The Old Nurse’s Story, The Black Cottage and The Black Veil

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Short, entertaining stories were extremely popular within the Victorian era, and a number of popular writers emerged, captivating their Victorian audience with their suspenseful tales. Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were all respected authors in this era, and they produced three of the most tense short stories ever created; ‘The Old Nurse’s Story,’ ‘The Black Cottage’ and ‘The Black Veil’, which cater for Victorian tastes. Therefore, each story boasts a moral that the writers have chosen to present in equally effective ways.

These taught the Victorians how to live their lives, and followed the teachings of the Christian faith, while also revealing the writers’ social concerns. Each writer has chosen their own distinctive ways to present their Victorian story, and the openings are designed to attract their readers into their tale. ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ has been written in first person, in order to convey the feelings of Hester, to the readers that she was ‘mighty proud’ to be selected as a ‘nurse-maid’.

The Black Cottage’ uses Bessie for first person narration, and her feelings about her ‘foster-sister’ and how she will remember the ‘kindness and friendship’ ‘gratefully to the last day of’ her ‘life’. This gives the readers Bessie’s feelings about Mrs Knifton, describing Bessie’s point of view, to ensure that the readers automatically feel the same way about Mrs Knifton, devotion and gratitude. Collins and Gaskell have seen first person as an effective way of setting the scene as they both have begun with family history.

In ‘The Black Cottage’, Bessie, ‘must take you back to the time after,’ her, ‘mother’s death,’ which sums up Bessie’s family history quite quickly. On the other hand, ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ has Hester dragging out her history over one very large paragraph. Gaskell has chosen Hester’s history and the details of the family that she is in service to as relevant information to spend a lot of time on, whilst Collins feels that this information is irrelevant to his plot, and only requires one sentence of the story.

Gaskell and Collins use two main characters that are very similar in that both tales revolve around them being teenage, female characters that are of working class. Hester is a warm person that immediately addresses her charges as her ‘dears’ and throughout the opening, her unusual syntax and archaic words draw the reader into the story like a living voice. She tells her charges of how her mistress ‘spoke to’ her ‘being a good girl at (her) needle’, and this makes her appear warm, affectionate and chatty.

Hester also continuously refers to Miss Rosamond as ‘my darling’, which emphasizes these personality traits as she sees ‘(her) Rosy-posy’ as hers, as if she loves her so much that she belongs solely to her. By contrast, Dickens has used third person. While it is still effective, I think that the feelings of the ‘young medical practitioner’ are not depicted to the reader as effectively as they could be, first hand, yet by using third person Dickens has been able to depict activities that are not directly happening to the main character as in the boy who ‘immediately applied one of his large eyes to the keyhole’, for a touch of gentle humour.

In ‘The Black Cottage’ and ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, the main characters’ personalities are quickly established by using first person, but in ‘The Black Veil’ as third person is used, this advantage cannot be manipulated. Dickens however manages to convey the ‘practitioner’s’ feelings, about Rose’s ‘soft tiny hand (which he hoped) rested upon his shoulder’ and establishes him as a young, upper middle class man, focusing on his thoughts and feelings. This contrasts with the female, lower class heroines in Collins’ and Gaskell’s stories.

Despite this, each main character is however quite brave and vulnerable in their situations so that the readers can sympathise with them, building suspense. The ‘young doctor’ is vulnerable to the ‘shrouded’ ‘figure’, and her speech increases this impression as it seems full of riddles, presenting the readers with a number of unanswered questions about the woman, such as her mental health; ‘ “I am very ill; not bodily but mentally. “. ‘ The opening of Dickens’ tale is even tenser in comparison to the other two stories, and in setting the scene Dickens’ is already building up the atmosphere which is ‘mysterious’.

Similarly, Bessie is a vulnerable character as Collins manages to set the situation up, that Bessie is home alone in her ‘curiously dark’ cottage on the moors, leaving the readers predicting the situation that may arise at a later on in the story. Also, Hester is put in a vulnerable situation when she is left in Furnivall Manor which is ‘peeled with age’, ‘desolate’ and ‘overshadowed’, with two deaf, old ladies whom she doesn’t know, and who may not protect her if the occasion arises.

Each main character is faced with a situation that leaves the reader predicting the ending, like in ‘The Black Veil’ where our ‘young practitioner’ concludes that the ‘shrouded figure’ wishes the doctor to intervene in a man’s death, ‘by the timely interposition of medical aid’. Dickens uses the several possibilities that the ‘young doctor’ dreams up, in order to supply some possible ideas for the readers as to how the story might progress, to increase the tension.

Dickens uses these possibilities, like; ‘It could not be that the man was to be murdered in the morning, and that the woman, originally a consenting party… had relented,’ in order to build the character as well, making him seem imaginative, excited but concerned about his first patient. Similarly, Collins uses this technique for similar reasons when Bessie is ‘anticipating the most unlikely events’, to build the suspense and force the readers to dream up their own ‘unlikely events’.

