"The Old Nurse's Story" by Elizabeth Gaskell (1852) 

Catalog & Introduction to the Literary Exhibition

 Editorial team: Jack Foster, Grace Keeler, Bryce Kittle, Rachel Smith

(Additional editing by Heidi L. Pennington)
Please note: This catalog discusses key plot points of the narrative. To avoid spoilers, read “The Old Nurse’s Story” first, and then return to this introduction.

Elizabeth Gaskell's 1852 short story "The Old Nurse's Story" is a narrative framed through the use of analepses as the narrator, Hester, tells the tale of her time as a nurse for her young charges' mother, Rosamond, at Furnivall Manor. By layering levels of existence, time, and character identities, the story disrupts the reader's assumption of coherent linear temporality in the narrative. To supplement this argument, we have created a literary exhibit composed of 12 annotations to the primary text, one graphic of the Furnivall family tree, and three images relevant to our discussion of the story. The annotations are organized using a tagging schema, with each annotation falling into one of the following categories: “Music”, “Gothic”, “Focalizer”, “Framing”, and “Narrative Levels”. In the introductory essay that follows, we will reference our annotations to the primary text and the visual gallery elements we have selected to support the argument that Gaskell subverts the readers' expectation that time and identity build on themselves across a stable and continuous plane, challenging the readers’ assumptions about temporality and the nature of individuality.

Gaskell uses a technique called "anachrony" to affect the readers' interpretation of cause and effect. Anachrony includes any discrepancies between the order of events in the discourse (the concrete text or telling) and the story (the readers' mental reconstruction of the events being told); the type of anachrony featured in this narrative is analepsis, or, when the discourse mentions an event after its chronological story order (Genette 40). In the first paragraph, the narrative quickly shifts from Hester’s present to her past. We begin with the protagonist and narrator, Hester, speaking directly to the narratees; she is a nursemaid (or a nanny) and they are her current charges. She starts to tell them a tale from when she was younger, and we gain access to character-Hester's perspective in the past. The double-Hester commentary works to further the idea of the multiplicity of selfhood that is demonstrated in this story, which we will discuss in more detail later on. At the end of the discourse, completing the temporal disruptions in the narrative, the character Miss Furnivall is literally confronted by the spectral embodiment of herself as a young girl. Her physical interaction with her past self mirrors Hester's metaphysical interaction with her past self throughout the telling of the narrative. The seemingly rigid ontological layers of existence have been broken—or at least challenged—by the events of the narrative and by its telling, resulting in the simultaneous occurrence of past and present.

Another important detail in the discourse is that the second narrative level of this text is left open; at the end, the discourse does not return to the “present” moment of the telling, leaving the narrative frame open. As noted in one of the annotations about framing, the readers never return to the scene portrayed in the opening sentence where Hester is directly addressing the young children she takes care of. To put this in perspective, imagine that each layer of the narrative is a layer of a nesting doll. The "narrator" starts opening up each one until they get to the one in the middle; then as they are closing each layer, reassembling the doll, they suddenly stop and do not put the outermost doll back on. It's uncomfortable, creating a lack of narrative closure, which has a similar effect on the audience as the unending guilt experienced by Miss Furnivall, which is precisely what led to the haunting of Furnivall Manor in the first place. Without resolution of the past, uncertainty persists into the present; this is shown through both the story and the discourse itself.

As we enter a discussion of the difference between present and past Hester as focalizers (or “lenses” through which the narrative is told), and compare this to the more literal doubleness of Miss Furnivall's character, it seems important to begin with a few grounding definitions. In clearly defining what it means to be an extradiegetic narrator versus an intradiegetic narrator, we will be best able to understand how there can be two focalizers within one character. The Hester who begins the story exists in the narrative present, telling the story of her time at Furnivall Manor to Rosamond's young children many years later. She focalizes extradiegetically, existing almost entirely outside of the story's temporal container. In other words, she is distanced from the "action of the story" because the time of the telling is far removed from the moment in time when the (past) events occurred (Genette 228-9). When the narrative makes the shift from present Hester to past Hester, the character who experienced these story events, it becomes clear that past Hester is focalizing intradiegetically—that is, it is past Hester, or young Hester, whose feelings inflect how the events are perceived. There is far less distance between the past version of Hester and the story events, because she is an active "player" within those events as they happen. So, even though Hester is necessarily the same person whether she be narrator or character, her methods of narration differ between her present and past selves so greatly that they can be understood as separable focalizers. Present Hester narrates about how past Hester felt and what past Hester experienced, even as these two Hesters occupy different levels of time and text.

The extradiegetic Hester of the present and the intradiegetic Hester of the past are each subjected to the passage of time but neither are unbound from their past or future actions. The two versions of Hester exist simultaneously and across time, a paradox that points to a lack of stability in our assumptions about how both “time” and “self” work. Readers who assume time works in a simplistic and linear manner are unaccustomed to the ways this narrative demonstrates temporal instability, making Hester's doubleness central to the haunting. In rejecting the notion of linear coherence through the doubling of Hester, Gaskell opens the door for readers to consider selves as concurrent rather than consecutive phenomena. To see specific instances of Hester's doubled focalization, and its implications for our assumptions about identity, reference our annotations of the source text.

