The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

'Cousin Phillis and her book'
‘Cousin Phillis and her book’ by George Du Maurier

Gaskell’s last novella, Cousin Phillis, was published in The Cornhill Magazine in 1863, only two years before she died.  In this story she returns to her beloved Knutsford, now named Eltham, and her grandfather’s farm at Sandlebridge, renamed Heathbridge. 

Gaskell’s descriptions of Hope Farm near Heathbridge match the actual descriptions of Sandlebridge that have been recorded by the many visitors to the old farmhouse.  In Cousin Phillis, Paul Manning describes the same ‘iron railing on the top of the wall, and two great gates between pillars crowned with stone balls for a state entrance to the flagged path leading up to the front door’, that Anne Thackeray Ritchie describes more succinctly in her Preface to the 1891 edition of Cranford: ‘There used to be two brick pediments with balls at the garden gate’.  Similarly Mary Robberds (the daughter of Reverend Turner of Newcastle and wife of John Robberds, Senior Minister of Cross Street Chapel), who often visited Sandlebridge, mentions the ‘flower garden, and in front was a grass court sloping down to a lane in which stood great oaks and elms’ which is almost identical to Paul’s description of the ‘garden between the house and the shady, grassy lane; I afterwards found that this garden was called the court’, although as an outsider he must learn to understand the local terminology.

As in many of her novels and short stories, Gaskell returns in Cousin Phillis to the use of myth and fairy tale in order to subvert those genres and challenge our reading of these traditional tales. Is Holman the snake in Eden, the one to tempt the innocent Phillis to eat of the tree of knowledge and fall into sexual awakening? Or is he the Prince who awakens Sleeping Beauty from her innocent seclusion into the state of wifehood? These ideas are offered but then subverted: Holdsworth is not evil, but neither is he a prince, he is just a man who has his own economic advancement at heart. Similarly there is a sense that women should not be educated in complete seclusion form the outside world, as Rousseau advices in his work Sophie (1762/3). Maria Edgeworth had previously explored and subverted Rousseau’s ideas in Belinda (1801). 

Of course, The Cornhill Magazine was a monthly publication with illustrations, unlike Household Words, and George Du Maurier provided images which supported Gaskell’s text. In our chosen image, Du Maurier draws the reader’s attention to the act of reading itself, which becomes an important motif in the story. Phillis has been educated in the classics by her father the Reverend Holman, an education which Paul notes makes her ‘ so clever she’s more like a man than a woman—she knows Latin and Greek’. Such learning puts him off viewing his cousin as a likely marriage prospect, in fact he admits to giving her ‘a wide berth’. The worldlier Holdsworth views this learning rather differently, and his intervention allows Gaskell to subtly illustrates how learning is still controlled by men. Phillis is only given the translations of Dante that Holdsworth deems appropriate, he writes down’ the most accepted meanings,…[to] save her a little trouble.’

In addition, Holdworth suggests that Phillis should read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi sposi). Paul avers that ‘I don’t think the minister will like your having given her a novel to read’, a comment which emphasises the views of eighteenth and  nineteenth century society on the dangers of women reading fiction, particularly romantic novels, a view which became less prevalent as the century wore on. Holdworth’s choice of text also emphasises his privileging of the practicalities of learning language above the moral or artistic merit of a text (see Wendy Craik, Gaskell Journal vol. 3 1989, p70). There is, however, another way of reading this motif. The Betrothed, a tale which in part follows the relationship between Renzo and Lucia, and their struggle to finally meet again and be married, anticipates the denouement of Gaskell’s own work where we see Holdsworth leaving for Canada with a promise to return….

These are just some ideas which merely scratch the surface of this very complex story, one which  Claire Pettit claims shows Gaskell’s own ‘troubled response to social change’. What do you think? Cousin Phillis opens so much up for discussion and we would be happy to hear your views. I think one thing we can say for certain is that Elizabeth Gaskell is far more complex and subtly subversive a writer than many have given her credit for. 

We will be discussing Cousin Phillis in Knutsford at 2pm on October 30th 2019. If you would like to come and join us and share your ideas we will be very pleased to see you. 

Diane Duffy