The settings within all three stories have typical Gothic features such as being set in deserted area with no-one within reach to contact and, in the case of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, being set in an old house with a history that can add to the tension of the story. While Collins’ and Gaskell’s stories are set on deserted moors or other deserted areas, Dickens’ is set in London, first within a house where the ‘young doctor’ has a comfortable lodging with a warm fire. Dickens puts the doctor in this situation in order to contrast, later in the story, with people living in poverty.

Dickens’ stories quite often contain social matters, such as poverty and the class system, as for a long period in his life, Dickens himself lived in poverty. Collins’ tale is based around ‘The Black Cottage’, and the moors surrounding it, where he can use the deserted area to its full advantage, like any typical Gothic story. Most Gothic tales include an isolated area, in which the ‘nearest habitation’ ‘was situated about a mile and a half off’ where there’s no one around to save you, and the title, ‘The Black Cottage’ already has begun to increase tension due to the relation between ‘black’ and ‘darkness’ leading to evil.

Moors always tend to increase tension, due to their associations with various other tales, and often being foggy meaning low visibility, so that you can’t see anything coming. Collins can therefore manipulate the setting and mould the story into a very tense tale, with Gothic elements, leaving a number of occurrences to surprise the readers in the future. Similarly, Gaskell also creates feelings of isolation, again with a typical Gothic element, at Furnivall Manor. Hester is left trying to protect Miss Rosamond in their new grand home, with many a room to be able to wander around.

This is the major difference in setting between ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ and ‘The Black Cottage’, that Hester is left in a grand house where one might be ‘lost’ in the ‘several smaller halls and passages’, whereas Bessie is in a small cottage with few rooms, where she could be trapped. Hester’s new home, ‘Furnivall Manor’, is very ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘old’ which meant that many secrets could be unearthed later in the story, and Gaskell is cleverly moulding the setting to suit the needs of her short story.

Surrounding the manor is a ‘wild park’ and a ‘thick dark wood’ and not much else, leaving the Manor in a desolate area, much like the location of the Black Cottage. Dickens’ settings are the most different by comparison to the other two short stories as it is in the midst of a poverty-stricken area of London, in Walworth, and at first in the doctor’s surgery. These two settings sharply highlight the class system within the Victorian era.

The house in which the ‘ill-favoured’ man dwelled was set in a corner, where it was isolated from any other area, similar to ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ and ‘The Black Cottage’ where each setting is ‘desolate’. A ‘cold damp mist’ which ‘hung heavily’ over ‘Walworth’ presents it with a ‘lonely and dreary’ appearance which will likely ‘shroud’ the truth in the future, similar to the ‘mist (that) was rising’ over the moors within ‘The Black Cottage’. There are several minor characters within the stories, which also increase the tension or add to the story, like in ‘The Black Cottage’.

Mr and Mrs Knifton are only minor characters but they are needed in order to leave the ‘pocket-book’ in Bessie’s ‘trustworthy’ hands, to attract the ‘bad character’ of ‘Shifty Dick’ and ‘Jerry’ into the story, followed by the anticlimax of them leaving. Collins has had Mr and Mrs Knifton provide a reason for the villains to frighten Bessie with their ‘huge hairy hands’. ‘Shifty Dick’ and ‘Jerry’ are welcomed into the story in order to increase the tension and create villains for Bessie to outsmart with the continuous climaxes and anti-climaxes to increase the tension of their failed entrances.

They are a very stereo-typical duo, as everything about them is blatant and they do not hide themselves away. They are also used to build up Bessie’s character which, at the point where they were introduced, was still being developed. It is because of the ‘ragamuffin thieves’ that Bessie is allowed to tell the audience that she is ‘strong-spirited’, quite different to any ‘poor’ ‘cherub’ ‘left alone in the house’ that would have been ‘terrified’ ‘out of their senses’.

Similarly, the ‘pale and haggard’ man that opened the door for ‘our doctor’ in ‘The Black Veil’ is in the story for the purpose of increasing the tension in Dickens’ tale, as he is the stereotypical villainous character that would appear to a door in ‘Walworth’. His being compared to ‘death’ follows the theme that is being increasingly built up within the story. Similar to ‘The Black Cottage’, a very minor character is introduced in ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’. Mr Henry is added solely for the purpose of introducing Hester to her new ‘wilderness of a house’, and the terror that she may face there later on in the story.

While serving his purpose, Mr Henry also manages to increase the tension within the story by ‘taking no notice of (Hester’s) sweet little Miss Rosamond’s out-stretched hand’ which clearly left Hester feeling upset, and reaffirmed the fact that the ‘needle-point’ wrinkled ladies had ‘never loved or cared for any-one’ which in turn increases the tension of what will happen later in the story to Hester. Two of the short stories have included a theme of mental instability, which appears to have been of interest in Victorian society.

The ‘shrouded figure’ within ‘The Black Veil’ concludes that she may be ‘mentally’ ‘ill’. The same theme arises with ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ when Hester was ‘uneasy in (her) mind’ that ‘Miss Furnivall was crazy’, which again follows the same theme of mental instability, which I must conclude was feared within Victorian society. Throughout the middles of the three stories each writer had the task of managing to create and maintain the suspense that they had begun to build within the beginnings of the stories.

