“Curious, If True: Strange Tales” by Elizabeth Gaskell is a collection of supernatural and gothic short stories published in 1859. Gaskell, a renowned Victorian author, delves into eerie and mysterious realms, intertwining the mundane with the macabre. This collection showcases her ability to blend intricate narratives with themes of the supernatural, creating stories that are both haunting and captivating. In this summary, we will explore “The Old Nurse’s Story,” one of the tales from this anthology, highlighting its plot, characters, themes, and the unique style that Gaskell employs to evoke a chilling atmosphere.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In the serene and pastoral Westmoreland, a young nurse recounts her tale, bound by loyalty to a family marked by tragedy. Her story begins with the young Miss Rosamond, an orphan whose parents, a clergyman and his delicate wife, died suddenly, leaving her alone in the world. The nurse, having promised the dying mother to care for Rosamond, is resolute in her duty.

Their journey takes them to the imposing Furnivall Manor House in Northumberland, where they are to live under the guardianship of Lord Furnivall. The grand, desolate manor, surrounded by the bleak Cumberland Fells, is now home to the elderly and stern Miss Grace Furnivall and her equally forbidding companion, Mrs. Stark. As winter grips the manor, the atmosphere turns colder, both in temperature and spirit.

Rosamond, a bright and curious child, explores the darkened rooms and ancient halls of the manor, often accompanied by the nurse. They discover many curiosities, including a large, broken organ in the hall, which, to the nurse’s alarm, sometimes emits ghostly music on stormy nights. The servants dismiss her fears, but a sense of dread begins to pervade the household.

One day, Rosamond vanishes. The nurse’s frantic search leads her through the snow-covered grounds, following small footprints that wind around the manor’s east wing and up towards the Fells. She finds Rosamond, unconscious and nearly frozen, in the arms of a shepherd who had come across her near the old holly trees. The child is brought back to warmth and safety, but she speaks of a beautiful little girl who led her outside and a grand lady who tried to lull her to sleep.

Curious and increasingly concerned, the nurse probes the manor’s servants for answers. Dorothy, a kindly servant, reveals the tragic history of the Furnivall family. Miss Grace and her sister, Miss Maude, were once the great beauties of their day, but both fell in love with the same man, a foreign musician. The musician secretly married Miss Maude, and they had a child. However, jealousy and pride led to a bitter feud between the sisters.

One dreadful night, the old lord discovered Miss Maude’s secret. In a rage, he cast her and her child out into the snow. Miss Maude, driven mad by grief and despair, perished in the cold, clutching her dead child. This tragic event left a dark stain on the family’s history, and the spirits of the mother and child have haunted the manor ever since.

The nurse’s fears are realized on a stormy winter night. As the wind howls outside, the manor’s eerie organ music swells, filling the halls with its ghostly melody. Miss Furnivall and Mrs. Stark, usually composed, become visibly agitated. The nurse, holding the sleeping Rosamond, hears phantom voices and screams. Miss Furnivall, with a look of terror, exclaims that she hears her father’s voice.

Suddenly, the east wing doors burst open with a thunderous crash, and the phantoms of the old lord, Miss Maude, and the child appear, re-enacting the tragic night. The old lord, his eyes blazing with fury, drives Miss Maude and the child before him. The ghostly figure of the younger Miss Grace, beautiful yet scornful, watches with a cold detachment. Miss Rosamond, drawn to the apparitions, struggles to break free from the nurse’s grasp, crying out for the little girl she had seen.

The spectral procession moves towards the great hall door, where the wind rages. As they approach, the lady turns, her defiance fading into a plea for mercy as the old lord raises his crutch. Miss Furnivall, in a moment of desperate remorse, cries out for her father to spare the innocent child. But it is too late; the crutch descends, and the spectral lights flicker and vanish. Miss Furnivall collapses, struck down by a fatal stroke, her final words a lamentation of her youthful sins.

The nurse, clutching the fainted Rosamond, witnesses the last moments of Miss Furnivall, who is carried to her bed, never to rise again. The manor falls silent, the ghosts laid to rest, but the echoes of the past linger in the cold, desolate halls, a somber reminder of the consequences of pride and jealousy.

Main Characters

  • The Nurse: The narrator and caretaker of Rosamond, loyal and protective. Her courage and dedication are evident as she faces the supernatural to safeguard Rosamond.
  • Rosamond: A sweet, innocent child whose curiosity and friendliness lead her into danger. Her encounters with the ghostly child and lady are central to the story’s mystery.
  • Miss Grace Furnivall: An old, guilt-ridden woman haunted by the consequences of her past actions. Her pride and jealousy contributed to the family’s tragic history.
  • Mrs. Stark: Miss Furnivall’s stern companion, who maintains the household and assists Miss Furnivall. Her cold demeanor hides a deep-seated fear of the supernatural occurrences.
  • Miss Maude Furnivall: The beautiful, passionate sister whose secret marriage and child led to her downfall. Her ghost, along with her child’s, haunts the manor.

Themes and Motifs

  • Guilt and Redemption: The story explores the lingering effects of guilt and the possibility (or impossibility) of redemption. Miss Furnivall’s remorse for her actions haunts her until her death.
  • The Supernatural: Ghostly apparitions and eerie events drive the narrative, highlighting the thin veil between the living and the dead.
  • Family and Loyalty: The nurse’s unwavering loyalty to Rosamond contrasts with the destructive family dynamics of the Furnivalls, emphasizing the importance of love and fidelity.
  • Isolation and Madness: The remote setting and desolate manor contribute to the characters’ isolation, leading to madness and despair, particularly in Miss Maude’s tragic fate.

Writing Style and Tone

Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing style in “The Old Nurse’s Story” is characterized by its rich, descriptive language and atmospheric detail. She skillfully creates a sense of foreboding and suspense, drawing readers into the eerie world of Furnivall Manor. Gaskell’s use of first-person narration lends an intimate and personal tone to the story, making the nurse’s experiences and emotions palpable.

The narrative is imbued with Victorian gothic elements, such as decaying mansions, tragic secrets, and supernatural occurrences, which enhance the haunting and melancholic atmosphere. Through her eloquent prose, Gaskell delves into the complexities of human emotions, guilt, and the supernatural, leaving readers with a lingering sense of unease and reflection on the consequences of past actions.

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Categories: Book Summary