Elizabeth Gaskell – like Rhoda Broughton and Margaret Oliphant – wrote ghost stories with a critical (and notably feminist) perspective of British society. Her fiction explored the unstable nature (and looming doom) of a culture that failed to question the abuses of privilege: industrialists and aristocrats, males and English nationals. Her tales explored the instability of class-based prejudice and the anxieties of socially- vulnerable victims (“Lois the Witch,” set during the Salem Trials, is a fine standout).
This ghost story is a masterful standout among the dramatic and dull; it is a story about a child – nothing new to Victorians who couldn’t get enough of children in dire straits. But this child is not the ward of an omniscient third-person Charles Dickens: she is the responsibility of a teenage girl desperate to preserve her from disaster. No dashing gentleman is here to sally forth; the only other characters are – like the gloomy pensioners in H. G. Wells' "The Red Room" – ancient and infirm patients in God's Waiting Room. It is a story about absolute vulnerability, and about the accumulative psychological torture that can be suffered throughout a lifetime after a single act of hate.
Hester, the old nurse in question (probably only in her 50s by the sound of it) is sitting up with her young charges, telling them about their mother, Rosamund’s, childhood. As it turns out, she was their mother’s nursemaid, too, and has been with the family for her entire adulthood. Currently, she is a happily married woman with a beautiful family and a safe, cozy life, but Hester reminds her children of her humble – and even dangerous – childhood. The children’s grandmother was the sweet, but shy wife of a poor minister, who recruited Hester (a school girl at the time) when she was still pregnant with Rosamund.
When she was finally born, the nurse was instantly smitten with her ward: “there never was such a baby, before or since, though you’ve all of you been fine enough in your turns; but for her sweet, winning ways.” Unfortunately, though, when Rosamund was five, her parents both died within two weeks of each other. Hester refuses to leave her orphaned mistress, and travels with her to her mother’s family’s moorland estate in Northumberland.
The gloomy mansion is occupied by a stone-faced, octogenarian woman, Miss Grace Furnivall (great-aunt to Rosamund’s older, ever-absent cousin, Lord Furnivall) and her servants. Miss Grace is cold, bitter, and unapproachable, haunted by an unhappy past which the servants refuse to speak of. Furnivall Manor – situated at the foot of the Cumberland Fells, has a wild, thorny park, a massive, oak-beamed great hall, a spacious library fronted by tall windows, massive fireplaces, and an ancient, Gothic pipe organ. As they explore the rambling house, they find a portrait of Miss Furnivall as a young woman, and are struck by her beauty, sneering pride, and subtle cruelty.
Seeing their interest in the portrait, the housekeeper offers to show them one of, Maude, her long-dead, older sister – as long as they keep it a secret. She turns around a painting facing the wall, and indeed, the sitter exceeded her younger sister in both her striking beauty and her “scornful pride.” This seems to be a family trait: her father, Old Lord Furnivall, was renowned for his violent temper and stubborn arrogance.
Winter draws near, lashing the manor with snow and ice, and Hester grows increasingly unsettled by its odd atmosphere. She sometimes hears the broken organ playing furiously on snowy nights, and the housekeeper – who blames the Old Lord’s restless ghost – begs her to keep an eye on Rosamund, as “there are some ugly places around the house” where she would “ill like the child to go.” Miss Furnivall also seems to be disturbed by something, as one night, to the concern of the servants, she knowingly mutters, “I am afraid that we shall have a terrible winter.” Undeterred, Rosamund and Hester spend lots of time outside in the sharp, clean air, running races and exploring the snow-swept hills and thickets. But as the days grow shorter, darker, and colder, Hester notes warily that the Old Lord’s ghostly organ music grows “more and more stormily and sadly.”
One brutal night in late November, Hester leaves Rosamund with another servant while she attends a church service with the family. When they return, the snow is coming down so thickly that it blocks light from the windows, and the nurse is horrified to find that Rosamund is not to be found. After a thorough search of the house, they discover a set of footprints leading from a door in the library to the fells. She follows them through the blizzard until she runs into a shepherd carrying a half-frozen Rosamund wrapped in his cloak.
When Rosamund recovers, she claims that she was lured outside by a beautiful girl whom she saw watching her through the library window. The child – who was Rosamund’s age – beckoned her into the blizzard and led her up into the hills under a grove of holly trees where she found a tall woman weeping in the snow. Looking up to see the two girls, the woman’s face became charged with pride and vanity: she stood up and smiled at them strangely. Drawing Rosamund onto her knee, she sang lullabies to her until she fell asleep. The next thing she knew, the shepherd was carrying her home.
