The Old Nurse’s Story By Elizabeth Gaskell
The Gothic Novel is a type of prose fiction, first introduced around the 1760s by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1764). This style of writing was popular until the mid 1800s. Primary examples of the Gothic Novel are William Beckford’s Vathek in 1786, and perhaps the best known, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein of 1817. It was only into the 19th Century that the Gothic Novel started to appear a little outdated, as Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey in 1818 satire of the genre showed.
The stereotypical view of women harboured in Gothic fiction, discussed later, became less and less apparent as time drew on, views of women changed, and more of the authors were female. The main characteristics of the Gothic tradition are its medieval context, with the typical settings of large, sprawling mansions and castles, harbouring hidden tunnels, secret areas, dungeons and unexplored rooms. Outdoors were desolate moors and twisted, dead trees, and events usually took place at nighttime or when it was snowing.
This bleak setting reflected the macabre atmosphere of the stories, which usually involved a vulnerable heroine, alone and unprotected, falling prey to a lustful villain or supernatural beings. Supernatural occurrences often turned out to have perfectly normal explanations, yet there was always an atmosphere of gloom and foreboding. The Gothic Novel usually had a strong moral attached, designed to make the reader think and learn valuable lessons. Beneath the melancholy atmosphere of the Gothic tradition lurked psychological subtext, aiming to provoke terror in the reader’s mind.
This usually examined the subconscious and unconscious mind and its impulses and dealt with socially taboo subjects, including incest, murder, rape and diabolism. In this way, terror and mystery were slowly built up in the reader’s mind. Gothic Novels were relatively long in size and slow in pace, hence the reason why they appears so outdated today. This essay will examine ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Elizabeth Gaskell, analysing the build up of terror, mystery and suspense throughout the story.
Furnival Manor is the first thing that actually begins to instil suspense and terror into the reader. It is first seen from the outside with decrepit grounds and surrounded by barren, lifeless fells. The reader concentrates on the impression of its vastness; and this huge amount of space, together with its isolated setting, lends itself to disappearances, or events to occur with few people to see them. The grounds seem menacing and evil with “gnarled thorn trees”, as if the two heroines are leaving civilisation behind.
While there is a very superficial exterior of the house, with only the front behind kept in good condition, the interior is found to be grand and vast, with chandeliers an organ and “a great fireplace”, all typical elements of the Gothic Novel, meeting our generic expectations of supernatural occurrences. The estate is seen to have been once beautiful, but although still grand, has a sense of emptiness about it, allowing for supernatural occurrences to be introduced easily.
Outside, the house is seen as lifeless, where nothing grows, and this is reflected with the two old ladies inside, discussed later, who convey no real emotion or warmth, making the inside of the house appear lifeless and desolate. This relates to the unanswered questions, discussed later, as to why the grounds have become dilapidated and why so few people live there. Furnival Manor itself is very much in keeping with the Gothic tradition, with its stereotypical furniture and sprawling, isolated setting in the fells.
The reader suspects many things could go wrong in this setting, and this is primarily what begins to cumulate suspense and terror. Atmosphere is perhaps one of the most powerful elements in the Gothic novel, and it is mostly one of despair and melancholy in the house. Foreboding is first created when Miss Rosamond explores the house eagerly, and this ominous feeling makes us feel that something will occur. When the picture of Miss Maude Furnivall is shown, we immediately know that this will play an important role later in the tale, which adds suspense as we ask ourselves why the picture is hidden.
The weather, with its “bitter cold”, “ravaging wind” and “sharp air” adds to the atmosphere of terror, building cumulatively in relation to the ghostly happenings and the playing of the organ. The vulnerability of the female characters also plays a major role, as the two are so helpless and weak more horror is instilled in the reader, as supernatural happenings threaten them. From the beginning of the story, when both females “wept” as they neared Furnivall Manor, the reader understands their vulnerability means they are more likely to be subject to the villain or villains.
The child, Miss Rosamond, is seen as typically innocent and unprotected, and Hester, the nurse, is seen to become a victim of sensibility. This increases tension further. The isolation in the house also plays a part, especially with the inclusion of two, silent women, Mrs Stark and Miss Furnival, who build tension with the hidden secrets they hold. Vivid description and language is used throughout the story, with violent words such as “flung” and “banged” used to portray events, as well as the darkness and mystery of the East Wing, instilling a sense of mystery and suspense in the reader.