Within ‘The Black Cottage’ the tension begins to increase when Bessie is enjoying ‘knitting’ ‘lazily’, listening to the ‘splashing of the rain outside’ and the ‘sullen sobbing of the wind’. These are typical Gothic features, and while ‘The Black Cottage’ is an adventure story, the bad weather like the ‘rain’ and ‘sullen’ ‘wind’ is a signal for a bad occurrence to come. This increases the tension as the reader begins to wonder what is to follow after Bessie seems to be ‘drowsy’ near a ‘cheerful fire’ where nothing can be more perfect.

This is similar to where ‘the surgeon’ is enjoying the ‘cheerful fire in his parlour’ in the very beginning of Dickens’ tale, which within both tales seems to signal comfort but that soon there will be a disruption. The tension suddenly rises after this signal of supreme ‘luxurious’ comfort within ‘The Black Cottage’, where Bessie is startled by ‘a loud bang at the front door’. This sentence is very short, in a paragraph on its own in order to make it sound very sharp and short and startling, like the ‘loud bang’ itself. This too is used to affect the reader, which increases the suspense as they have to read on to find out what the noise is.

Following this Bessie is querying whether she had ‘dreamed about the bang at the door’ or not, which keeps the reader waiting to see whether she is at threat. The main part of ‘The Black Veil’ however is the ‘depressing’ journey throughout ‘Walworth’, which gives the educated readers of ‘The Black Veil’ a taster of a ‘poverty’-stricken life. Dickens knows first hand what a place like ‘Walworth’ would be like, as he spent a considerable part of his early life financially deprived and maybe this story is a plea to the readers be attentive to the ‘decay and neglect’ that these people had to live through.

The ‘dismal’ words used by Dickens to describe Walworth are ‘miserable’ and ‘dreary’, having a cumulative effect in order to increase the tension that ‘our doctor’ has to plod through this ‘dirty’ area, risking the likes of ‘Burke’ or ‘Bishop’. There is many a ‘desperate’ character in this area, whom the upper-class readers would have feared, so they would empathise with the vulnerable doctor, wondering whether he may stumble upon one of these ‘depraved characters’. What increases the tension is that a neighbourhood could be left ‘entirely to the mercy of the moon and stars’.

This shows how poor the neighbourhood is, as it has not even street lighting of its own. Authorial interjection from Dickens here tells us that our main character, the ‘doctor’, is of ‘strong mind’ and full of ‘courage’ and that even the ‘boldest reader’ would be intimidated. This is a very good way of increasing the tension, but of course could not be used within either of the other stories due to their narrative choice. Dickens here is directly addressing the readers, like one would in everyday speech, in order to tell them how to feel.

In this case they should feel in awe of this man’s bravery, as Dickens tells them to do so, and that the doctor is so brave to face such a tense situation. Dickens’ interjection is postpones the unveiling of what lies beyond the door, increasing the suspense as with every word the readers are agonising more and more about what is lurking. Dickens purposely waits for the reader’s suspense to peak before he finally shows them who opens the door, where the likely inhabitants are all ‘filthy’, ‘depraved’, ‘desperate’ and ‘questionable’.

Prior to the interjection, Dickens has increasingly built up the likelihood of the doctor being killed while in this area where all was ‘isolated’ and not even the ‘police’ could help. During the interjection these characters are built up even more, leaving the audience anticipating the arrival of one of them at the door, and what he will do to ‘our’ vulnerable ‘doctor’. Similar to ‘The Black Veil’, ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ also uses a journey to build up suspense, when ‘there was no answer’ from Miss Rosamond.

Miss Furnivall ‘shivered and shook’ when she realised that Rosamond was missing and Gaskell does this in order to increase the tension in a slow, steady climb. The suspense within the other stories is handled differently. Gaskell manages to keep increasing the amount of tension up in a climb to the climax, whereas Collins has several jumps of suspense and tension where the ‘ragamuffins” plans are foiled by Bessie, and they develop a new one. Dickens’ tale is a mixture of both a steady climax rising up, with many small leaps of tension throughout the tale, for example the doctor’s string of ‘preposterous’ ‘misgivings’.

During Hester’s journey the plot begins to unfold as she becomes sure of supernatural occurrences. The extensive use of exclamation marks begins to increase the tension that the readers feel, as Hester uses her dialect and a scatter of exclamations to the readers (or her ‘dears’ listening to the tale) to draw them in so that they feel that they are there, and that their own ‘Rosy-Posy’ is missing, and not Hester’s, as she polishes the tale with her own pet names for Miss Rosamond.

‘Well-a-day! is a typical phrase that the ‘Old Nurse’ Hester uses, to exclaim about how terrified that ‘(her) lamb-(her) queen- (her) darling’ was missing. This exaggeration is used to convey how Hester feels for her ‘bairnie’, and relays her feelings to the readers. Gaskell warns us of what is to come throughout the tale, increasing the tension with the tell-tale signs that she subtly drops into the story where ‘great, large flakes’ of snow lay ‘soft, thick and deep’, when the bad weather signals a bad occurrence to follow, like any typical Gothic tale.

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