The season of the ghost story is upon us again. Cold nights. Early darkness. So bundle up. Wrap a blanket around your body. Sip some hot tea. Add a little Brandy to it. Light a fire. Silence your surroundings, but if there happens to be a strong wind outside your window, open your ears to its calling howl.
Let us now call out to the past then listen to its reply. Forgotten traditions awaken and the spirits of the Christmas season are summonsed when the telling begins. Arriving with frightful countenances formed by a willing imagination, they exist right outside our current norms. But they are there. Can’t you hear them knocking at your door? Let them in. It’s cold outside and your warmth is comfy buy lonely. Open the book. Turn the page. Or listen to a voice and refine the audio settings. Partake in the gift of the Victorian Christmas ghost story. Welcome this tradition and let it haunt you.
It’s been a while. A whole year has passed since my last edition of “Classics: A Chilling Ghost Story for a Chilling Night.” Thus, a refresher of the theme of this series is appropriate:
It is my intention not so much to review these stories as it is to walk through them much like a fearful visitor might walk through a haunted house. Hopefully I can capture the atmosphere without giving too much away. But while on the walk, there will be time for analysis here and there and room for stray thoughts that creep about like watchful specters
The story featured in this article is meant to be read or listened to during the Christmas season. Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” was first published in 1852 in the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’s periodical Household Words. It features a haunted house. Now, did I ever have anything to say about a “Christmas Haunted House?” I did. I said something like this:
I believe that winter’s effect on our imaginations is enhanced when its harmful elements are still near us. Imagine reading a scary book or hearing a ghost story while the dark night can be seen just outside the window, or the howling winds are to be heard underneath the crackle of the fire. Nature’s brutal elements are right there on the other side of the house’s walls. – From Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses
During ghost story-telling sessions on chilly nights, we are “warmly vulnerable.” We celebrate with colorful lights and gaudy gift-wrapping and perhaps a gentle buzz, all the while “the weather outside is frightful”. We invite the doom in when we share the ghost story. The ghost story is all the more pertinent to this situation when the plot involves eerie outside elements that want in and succeed in their attempts to do so. Outside the house. Then in. Such a house, my friends, represents to me a prototypical Christmas haunted house.
Furnivall Manor is such a house. Most of the events of “The Old Nurse’s Story” take place there. Old Nurse Hesther is the storyteller. To her current charges, presumably young, she relays this tale. She has been with the family for a long time and knows the details concerning the upbringing of their very own mother, for Hesther had raised her too! She knows of the extended family branches, the uncles and cousins and great aunts, and knows of the manor to which their mother, little Miss Rosamond, was sent to live after she was orphaned. For Nurse Hesther had accompanied the poor, grieving girl to her new home at the grand Furnivall Manor, home to aging distant relatives and servants.
Miss Furnival, lady of the manor, not quite eighty, sits most of her days in the company of a companion, the old Mrs. Stark, her lifelong maid. They lived many years. Within the long trail of life behind you lurks the past, never fleeting, always encroaching, reminding one of past transgressions.
The house has the grandiose trappings found in many tales of haunted house lore; countless rooms, long hallways connecting the sections, several fireplaces, a gallery of portraits, a bronze chandelier, and a grand organ that was unfortunately broken on the inside. Would it surprise you, dear reader, if I was to tell you that its internal damage prevented not the music from being played by some phantom musician? And does it cause you wonder that the east wing of the manor is sealed off from the rest of the Hall, to enter is forbidden? Outside on the grounds, along the fells, is where Miss Rosamond loves to play. Will you be shocked to know that danger lurks out there? The danger wants in.
“Oh let her in! Please!” Miss Rosamond cries on several occasions. The “danger” is a “she”, and where “she” enchants the young Rosamond she frightens the old Miss Furnival. Hesther too shares her Mistress’s concern, for the strange little girl from the outside has, on one occasion, unintentionally led Miss Rosamond to a dreary place where a strange lady put her into a troubling, feverish, almost frozen sleep. But Hesther could never fear the girl in the same was as Miss Furnival feared her. To fear her in such a way, one would have to have been there, at the beginning, and taken part in the evil doings that once doomed a mother and her child to the cold, winter elements without shelter. And Miss Furnival took part!
An old nurse knows many things. She knows things your own mother would never tell you. Maybe “Miss” Rosamond had forgotten such things and repressed all the misfortune of her childhood. But there is always someone around who recalls it all. Someone who has heard the family stories and has learned through word of mouth the dreadful acts that would reenact upon the manor and cause a haunting. All this, she would confide to her charges, the children of “Miss” Rosamond. How they would react to such stories, the reader will never know.
The Old Nurse’s Story is available for free in several print formats. Open your search engine and seek and you shall find. Or, listen to it as it is narrated by a woman that goes by the name Dancing Dove, and watch the accompanying video, where an artist brings the house and its landscape to life, drawing into being as the story unfolds. I have attached the YouTube video for your listening and viewing pleasure. Enjoy!