The calm yet mysterious interior of Furnivall Manor is contrasted with “the heartless snow”, “cruel wind” and air so cold that Hester believes it would “tear my skin off”. Gaskell creates a number of dark and brooding characters in the book, and her methods of doing this are analysed below. Miss Furnivall is one of the first ‘darker’ characters to be introduced to the book, and is seen as too proud to admit her liking of Miss Rosamond, and at the same time old, silent and withering, there is something furtive about Miss Grace Furnivall.
She stares into the fire with a “hopeless face” and then suddenly reacts melodramatically when the first ghostly occurrence happens. Mrs Stark, whose character is reflected in her name, appears cold and emotionless, speaking “sharply” and described as looking “so stony as if she had never loved or cared for anyone”. This keeps the reader in suspense, as we believe that previous experiences and events have caused the two women to act this way. These dark and brooding characters are ‘stock’ figures of the Gothic tradition.
The grieving spectre of Miss Maude is less developed than that of Miss Furnival and Mrs Stark, but the exposition reveals that she is banished on the fells, “crazy and smiling”, driven to insanity as she watches her own baby die before her. We see Miss Maude’s ghost wondering the land with unresolved matters to address, permanently fractured between the physical and spiritual realm. This supernatural figure in the story, as well as the madness of Miss Maude’s ghost, instils terror and suspense into the reader, and is in keeping with the Gothic tradition.
The Old Lord is a stereotypical Gothic character, the typical villain, who is a “proud” yet violent man, who banishes his daughter and wounds his grandchild. Violent words are constantly used, describing him as “cursing and swearing”. The image of a dangerous and violent man, who is forced to play his organ, a typical Gothic instrument, as his only means of communication with the living, creates horror in the reader, especially as details of him are slowly built up throughout the piece, starting with the organ playing and ending at the finale of the story when all his shocking history is revealed.
I believe the Old Lord to be one of the most successful characters of the book, despite being relatively generic to most Gothic Novels, as he instils genuine terror in the reader. Dorothy and Bessie are the servants who are seen to harbour the manor’s darkest secrets and history. Gaskell has intended their frail and secretive nature to be mirrored in the fear built up in the reader’s mind, as they are seen to look at each other “fearfully” and are “half frightened”. Again, they leave questions unanswered, so more mystery and suspense is built up in the reader’s mind.
An important factor in building up tension in Gaskell’s story is the inclusion of unanswered questions, which are revealed in the exposition. This is done so that the reader is kept in the dark about what is going on, and is consequently more tense. It is known that the human mind is more afraid of the unknown than the known, even if it is terrifying. The exposition is deliberately left to the middle of the story to prolong generic expectations and allow the clues to be pieced together in the reader’s mind at the correct time.
There are a number of unanswered questions in the story, but there a number of major ones which instil more suspense and horror than others, as well as being more instrumental in the framework of the tale. The first one to be introduced is why there are so few people left at the house, these being the two women with “watchful eyes” yet silent, and the other stern, “cold and grey”. The second major question is how the organ is played even though it is battered and broken, who plays it, and why is it played in relation to the violent weather and winter months?
Gaskell also poses the question of why Miss Maude Furnivall’s picture is hidden away, and why the servants appear so fearful when it is mentioned. The reader questions why Miss Rosamond was led into the fells, and by what supernatural being. This device of unanswered questions is one of the most important methods of instilling fear, tension and suspense. With such a device, we are constantly left shrouded in mystery and suspense of what is to happen next, and why.
The supernatural occurrences in the tale are what essentially make it a Gothic piece: They are cumulative in their nature, meaning that as time increases so does the intensity and frequency of their occurrences. The first is the mysterious playing of the organ of the house in bad weather, despite the fact it has been broken and battered inside. This is the first mysterious event that is put into the readers’ mind, and is the foundation for all other event, as well as being a catalyst for building suspense and horror.
