Sylvia’s Lovers is set in the final years of the eighteenth century in the small town of Monkshaven on the Yorkshire coast. During this period Britain and France were at war and the men of Monkshaven lived in fear of the press-gangs who regularly captured sailors from the town and forced them into action against France. Against this backdrop we meet Sylvia Robson, the beautiful young daughter of a farmer from nearby Haytersbank, and the two very different men who hope to marry her. One of these is Sylvia’s cousin, Philip Hepburn, a serious, reliable man who works in a draper’s shop; the other is the much more exciting and charismatic Charley Kinraid, a ‘specksioneer’ (chief harpooner) on a whaling ship. When Philip discovers that Kinraid is a rival for Sylvia’s love, he makes a decision that will eventually have tragic consequences for everyone involved.
Elizabeth Gaskell said this was the saddest book she ever wrote and I can definitely understand why she would have said that! Apart from the central storyline involving Sylvia, Philip and Kinraid, there are other characters with their own tragic stories to be told. Hester Rose, for example, who works with Philip in Foster’s shop and has been secretly in love with him for years without ever daring to say so. And Daniel Robson, Sylvia’s father, a former whaler who decides to take action to stop any more of the town’s young men being pressed into the navy.
Monkshaven is a fictional town but was based closely on the real North Yorkshire town of Whitby. A few weeks ago I posted a visual tour of Monkshaven – I hope the photos and quotes I included help to convey some of the atmosphere Gaskell created in her descriptions of the town. My own familiarity with Whitby (I’ve been there many times over the years) made it easy for me to picture the scenes. When we were told of a funeral procession slowly winding its way up the steps to the church on the cliff or the crowds gathering to watch a whaling ship coming in, I could see the images clearly in my mind.
Sylvia’s Lovers took a long time to read (it was 500 pages and felt even longer, partly because I had to concentrate on understanding the dialogue – I should probably warn you that this book does contain a lot of Yorkshire dialect) but the setting, the historical background and the characters kept me interested. Sylvia frustrated me at the beginning because she was so silly and immature, uneducated and unwilling to learn; by the end of the book though, she had changed a lot and I found myself starting to like her. I had sympathy for Philip, both before and after he made his terrible mistake, and I loved Hester Rose. Kinraid was the only character who never felt fully developed but I think that was maybe intentional.
This book reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, with all the descriptions of scenery, the local dialect, the focus on rural working-class life and the overwhelming mood of sadness and misery. As one tragedy followed another through the second half of the book, it started to seem that there were going to be no happy endings for any of the characters. I can honestly say this was one of the most depressing books I’ve read and on a few occasions towards the end I wondered why I was still reading it. The answer to that is because I find Gaskell’s writing so beautiful and moving and because she had really made me care what happened to Sylvia, Philip, Hester and the others. This is only the second Gaskell novel I’ve read; the first was North and South which is a much more popular book, but I think I liked this one more despite it being so heartbreaking.
This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. Our task for June is to create a Visual Tour of a scene or description from the book.
The novel I’m currently reading for the challenge is Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell. The story is set in the 1790s in the fictional town of Monkshaven which Gaskell based on Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby was also the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and is a beautiful coastal town with a busy harbour and a ruined abbey on the cliff. I would highly recommend a visit if you have the opportunity!
In Chapter 2 of the novel Sylvia and her friend Molly are walking into Monkshaven so that Sylvia can buy a new cloak. While they are there, a whaling ship returns from a voyage to the Greenland Sea. I have chosen some images that I think help to visualise Gaskell’s descriptions in this chapter.
..but as they were drawing near Monkshaven they stopped, and turned aside along a foot-path that led from the main-road down to the banks of the Dee. There were great stones in the river about here, round which the waters gathered and eddied and formed deep pools.
The next turn of the road showed them the red peaked roofs of the closely packed houses lying almost directly below the hill on which they were. The full autumn sun brought out the ruddy colour of the tiled gables, and deepened the shadows in the narrow streets.
The narrow harbour at the mouth of the river was crowded with small vessels of all descriptions, making an intricate forest of masts.
There the old stone cross was raised by the monks long ago; now worn and mutilated, no one esteemed it as a holy symbol…
The red and fluted tiles of the gabled houses rose in crowded irregularity on one side of the river…
The fresh salt breeze was bringing up the lashing, leaping tide from the blue sea beyond the bar. Behind the returning girls there rocked the white-sailed ship, as if she were all alive with eagerness for her anchors to be heaved.
I hope these pictures have helped bring Gaskell’s writing to life for you! I’ll be posting my thoughts on Sylvia’s Lovers after I’ve finished reading the book.
