Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow! - ghosts by Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

The first two ghost stories of the week are “The Nurse’s Story” (1852) by Elizabeth Gaskell and “The Southwest Chamber” (1903 or so) by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  I am reading more or less randomly, which makes the similarities between these two stories almost uncanny.

The southwest chamber is where the old aunt died, the one who was “pitiless” towards her sister who married a poor man, and to her nieces, too, but they end up with the house.  They take in lodgers, but the aunt’s room turns out to be trouble.

“Well!” said Sophia, “of all the silly notions! If you are going to pick out rooms in this house where nobody has died, for the boarders, you'll have your hands full… I don't believe there's a room nor a bed in this house that somebody hasn't passed away in.”

But apparently none of those other people were so mean.

The amusing thing is that the aunt’s hauntings are entirely domestic.  She messes around with dresses and nightcaps and mirrors and, my favorite, her bed hangings, which she occasionally switches from a “peacocks on blue” pattern to “roses on yellow.”

This apparent contradiction of the reasonable as manifested in such a commonplace thing as chintz of a bed-hanging affected this ordinarily unimaginative woman as no ghostly appearance could have done. Those red roses on the yellow ground were to her much more ghostly than any strange figure clad in the white robes of the grave entering the room.

Next week, kids, Count Floyd will get a scary movie, he promises.

No, I joke, this is good.  The skeptical, tough niece learns that no matter how strong and sensible she is she cannot correct the sins of someone else’s past, even in her own family.  Just get away from it; move on.  A therapeutic ghost story.

Elizabeth Gaskell also conjures some ghosts from a sister’s old act of cruelty.  The nurse and her little ward end up in a house with the usual accoutrements – a sealed-off wing, a bitter old lady.  Gaskell employs James’s two turns of the screw (“what do you say to two children”), in this case one living and one  lost:

[B]y-and-by, without our noticing it, it grew dusk indoors, though it was still light in the open air, and I was thinking of taking her back into the nursery, when, all of sudden, she cried out, -

'Look, Hester! look! there is my poor little girl out in the snow!'

I turned towards the long, narrow windows, and there, sure enough, I saw a little girl, less than my Miss Rosamond dressed all unfit to be out-of-doors such a bitter night - crying, and beating against the window-panes, as if she wanted to be let in.

This is the pleasingly uncanny point where the reader interested in being frightened will enjoy himself.

The story’s end is a bit more thumping, with the story’s ghosts assembling before the living to re-enact the moment that created them many decades ago.

As soon as I saw the date of the story, I should have known what Gaskell was after.  “The Nurse’s Story” is another of her tales of female solidarity, with the nurse doing everything necessary to protect the little girl in her care, taking the ghosts in their own terms, figuring out their rules.  The evil act in the past is the opposite, one woman destroying another.  The only act of violence comes from a man, but a woman endorsing the violence against her own sister and niece is as worthy of a lifetime of guilt and ghosts.

So, two ghost stories that are feminist explorations of good and bad deeds within the family.

I doubt whatever else I read will pair up so nicely.


  1. If you were hoping to create an atmosphere for this spooky stories series, you've dang near ruined it with that Count Floyd reference. I'm going to have to cue up my copy of Whispers of the Wolf for Halloween this year. :)

  2. Oh, I'm trying to create an atmosphere, all right. The question is: what kind of atmosphere?

    "You think it's not scary to be depressed?"