REVIEW: Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
I first became aware of Elizabeth Gaskell through television adaptions of her works Cranford and North and South; I then went on to read and enjoy those books. Sylvia’s Lovers is, by my count, the sixth Gaskell book I have read (I think I only have two left after this, though there are also some novellas and short stories to delve in to after that).
Before reading this book I read that Gaskell had called Sylvia’s Lovers “the saddest story I ever wrote”, which gave me pause. Aside from Cranford, most of the Gaskell books I’ve read are pretty heavy reads, though aside from Ruth, I suppose they have happy endings. So to hear that this was the “saddest” was…not offputting, but concerning? Once I started reading, I could see why Gaskell said this. The story is very affecting, though I found the main characters unsympathetic for much of the book.
The setting is the fictional town of Monkshaven, in Northern England, in the 1790s. The British are at war with the French (weren’t the British always at war with the French?). Monkshaven is a hub for whaling, and the residents’ lives are deeply intertwined with those of the sailors who leave for months at a time to hunt for whales near Greenland. Thus they harbor much animosity towards the press gangs that descend upon the town periodically and snap up sailors for the King’s Navy.
Sylvia Robson is young (maybe 16 or so?) and lovely; she lives with her parents at Haytersbank Farm outside of Monkshaven. Sylvia is the only child of her parents Daniel and Bell; she was a late-in-life baby and they dote on her. Sylvia is flighty and a bit vain; as the story opens she’s going into town with the intention of buying fabric for a cloak. At the store, her cousin Philip Hepburn, a sober Quaker who is in love with Sylvia, tries to convince Sylvia that her choice of scarlet as a color is not practical, but she won’t be dissuaded.
A commotion erupts in town when a whaling ship carrying long-gone and much anticipated sailors returning home is intercepted outside the harbor by the Navy. There is a struggle on the whaler; one sailor is killed, and another wounded. Sylvia’s imagination is lit by the supposed courage and suffering of the wounded sailor, Charley Kinraid, who happens to be a cousin to her friend and shopping companion Molly. Charley is lauded for killing two members of the press gang, and there is much concern for his recovery in Monkshaven. When Sylvia encounters him at the funeral for the sailor who was killed, she becomes even more smitten.
I’ve seen Sylvia’s Lovers referred to as an “anti-romantic” novel, and that term fits. Sylvia loves Charley, who may or may not be worthy of her affection. Philip loves Sylvia, but “why” was a big question for me for much of the novel (I couldn’t help but think that Sylvia being beautiful had something to do with it). Hester, the shy and sober shopgirl who works with Philip, loves him, and again, I didn’t really understand why. None of these supposed loves seem based on qualities that would stand a couple in good stead in the long term. I suppose Philip and Hester would’ve had the best shot, but he thinks of her as “a sister” and is entirely unaware of her pining for him. Emotional intelligence is not Philip’s strong suit.
There is a good deal of tragedy in the story. I’ll spoiler-mark a couple of big spoilers, but the rest of this review may be generally spoilery for someone who thinks they may read the book and doesn’t want to be spoiled.
Sylvia and Charley unofficially plight their troth. Sylvia’s father Daniel, who knows about the secret engagement, approves (like Charley, he was once a sailor, and he loves swapping seafaring stories with him). Bell, who only suspects the entanglement, does not approve of Charley, and prefers her nephew Philip for her only daughter.
Charley is presumed dead, and Sylvia loses a good deal of her animation and vivacity. She doesn’t seem that much more interested in Philip, though. More trouble soon descends on Haytersbank Farm. A press gang holes up in the only inn in town that will allow them entrance, with several men that they’ve kidnapped (they had the inn owner ring a bell indicating a fire, drawing people who came to help, and then scooped up four likely sailors). Though the press gang is armed and barricaded, an angry mob forms and
In the aftermath, Sylvia accedes to marrying Philip, but she’s essentially a broken woman. They have a daughter, named Bella, but (you probably knew there was a but, by now), just as a gun introduced in the first act must go off in the third, the “declared dead, but who really knows?” have a way of showing up alive.
I could detail yet more bad things that happen to the characters in Sylvia’s Lovers, but I’m more interested in the turn the story took for me part way through. I always like Gaskell’s writing, but early on in this book I felt like her characters were a bit underdeveloped, maybe? I perceived their shallow understanding of love as coming from the author rather than the characters themselves (which may be testament to Gaskell’s skills as a writer).
I came to realize that they are all meant to be just that dumb and incapable of making good life choices. And yet by the time I came to that conclusion I realized that I actually cared about them. It was weird. Like, my feelings for Philip go from, “he’s boring, selfish, priggish and condescending”, to, “oh, poor Philip! How he’s suffering!” I could acknowledge that he was the agent of his own suffering, but I still FELT for him, keenly, to the point of tears (I rarely cry at books).
Sylvia, a willful child who seemed proud of her ignorance (she early on resists Philip’s attempts to teach her to read), is transformed into a meek and devoted mother (this is, after all, a 19th century novel; some stereotypes must be maintained). She may not love wisely, but it’s sad to see her crushed by all the tragedies and losses she suffers in her young life.
The more I read of Gaskell the more I feel like she should be better known by the general population, on a par with other 19th century British authors like the Brontes, Dickens and Austen. Her understanding of human nature is really superb. I’m giving Sylvia’s Lovers a high A-.