North and South is the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman who lives with her parents at their parsonage in the idyllic village of Helstone in the south of England. When Margaret’s father decides to resign as parson and takes a new job as a tutor in the northern manufacturing town of Milton, the Hale family initially find it difficult to adapt to their new environment. It is not until Margaret meets some of the inhabitants of Milton that the town begins to feel like home. She forms a close friendship with the Higgins family – the invalid Bessy, her younger sister Mary and their father, Nicholas, who works at the cotton mill. But when the Hales also get to know Mr Thornton, a wealthy mill owner, Margaret finds herself caught in a conflict between the poor mill workers and their rich masters.
There’s also a romantic element to the novel: Mr Thornton falls in love with Margaret who unfortunately is prejudiced against what she calls ‘shoppy people’. She seems to make up her mind to dislike him before she even gets to know him because he’s a tradesman who has earned his money rather than inheriting it and is not her idea of a real gentleman. And to make things worse, Mr Thornton’s mother thinks Margaret is haughty and wants to stop her son from becoming involved with her.
Although there were also a lot of things to like about Margaret, her attitude towards Mr Thornton prevented me from really warming to her until the second half of the book when after meeting different types of people and being exposed to important social issues she begins to reassess some of her views and starts to grow as a person. By the end of the book I didn’t find her the annoying character I did at the beginning. It was interesting to see how both Mr Thornton and Nicholas Higgins also changed due to Margaret’s influence. There’s a lot of character development in this book, which was one of the things I loved about it.
The book takes place during the industrial revolution, an important and interesting period of history. It was a time of progress, allowing the factory owners to develop great wealth and the country’s economy to grow. However, the factory employees were working under appalling conditions, with absolutely no regard for their health and safety. Bessy Higgins is one example of this: she is only nineteen years old and has already developed a lung disease which she blames on inhaling ‘fluff’ from the cotton in the mill where she used to work.
Most of this industry was concentrated in the north of the country, in towns and cities such as the fictional Milton. Gaskell herself was born in London but spent most of her childhood in Cheshire and then settled in Manchester after her marriage (the town of Milton is thought to be based on Manchester), so she would have had first-hand knowledge of the northern way of life and how it may have differed from life in the south. Even today many people still have certain views and misconceptions about the differences between northern and southern England and even more so at the time when Gaskell was writing this novel, so I did appreciate the way she showed both the positive and the negative things about both regions.
North and South hasn’t become one of my favourite classics, but I did still enjoy it, although I was slightly disappointed by the way the book ended – not because I was unhappy with the outcome but because it seemed too abrupt. After reading The Moorland Cottage in February, I’ve now read the required two books to complete the Gaskell Reading Challenge, but as I’ve enjoyed both of my choices I’m sure I’ll be reading more of Gaskell’s work in the future!
Having signed up for the Elizabeth Gaskell Reading Challenge I’m intending to read some of Gaskell’s full-length novels this year, but when I saw that Katherine of Gaskell Blog was hosting a group read of the novella, The Moorland Cottage, it seemed like a perfect way to start the challenge.
The Moorland Cottage is a short but very moving and emotional story. Mrs Browne and her children, Edward and Maggie, live with their elderly servant, Nancy, in a cottage near the town of Combehurst. It’s no secret that Edward is their mother’s favourite child but while she dotes on her son, she never has a kind word for her daughter. In a big house nearby live the wealthy Mr Buxton and his gentle, loving wife. There are also two children in the Buxton household: their son, Frank, and their niece, Erminia. The Buxtons attempt to befriend the Brownes, but while they can all see the goodness in Maggie, they find it difficult to like the spoilt, selfish Edward and the cold, snobbish Mrs Browne. As the years go by and the lives of the Brownes become more and more entwined with their neighbours’, Maggie is forced to make a decision which could potentially affect the future of both families.
The Moorland Cottage shows us the ways in which boys and girls were treated differently in Victorian society and I felt so sorry for Maggie. Throughout the first few chapters my heart was breaking for her as I saw how she was constantly pushed aside in favour of her brother. It was very, very sad to see the way, as a child, she meekly accepted her mother’s cruelty. For example, when Frank Buxton brings a pony for Maggie to ride, Mrs Browne decides “to spoil the enjoyment as far as possible, by looking and speaking in a cold manner, which often chilled Maggie’s little heart, and took all the zest out of the pleasure now”. How spiteful!
