The Old Nurse’s Story (Penguin Little Black Classics) by Elizabeth Gaskell

If you haven’t had an opportunity to browse the Penguin Little Black Classics collection yet, you should definitely have a look to see if there are any which take your interest. The collection is a series of 80 short books celebrating the 80th anniversary of Penguin Books, ranging from short fiction, to poetry collections, to extracts from important historical texts. It is possible to get all 80 in a box set, but I have been enjoying simply buying the ones I want to read when I see them (although at only 80p a book, it’s easy to get carried away).

The Old Nurse’s Story is a selection of two short stories by Elizabeth Gaskell: The Old Nurse’s Story and Curious, If True. I was excited to see that Gaskell had been included in this collection, especially since it is clear, from glancing down the titles index, that it is very biased towards male writers. I had read Gaskell’s North and South and Cranford but never any of her short fiction and, since I have a particular interest in Victorian female writers, this little book was right up my street.

The first short story, The Old Nurse’s Story, is a ghost story set in an old manor house told in retrospect by, surprisingly, the nurse of the family. Gaskell uses many gothic tropes throughout this text: from inexplicable organ playing, to a ghostly child out in the snow, to the revelation of dark family secrets. The tension builds steadily from the nurse’s initial intuition that all is not quite right to the realization that the young girl she looks after is in very real danger; Gaskell is careful to reveal the truth of the Furnivall family’s past piece by piece as the narrative unfolds. As with many gothic narratives, the conclusion is an inevitable tragedy but it is hard to feel sad about it, nor, as readers, does Gaskell seem to intend for us to be upset. It is, after all, the logical gothic conclusion for the events of the narrative.

The second of the two stories, Curious, If True, is a less traditional narrative based around fairytale characters. The plot is very simple: Richard Whittington (yes, you read that right) is retelling his story of becoming lost in the woods and stumbling upon a party full of other fairytale characters. Gaskell doesn’t expand the plot further than that, instead leaving the characters themselves to draw the reader in. There is something quite fun about trying to work out who each of the fairytale characters are: Gaskell only explicitly names two or three, the rest are simply implied by their backstories and current surroundings. Whilst in general I prefer short stories to have more plot than is found in Curious, If True, I did enjoy this little narrative and the characters introduced throughout.

As I mentioned, before reading these two short stories, I was more familiar with Gaskell’s novels than her short fiction. However, this little taste has definitely encouraged me to seek out more collections of her work as I think I would enjoy them. If you have an interest in Victorian short fiction, and particularly Gothic fiction, then I would definitely recommend this; they are a great introduction into Gaskell’s short fiction writing.

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