Noticing these two versions of Hester as separate focalizers becomes even more significant if a reader also notes a parallel doubleness within the story events: Miss Furnivall’s simultaneous yet undoubtedly different selves in the final scene of the haunting. In fact, Miss Furnivall’s lack of closure about her role in her sister's and niece's deaths is what enables the story's haunting, as the causal event, and it further demonstrates the ways in which a self cannot accurately be considered a singular or stable essence. Even as her motivations, disposition, and values change over the course of her life, her agency and influence over her past are not increased. Miss Furnivall's character is caught between who she was as a young woman, Miss Grace, and who she is in old age, sharing her family's ancestral manor with Hester and Rosamond. There isn't a single Miss Furnivall who has grown over time and, as a result of her knowledge and experience, who can rectify what occurred during her youth. Instead, she has become someone both different from and the same as Miss Grace, someone whose knowledge and experience across time do not translate into power over the story's outcome. To see a specific moment of active conflict between the Miss Furnivall and Miss Grace versions of the character, reference our annotations of the source text.

Within the text, Miss Furnivall is described as wearing stereotypically feminine attire for the early part of the nineteenth century, before the Victorian period. This portrayal of a historical type of aristocratic femininity suggests that the character will conform to the conventions expected of her because of her gender, age, and status (Black lxiii). The description of Miss Furnivall's "white stomacher" shows that she was still wearing the binding fashions that were popular in her youth, suggesting an anachronistic quality to her self-image. This careful framework creates ambiguity about whether Miss Furnivall is attached to the past because of her aristocratic status, or for some other reason. Her continued unmarried state is part of a pattern of women being portrayed as deficient if they lack the social sanction derived from male affirmation; this is a Gothic trope displayed within this narrative. Though it is not overtly expressed, there are some details mentioned within the narrative's descriptions that signal the major gendered hierarchies at work in the world of the story. The characters’ portrayal of specific kinds of femininity shifts, along with the linear temporality, causing the readers' assumptions of coherence to be disrupted; time and gender stereotypes are subverted. To understand the entirety of the passage describing supposedly feminine qualities in relation to linear coherence, reference our annotations of the text.

Traditionally within Gothic literary conventions, narratives are set in dreary and horrifying manor homes, something that had become expected of ghost stories by the mid-nineteenth century (Cadwallader 1). However, this text has taken a modern view of the commonalities within the genre and placed the characters in an extravagant home. The implication of this shift in setting is that horror can emerge from what is seemingly safe and familiar. Readers during the Victorian period were surrounded by a culture terrified of the unknown, and Gaskell uses the grandeur of Furnivall Manor to prove that readers should be equally as terrified of what they think they do know. This environmental change also functioned to disconnect readers from their assumption of coherent, linear character identities. There is a terrifying quality to assuming the safety of a setting and being proven wrong. In the same way, it is terrifying to assume the oneness of a character or even a narrator and be proven wrong. Nothing can be truly conveyed in its entirety, as the way it has been presented does not guarantee coherence within the Gothic. Within this narrative in particular, the perceived identities do not necessarily align with the temporality of the narrative, due to the time-scape that is constantly shifting.

The organ residing in the house plays a central role in the haunting, as Hester hears its foreboding music throughout the story events. Frequently, present-day Hester refers to the changing tone of the music to mark gaps in time as she narrates her past experiences. Within the temporal level of young Hester’s story, the organ bridges the gap in time between the living and the dead. For instance, Hester narrates how the organ marked seasonal time: "But the days grew shorter and shorter, and the old lord, if it was he, played away, more and more stormily and sadly, on the great organ," (Gaskell). In each of these instances, the temporal levels of the narrative are woven together. The Old Lord Furnivall haunts the manor of Hester’s youth through the music, and Hester, as a narrator, extends that haunting by including it in the story for the charges and readers to "hear." An analepsis near the end of the story reveals that Lord Furnivall’s purchase of the organ began the chain of events that led to the collapse of the family. The musician who sold him the organ marries his eldest daughter (Miss Furnivall’s older sister),  causing a fallout between the siblings, for they both loved the musician. The music then takes on additional meaning for the readers. The tone becomes progressively more foreboding throughout the present winter, signifying the fraying family ties. The music climaxes with a tremendous peal when the living and dead worlds collide as Rosamond meets the spectral little girl: as the readers will learn, the ghost child is the dead niece of Miss Grace Furnivall, whom she now wishes she had saved all those years ago. The music carries the reader through time, from the past tragedies of the Furnivall family, through Hester’s youth, and into her retelling of those long-past events.

Throughout "The Old Nurse's Story," Gaskell redirects the readers' assumptions about linear time through the narrative's form as well as its content. Her narrative structure gives a sense of synchronous existence through analepses, paralleled by her positioning of the self as a multiplicative structure through Miss Furnivall's literally doubled identity. Additionally, this narrative both demonstrates and subverts traditional gothic tropes, while using music as transtemporal device linking past and present. Readers of this story are primed to walk away understanding that time and the existence of the "self" may not be sequential or stable, as we often assume, but rather simultaneous: the narrative leaves us haunted by the inescapable possibilities of our past and future selves.


Published @ COVE

December 2023