The first occurrence is important as it signals the introduction of the supernatural to the book. The organ is heard playing on stormy nights and during the winter months, despite the fact the organ’s interior has been ravaged and inept. This event starts to cast doubts and worry into Hester’s mind, which is then mirrored in the reader’s mind. The second ghostly occurrence, where the spectre child and Miss Maude Furnivall’s ghost, “proud and grand” appear, is chilling and mysterious in it’s inclusion, possibly due to the violent words used and syntax which appears ‘faster’ due to it’s sentence construction.
On top of this, the fact that the child’s footprints cannot be seen be Hester, and is not actually seen until the final denouement, means that it’s effectiveness is heightened as the reader is kept in suspense on what the ghosts themselves actually look like. The occurrence which I consider the most effective in the book is that of the spectre child, seeming to “sob and wail” and beat against the door, begging to be let in. The horror is accentuated, as we cannot hear the spectre child, confirming to us that it is of ghostly origin. The terror is increased with Miss Rosamond’s “kicking and screaming”, adding tension to the scene.
Although the spectre child is seen here, against Dickens’s ideals, discussed in the conclusion, this is a very successful event due to the cumulating magnitude of it in comparison to the previous event with Miss Rosamond being lost. The idea of having cumulating magnitude of events essentially means that as each ghostly happening occurs, the importance and scale of the event rises, meaning that each happening becomes more and more dramatic. A subtle ghostly element is added here when we see the child making no noise while banging on the door at all, while only Miss Rosamond can hear the child, as she is part of the Furnivall family.
The final denouement provides the climax to the tale, as it is the final event of all the supernatural occurrences. The family secret, hidden for decades, is finally unveiled in a ghostly re inactment of the past events. The atmosphere is set with the “wind rising and howling”, and the chandeliers bright but giving no light, and the fire “blazing … though it gave no heat”. The Old Lord is seen throwing a “beautiful woman”, Miss Maude, and her child out onto the fells and then striking “the little shrinking child”.
The incident also shows the ghostly presence of Miss Grace, as a young woman, and it is only then that the Mrs Grace Furnivall in her age finally regrets her actions, screaming, “spare the little innocent child! ” It is at this point, with the wind howling, Miss Rosamond screaming and chaos all around, that Miss Grace falls to the floor and we know the spirits are allowed to rest as they have exacted their punishment. Tension and suspense is built up before hand with a “calm before the storm” as the group walk into the East Wing, with horror built up as the fire “blazes” but gives not heat, the lights are lit but give no light.
Miss Grace, who is usually silent and talks only in times of dire need, starts screaming “I hear voices! ” which signals to the reader that a climax is being reached. In conclusion, I believe that Gaskell was successful in creating and maintaining mystery, suspense and terror throughout the story, though I do feel that the ending, allowing all the characters to see the ghosts did spoil it somewhat, as no ‘doubts’ or clouds are left in our mind, and the resolution is perhaps too absolute.
However, a clear sense of tension and mystery has been used, and Gaskell has conveyed two morals: “What is done in youth can never be undone in age”, and the proverb that pride comes before a fall. Charles Dickens once said “I have no doubt according to every principle of art that is known to me from Shakespeare downwards, that you weaken the terror of the ghost story by making them all see the phantoms at the end. ” I agree with this statement, but Gaskell obviously does not, as she has hidden the ghosts previously from the reader, and wants everything to build up to a dramatic climax at the end.
However, I do not agree with this, as if one did not see the phantoms in the end, then there would still be a little mystery left in the reader’s mind after the book had finished. While Gaskell does manage to round the story off at the end well, I think that a better result would have been obtained if, slightly differently to the Gothic Tradition, Gaskell had left only Miss Grace and Miss Rosamond to see the ghosts, still leaving traces of doubts and open questions in the readers mind even after he or she had read the novel.
Gaskell clearly believes that supernatural beings exist because they are unable to achieve closure of this world, and must have peace before they can move on to the next world. Gaskell therefore implies that the supernatural are spiritual beings that are stuck in a nether world, between this and the next world. She also believes that in suppressing thoughts and experiences, which are unpleasant, and casting them into the unconscious or subconscious mind, havoc is caused in the long term, causing psychological damage. This is typical of the Gothic Genre, which is seen by many as having an aim to explore the unconscious and subconscious mind.