The Gaskell Society

The Gaskell Society

Celebrating the life and work of Elizabeth Gaskell

Our subject of our 2023-24 season of Knutsford discussions is Sylvia’s Lovers. Dr Diane Duffy offers an introduction to Gaskell’s only historical novel. 

Sylvia’s Lovers (1863) was Elizabeth’s first novel to be published initially by Smith and Elder. George Smith also published ‘Cousin Phillis’ and Wives and Daughters as serialisations in the Cornhill, his monthly illustrated magazine. Sylvia’s Lovers was also Elizabeth’s only historical novel, set during the Revolutionary wars with France which ended with Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.

The historical background and location play a huge role in this text. Whitby, known in the novel as Monkshaven, is, in 1794, a small rural economy on the Yorkshire coast. Elizabeth visited it in the November of 1859 and used her travels to amass the abundance of detail which she used to recreate a sense of period and portray the everyday lives of the very ordinary inhabitants who are the major players in this ‘tragedy’. The traditions she describes are embedded into these people’s existence and have been, we are led to believe, for centuries:

early in October of the year 1796, two girls set off from their country homes to Monkshaven to sell their butter and eggs…They had each purchases to make after their sales were effected, as sales of butter and eggs were effected in those days by the market-women sitting on the steps of the great old mutilated cross till a certain hour in the afternoon, after which, if all their goods were not disposed of, they took them unwillingly to the shops and sold them at a lower price. 

We must understand this lifestyle if we are to understand the story, for 18th-century England was very different from the England of 1863.

The action takes place just after the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, an event which caused a major shift in British attitudes to the revolution in France. There was no longer the support or sympathy for the cause that there had been before Louis’ death, as Britain became anxious about the threat to social order and the fear of invasion. Press gangs were initiated to build up the British navy against invasion; it was a case of putting nation before the individual and Sylvia’s Lovers reflects these concerns which are made explicit in the conversation between Philip Hepburn and Daniel Robson in Chapter 4.  Daniel believed the law ought to be for the benefit of the individual rather than the community:

When I gived my vote to Measter Cholmley to go up to t’ Parliament House, I as good as said, ‘Now yo’ go up theer, sir, and tell ’em what I, Dannel Robson, think right, and what I, Dannel Robson, wish to have done.’*

Philip on the other hand believed: ‘laws is made for the good of the nation, not for your good or mine.’ The conservatism of Daniel Robson’s comments reflects the claustrophobic nature of this small, closed community which is backward rather than forward looking:

folks is so behindhand in Monkshaven. It’s a fine thing to live in a large town, Sylvia; an’ if yo’re looking out for a husband, I’d advise yo’ to tak’ one as lives in a town. I feel as if I were buried alive comin’ back here

Philip represents a man of business in a world where commerce was on the rise and there were plenty opportunities for the entrepreneur, but he too is stifled by the community he serves:

He had the perseverance, the capability for head-work and calculation, the steadiness and general forethought which might have made him a great merchant if he had lived in a large city

This novel has many different themes, one being the interconnectedness of the public and private spheres. Decisions made by the ruling elite are not confined to those who govern, they affect the everyday lives of ordinary people, an idea that began to be explored in many novels during the years following the French Revolution.

In a town that depended on whalers for economic survival, having men captured by the press gangs and forced to serve in his majesty’s navy was a real concern, particularly as families depended on their men for survival. During the skirmishes with the press gangs, men were often injured, even killed, if they tried to resist capture and the funeral early in the novel gives a clear picture of how such events affected the townspeople.

This funeral is also where we meet Charley Kinraid as he struggles from his sickbed to pay his respects to the dead sailor he was injured trying to save. Sylvia is enrapt, and the differences between the heroic specksioneer and the pale, hesitant and overprotective tradesman, Philip Hepburn, become clear.

What Gaskell is portraying here are two different versions of masculinity. The handsome, active and confident Kinraid who fits the heroic masculine image we find connected with the tales of chivalry, and Philip, the man of business who is mentally competent but physically weak:

Secure and exultant, his broad, handsome, weather-bronzed face was as great a contrast to Philip’s long, thoughtful, sallow countenance, as his frank manner was to the other’s cold reserve

Both are competent and excel in their own field and both achieve promotion, Kinraid to Captain and Philip to a business partner and both are given ambivalent characters by Gaskell. Philip, described as a ‘good’ man lies and has this ‘cold reserve’ which adds an uncomfortably sinister edge to his character.  Kinraid is described as a bad man, but by Coulson whose sister died after Kinraid deserted her. Gaskell undercuts this biased by making him faithful to Sylvia.  Gaskell constantly manipulates the reader’s viewpoint by setting up and undercutting such judgements. Moreover, there is something very Othello like in the way Kinraid comes from the sea to woo Sylvia with his feats of bravery and his travellers’ tales: 

she loved me for the dangers I had passed and I loved her that she did pity them (Othello)

These were exciting events in a community where life remained unchanging.

However, Kinraid also falls for Sylvia’s beauty and her awakening sexuality – theirs is a very physical attraction. The red cloak that Sylvia insists upon becomes a symbol of many things: the assertion of her own will against Philip who insists on the practical grey material; the symbol of sexual awakening as in the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, and finally a representation of a young woman’s vanity, her desire to attract attention, which might remind us of Gaskell’s short story ‘The Well of Pen Morfa’.

This novel is a wonderful comment on gender relations.  Not only did the women stay at home while the men went abroad whaling-passive domesticity and active masculinity, but there was a huge divide between the sexes:

Amongst uneducated people—whose range of subjects and interest do not extend beyond their daily life—it is natural that when the first blush and hurry of youth is over, there should be no great pleasure in the conversation of the other sex. Men have plenty to say to men, which in their estimation (gained from tradition and experience) women cannot understand; and farmers of a much later date than the one of which I am writing, would have contemptuously considered it as a loss of time to talk to women; indeed, they were often more communicative to the sheep-dog that accompanied them through all the day’s work

This last comment may be amusing, but it is a significant observation on gender relations, putting wives lower than trusty animals. This passage also reflects the Unitarian belief in education for all and echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, also borrowed from Unitarianism, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Education makes a difference to gender relations as it allows for some meaningful conversation between husbands and wives, perhaps explaining the suggestion that Sylvia should have lessons from Philip. But once married Philip like Daniel sees his wife in domestic terms, a role in which Sylvia feels imprisoned, her only escape route is the sea:

 Sylvia contrived to get her baby as much as possible to herself,…and, above all, she would carry it out, softly cradled in her arms, warm pillowed on her breast, and bear it to the freedom and solitude of the sea-shore…Once here, she was as happy as she ever expected to be in this world. The fresh sea-breeze restored something of the colour of former days to her cheeks, the old buoyancy to her spirits; here she might talk her heart-full of loving nonsense to her baby; here it was all her own; no father to share in it, no nursemaid to dispute the wisdom of anything she did with it.

There are two significant lines here: as happy as she ever expected to be in this world and dispute the wisdom of anything she did with it., which show how a young woman in a red cloak, full of life and asserting some degree of autonomy, becomes a ghost with no voice. However, there is not just one tragic figure in this sad story as a chain of unstoppable events role the actors towards their unhappy ends – true Shakespearean tragedy!

* The Cholmleys were an important family in Whitby, they owned Abbey House which still stands on the cliff top close to the abbey.

Dr Diane Duffy

Read more about the Knutsford discussion sessions on our What’s On page. 

Find quotes from Sylvia’s Lovers at our blog