Hester tells the story to Miss Furnivall, and at the mention of the weeping woman under the holly trees, she involuntarily cries out “Heaven, forgive! Have mercy! … It [was] many a long year ago” and is inconsolable: “Keep her away from that child! It will lure her to her death! That evil child! Tell her that it is a wicked, naughty child!” That night, the blizzard rages viciously, and the Old Lord’s organ peals echo throughout the house.
A few days before Christmas, Hester is with Rosamund when she sees the Phantom Child through the window, standing in the snow, banging angrily to be let in (although her visible screams and pounding on the glass create no noise). Rosamund becomes violent and hysterical when Hester refuses to let her go outside, and the servants have to restrain her and lock the doors, until she cries herself to sleep. Unsettled by the appearance of the ghost, the housekeeper agrees to tell Hester everything: the manor has had a bad name in the countryside ever since Miss Furnivall was a young woman, because of a tragedy that she caused between her father and sister.
Decades ago, the eccentric Old Lord – who was insanely passionate about wild music – hired an Italian musician to train him in organ playing, and the cosmopolitan foreigner – dark-eyed and lusty – quickly stole the hearts of both Furnivall sisters. The musician succeeded in seducing and impregnating Maude, and the two married in secret. Meanwhile, he continued to romance Miss Grace Furnivall in order (or so he told the ravenously jealous Maude) to cover up their secret relationship.
When Miss Grace finally learned about the child, she burned with jealousy and decided to get revenge, and told her ferocious father the truth. Incandescent with rage, the Old Lord evicted his daughter and granddaughter (whom she had been passing off as a local child she was mentoring) into a blizzard where they sought shelter under the holly trees, where shepherds found Miss Maude “crazy and smiling … nursing a dead child.” She died soon after.
Hester understands what has made Miss Furnivall so miserable and cold, but she realizes that her refusal to accept the past has caused the manor – and by extension the family, including Rosamund – to be dominated by the vengeful ghosts of the past. Hester is now determined to take Rosamund away from this terrible house, haunted by her family’s wicked deeds, but a snow storm pounds the house that night, making it impossible to venture outside. The winds rage and the snow flies, and Rosamund seems to be possessed by the elements: pounding and screaming and raging for the little girl to be let inside.
Miss Furnivall groans miserably as the walls rumble and the windows shake: “I hear terrible screams – I hear my father’s voice!” The old woman suddenly rushes to the great hall – where the screams and organ music are echoing – and Hester follows her in terror. There, in the gloom, she notes that the chandelier is bathed in ghostly light – although it is unlit – and the fireplace is giving off the same brassy glow – although there is no fire.
There, in the dusk, Hester sees a spectral cinema: the figure of an old man in 18th century dress rushes soundlessly into the ghostly light, chasing after a tall, stern-looking woman – the formidable Maude – with a small girl clutching at her skirts. Rosamund begs to be allowed to follow them into the snowy night, but Hester clasps her to her chest and suffers the little girl’s slaps and blows. Suddenly, a fourth spectre bursts into the light: young Miss Furnivall – looking exactly like her portrait on the gallery wall – watching her father and sister shouting at one another in the phantom light, with her red lips curling in pleasure at the sight of her sister and niece being beaten by the old man’s crutch. The ghosts are blown into the night, apparently exorcised by the aged Miss Furnivall's willingness to finally face them.
As the pale, fluttering light dissipates, and the vision cedes to the shadows of the dark hall, Miss Furnivall collapses in a seizure. She is carried up to her bed, where she soon dies, writhing in the agony of a guilty conscience, moaning “What is done in youth can never be undone in age…”
The end is abrupt – almost jarring – and it jostles the expectations we held for the characters. Who, in fact, is the real focus of the story? We are secure in the old nurse’s fate and the fate of her young charge, whose children she is addressing. It is the withered Miss Grace, whose dying words fade the story out, who takes center stage at the end of the drama. It is her past wickedness (and the collective psychological avoidance and denial of the residents and staff) that threatens an innocent generation, steeping the manor in moral impotence and spiritual vulnerability , nearly luring Rosamund into a frosty demise. Guilt and denial haunt Miss Grace and everyone in her proximity.
Gaskell adds her story to the mythology of the Victorians, who were well-aware that the imperial sins they incurred (and collectively tried to deny), could haunt the present generation and lure their grandchildren into world wars, economic recessions, colonial insurrections, and wide class disparity. A family that quietly enabled the old squire’s negligence and abuses cannot expect to escape the ramifications of his selfish violence, just as a nation that turns a blind eye to the maltreatment of class and empire cannot pray to avoid the angry echoes of the past. “Be generous and slow to anger, young ones,” the old nurse warns, “right your wrongs and behave with calm compassion, because the ugly repercussions of impulses and abuses may be impossible to fend off before they cause cataclysm.”