visitations. Hester swears to stay in the sinister house and protect her charge…

I recommend this story as a brilliant example of the traditional type of ghost story, with an isolated haunted house. Set on the snowy deserted Northumberland Fells, it makes an excellent spine chilling read for Christmas.