“Alas! alas! what is done in youth can never be undone in age!" Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse's Story” (1852) is a classic that stands out among the countless others of its genre in the Victorian era.
Hester, now an old nurse, tells the tale to the two young children of Rosamund, for whom Hester also served as a nursemaid many years before. Rosamund was five when her parents died, and Hester devoted herself to caring for the orphan at the girl’s mother’s family’s estate in Northumberland. The mansion is enormous and gloomy, the relatives living there are “stony” and unapproachable, the pipe organ plays on its own when a harsh wind howls. On wintry days the ghost of a bruised young girl (“bairn”) is seen outside, either roving about the moor or banging frantically, though soundlessly, at the library’s tall window.
This is a story of cruelty and vulnerability in consequence of pride and vanity. The young Rosamund is lured by the mansion’s spirits, who we learn are her long-dead relatives, bitterly resentful over what transpired in their pasts. Barely watched one day while Hester is in town, Rosamund is beckoned by the specter girl into a blizzard and up to a grove of holly trees. After that, Hester grows determined to save the girl from these vengeful apparitions by taking her away from the house, but she’s vulnerable too in the way she’s shackled to the constraints of a lower class.
Gaskell is masterful in telling the story and has a very distinct and effective style. It’s as if we’re Rosamund’s children sitting with Hester on a cold, damp night by a warm, crackling fire. Her story also conveys the message that the abuses and negligence of the past will echo forward, that their ramifications on the present can be inescapable.