Gaskell, “The Old Nurse’s Story”

I’m in the thick of my summer course: it’s hard to believe that we’ve already covered Pride and Prejudice, “The Two Drovers,” and Jane Eyre. I have a great group of students–they seem very engaged and a significant proportion of them are contributing with gusto to class discussion. But the assignments are starting to come in, so it may be a bit quiet around here for a bit. In the meantime, let me recommend Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story,” one of our texts for tomorrow, for your reading pleasure. Here’s a teaser:

And the great frost never ceased all this time; and whenever it was a more stormy night than usual, between the gusts, and through the wind, we heard the old lord playing on the great organ. But, old lord, or not, wherever Miss Rosamond went, there I followed; for my love for her, pretty helpless orphan, was stronger than my fear for the grand and terrible sound. Besides, it rested with me to keep her cheerful and merry, as beseemed her age. So we played together, and wandered together, here and there, and everywhere; for I never dared to lose sight of her again in that large and rambling house. And so it happened, that one afternoon, not long before Christmas Day, we were playing together on the billiard-table in the great hall (not that we knew the way of playing, but she liked to roll the smooth ivory balls with her pretty hands, and I liked to do whatever she did); and, by-and-by, without our noticing it, it grew dusk indoors, though it was still light in the open air, and I was thinking of taking her back into the nursery, when, all of a sudden, she cried out:

‘Look, Hester! look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow!’

I turned towards the long narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night, crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in. She seemed to sob and wail, till Miss Rosamond could bear it no longer, and was flying to the door to open it, when, all of a sudden, and close up upon us, the great organ pealed out so loud and thundering, it fairly made me tremble; and all the more, when I remembered me that, even in the stillness of that dead-cold weather, I had heard no sound of little battering hands upon the window-glass, although the Phantom Child had seemed to put forth all its force; and, although I had seen it wail and cry, no faintest touch of sound had fallen upon my ears. Whether I remembered all this at the very moment, I do not know; the great organ sound had so stunned me into terror. . .

The full text can be found here or here.

3 thoughts on “Gaskell, “The Old Nurse’s Story”

  1. Victoria Olsen June 14, 2010 / 11:50 pm

    Thanks for this! I’ve only just started following your blog, and it’s great to hear that Victorian voice out of the blue. It’s not just the vocabulary and sentiment, but the syntax too. Those rolling clauses, filled with semicolons…! I haven’t read this story, but I’m struck by this scene’s parallels to the phantom Cathy at the window in Wuthering Heights (which must predate this?) and later Henry James’s plot in The Turn of the Screw (which postdates it). Does this stay a ghost story?


  2. Tea Drinker June 15, 2010 / 5:19 am

    I love it. It’s a great story.


  3. Rohan Maitzen June 15, 2010 / 8:38 am

    Victoria: Welcome! You can hardly expect me to spoil the ending for you–you’ll have to read the story and find out! Yes, Wuthering Heights predates this one by a few years; this came out in Household Words in 1852. I don’t actually know specifically if Gaskell had read WH, but I agree that there’s a strong echo.


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