A Meta-Fairytale: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Curious, If True

Almost 160 years before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill began The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, social novelist and ghost story writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote this atypical (for her) piece of metafiction. An Englishman journeys to France to research his Calvinist roots, and a case of mistaken identity gains him entry to to an unusual party….

The chateau of neuchatel at dusk with jura mountains beyond 1866 jpg Large

Ever wonder what happens to all those fairy tale characters in their happily ever after? Now you can find out.

You can read “Curious, If True” here.

I’ve added links at strategic places in the text to the relevant fairy tales; for the French tales, usually Andrew Lang’s retelling of Charles Perrault’s version. How many of the fairy tales can you identify before clicking on the links?

Even if you do recognize all the references, I recommend that after you finish Gaskell’s story, you click through and re-read the originals anyway; you’ve probably forgotten a lot of the details. In particular, one story has an entire third act that is omitted from popular renditions; I’m not sure I’d ever read it before, myself.

Some additional notes, hopefully not too spoilerish:

  • The English fairy tale Tom Thumb is not the same as the French tale Le Petit Poucet, although Andrew Lang translated Perrault’s title in a misleading way. According to Wikipedia, Perrault’s story is often known in English as Hop o’my Thumb.
  • “Gilles de Retz,” aka Gilles de Rais, was a historical person. Some believe he is the inspiration for a famous fairy tale. You can read a little bit about that here.


Image: The Chateau of Neuchatel at dusk, with Jura mountains beyond by John Ruskin (1866). Source: WikiArt

The Old Nurse’s Winter Tale

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a novelist and short story writer who wrote (among other things), gothic fiction and novels about the working class. She was the daughter of a Scottish Unitarian minister, and later married a Unitarian minister, as well.

Her mother died when she was a year old; apparently, her father didn’t have the wherewithal to care for his children on his own, and she essentially grew up in the households of her aunt and her grandparents. Upon her marriage, she helped her husband in his ministry to the working-class families of Manchester, and their social circle included not only social progressives but many writers, including Charles Dickens (who published her extensively in his magazine Household Words), Charlotte Bronte, and John Ruskin.

I’ve not read much of her work, but a lot of what I have read touches on issues close to her life and of the ministry she shared with her husband: the position of “poor relations” in affluent households, orphans, religious and social tolerance, and the travails of falling in love across social or class strata.


Last year, I shared one of her non-ghost-stories, a little Christmas fable. This year I’m sharing a ghost story from her 1860 collection Curious, if True. It’s a winter tale called The Old Nurse’s Story. Poor little Rosamond, the daughter of a “poor relation” in the family Furnivall and her husband, a shopkeeper’s son, is orphaned at the age of four or five. She and her young nurse are sent to live at Furnivall Manor, with Lord Furnivall’s elderly aunt. The story is told in first person, by the nurse.

As winter drew on, and the days grew shorter, I was sometimes almost certain that I heard a noise as if someone was playing on the great organ in the hall. I did not hear it every evening; but, certainly, I did very often, usually when I was sitting with Miss Rosamond, after I had put her to bed, and keeping quite still and silent in the bedroom. Then I used to hear it booming and swelling away in the distance. The first night, when I went down to my supper, I asked Dorothy who had been playing music, and James said very shortly that I was a gowk to take the wind soughing among the trees for music; but I saw Dorothy look at him very fearfully, and Bessy, the kitchen-maid, said something beneath her breath, and went quite white.

Haunted organs and old secrets…. Enjoy.

You can find last year’s Gaskell story, “Christmas Storms and Sunshine,” on my Winter Tales page.

The painting above is Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (1892) by John Everett Millais. Sourced from WikiPaintings.