Maggie is also treated badly by Edward, and again, she allows him to do so, accepting that his needs are more important than her own. It’s not until she’s older and has spent more time in the company of the Buxtons and been exposed to other ideas that she starts to become aware of her brother’s faults. In the adult Edward, we see what happens to a child who is brought up always getting their own way and not being taught the difference between right and wrong.
I loved Gaskell’s descriptions of the Brownes’ home and the surrounding scenery throughout the changing seasons. Because the book was so short these descriptive passages had to be kept fairly brief which I thought made them even more effective.
The air on the heights was so still that nothing seemed to stir. Now and then a yellow leaf came floating down from the trees, detached from no outward violence, but only because its life had reached its full limit and then ceased. Looking down on the distant sheltered woods, they were gorgeous in orange and crimson, but their splendour was felt to be the sign of the decaying and dying year. Even without an inward sorrow, there was a grand solemnity in the season which impressed the mind, and hushed it into tranquil thought.
Finally, a few words on the group read itself: I thought this book was an excellent choice for a readalong. For such a short book it contains a wealth of interesting topics and issues. At only eleven chapters I could easily have read it in one day but I found that reading it slowly meant I had a better understanding of it and got more out of the story. And Katherine’s beautifully annotated chapter summaries were very useful and helped to bring the story to life. Visit Gaskell Blog to see them for yourself!
I know I said I would be signing up for as few challenges as possible in 2011, but when I came across this Elizabeth Gaskell challenge I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it. I still haven’t read anything by Gaskell, apart from one of her short stories (The Manchester Marriage, which appeared in the book A House to Let), and I definitely want to read some of her novels next year.
The challenge is hosted by Gaskell Blog and you can sign up here. I need to read a minimum of two works between January and June 2011. Any recommendations? I’m thinking about North and South and Cranford.
Review: A House to Let by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter
A House to Let, at less than 100 pages, is a collaboration between four 19th century authors which originally appeared as the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine, Household Words, in 1858.
The book is divided into six sections; the first, Over the Way, and the sixth, Let at Last, are joint efforts by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and provide the framework for the story. The other four sections are individual contributions from Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Adelaide Anne Procter and Wilkie Collins, in that order.
Over the Way introduces us to Sophonisba, an elderly woman who has never married but has two men vying for her attentions – one is her old admirer Jabez Jarber; the other is her servant, Trottle. When Sophonisba’s doctor advises a change of air and scene, she leaves her home in Tunbridge Wells and moves into new lodgings in London, where she immediately becomes obsessed with the house opposite – a house which has been vacant for many years and is permanently ‘to let’. Determined to discover why the house has remained empty for so long – and convinced she has seen an eye staring out from one of the windows – she asks Jarber and Trottle to investigate.
Over the Way and Let at Last are credited to both Dickens and Collins, but there’s no way to tell exactly which parts were contributed by which writer. The other four chapters, though, are each written in the distinctive style of their respective authors and each tell the story of a previous occupant of the house to let.
The chapter I liked the least was actually the one written solely by Dickens, Going Into Society. The story of a showman and a circus dwarf called Mr Chops, it was just too weird for me and was also quite difficult to read as it was written in dialect. It’s probably significant that I found the two Dickens/Collins collaborations much easier to read than this solo effort, as I’ve always thought Collins was a lot more readable than Dickens.
Three Evenings in the House, the contribution by Adelaide Anne Procter, whose work I was previously unfamiliar with, is in the form of a narrative poem. I’m not a big lover of poetry but luckily for me this was only thirteen pages long and quite easy to understand. Other than providing some variety though, I don’t think this chapter really added much to the story.
The Manchester Marriage by Elizabeth Gaskell stands out as an excellent piece of writing: a tragic story of Alice Wilson, who is widowed when her husband is lost at sea. After marrying again, she and her new husband move into the house to let where further tragedy awaits them. This is good enough to work as a stand-alone short story (and according to the Biographical Notes, it was actually published separately in its own right). This and the Wilkie Collins contribution, Trottle’s Report, were my favourite chapters. Trottle’s Report is a typical Collins story, with unusual, quirky characters, a mysterious secret, and a slightly dark and gothic feel.
After exploring the histories of the various tenants of the house, the mystery is finally solved in the final chapter, Let at Last, which neatly ties up all the loose ends of the story.
If you like any of these four authors or Victorian fiction in general, then A House to Let is definitely worth reading. It also provides a good introduction to Dickens, Collins, Procter and Gaskell without having to commit yourself to one of their longer works.
Classics/Pages: 97/Publisher: Hesperus Press/Year: 2004 (originally published 1858)/Source: Library book