Sunday, 26 October 2008
Bibliotherapy: What to read on Halloween
“Nobody knows better than a ghost how hard it is to put him or her into words shadowy, yet transparent enough,” wrote Edith Wharton. “If a ghost story sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.” But that cold shiver is often mingled with a warm glow – for a ghost story is traditionally told by firelight, and its chilling effect accompanied by a pleasurable companionship between the teller of the tale and those to whom it is told.
My own particular favourites are contained in The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, which includes Wharton’s uncanny masterpiece, The Eyes, and Mrs Gaskell’s equally eerie narrative, The Old Nurse’s Story. I’d recommend the entire anthology, but Mrs Gaskell’s is best of all on a dark autumnal evening, when the clocks have just gone back; for her tale rewinds time, yet is also a reminder that there is no going back, even though the past returns to haunt us over and over again. ‘What is done in youth can never be undone in age!’
I don’t want to spoil a fine ghost story by revealing too many of its details; suffice to say it concerns a past crime, a living child and a ghostly one, and two dead mothers. Elizabeth Gaskell’s own mother died soon after her birth, and like the little girl in ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, she was sent away to live with an older aunt. The infant Elizabeth was dispatched from London to Knutsford (which she later transformed into Cranford), but the orphaned Rosamond, whose nursemaid narrates the ghost story, is sent even further north, to the brooding Furnivall Manor in the Cumberland Fells.
Gaskell wrote the story in 1852, one of a series of commissions by Charles Dickens for his magazine, Household Words, though she ignored his increasingly exasperated requests to change her ending. Her resolution was heartfelt; for having lost her mother, she also knew the grief of losing a child, and had embarked upon writing after the death of her baby son, in the understanding that a story must feel true to its teller, if it is to draw back the veil between the living and the dead.