Review: Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

From a masculine standpoint, Sylvia’s Lovers is not a promising title for a novel. It sounds like a Harlequin romance when, in fact, it is a marvellous evocation of life in a rugged Yorkshire whaling town in the late 1700s. The English are at war with the French (again) and the vividly depicted harbour town bustles with whaling activity while the King’s press gangs roam the narrow streets looking for able-bodied sailors they can strong-arm into a navy desperate for new recruits. As they make their daily rounds, the locals must walk furtively, resentfully watchful for the hated gangs. Emotions run high. There are outbreaks of violence.

Sylvia's Lovers cover

Gaskell’s engrossing novel of life and love in an 18th-century English whaling town deserves to be more widely read.

The lovers of the novel’s title are Philip Hepburn, an intelligent stooping local shop clerk, and Charley Kinraid, a fine figure of a man who is a daring harpooner on a whaling ship. Sylvia is a pretty farm girl with an aversion to all book learning that does not involve the “Greenland seas” where the romantic Kinraid plies his perilous icy trade. The classic love triangle sets up when Philip loves Sylvia but she falls hard for Charley Kinraid after he is wounded while bravely defending his shipmates from a press gang. (The name Kinraid is suggestive. Philip is a cousin of Sylvia’s and Kinraid is trespassing on a relationship blessed by Sylvia’s parents.) On the side, we have quiet self-effacing Hester Rose, who loves Philip with the constancy and devotion that men dream of but seldom find.

When it comes to competing for Sylvia’s affections, bookish sombre Philip does not stand a dog’s chance against the manly Charley Kinraid. And here is where the author sets out her theme. Every major character in the book, barring quick-witted Charley, is relentlessly obtuse and self-defeating. Philip could have Hester’s abiding love, but barely notices the faithful young woman. Charley is a known womanizer, but Sylvia will hear nothing said against him. Sylvia is a deliberate dunce, too tightly bound to her parents, and treats Philip with callous disregard, but the learned and sensitive Philip overlooks all. Instead of turning away, he masochistically continues to woo silly Sylvia in spite of her cruel slights and rebuffs. Hester refuses to declare her ardent love for Philip. Sylvia’s father foolishly leads a mob against an active press gang going about the King’s business. Sylvia’s mother cannot cope with her grief. When faced with disgrace, Philip runs off like a child who has wet himself rather than deal with the situation like a man. Naturally, his craven act wins him nothing but catastrophe.

Gaskell is revealing just how weak, foolish, and self-defeating most people are. We turn away from what we could have, to chase things that can never be. We delude ourselves, ignore reality, and engage in the worst kinds of wishful thinking. We run away when we should make a stand. We make trouble when we should make peace. We hurt one another when, with just a little more intelligence, we could improve one another’s lives immensely. Gaskell’s theme is humanity’s most egregious and enduring flaw.

Charley Kinraid is Gaskell’s foil. Charley is always effective. He is a first-rate harpooner who always hits his mark. Even when captured by the press gangs he manages to pass a message for Sylvia to Philip (although Philip then betrays him). Once pressed into the navy, the capable and courageous Charley buckles down and quickly rises to the rank of Captain. When he learns that Sylvia has married treacherous Philip in his forced absence, he simply finds himself another suitable woman (there are plenty of fish in the sea) and happily marries. Romantics, of course, will say that Charley never really loved Sylvia, but a womanizer only comes back for his lady after such a long time if he truly cares for her. Naturally, this obvious fact is lost on muddle-headed Sylvia.

Things end badly for all the obtuse self-defeaters while Charley Kinraid, as is only fair and reasonable, comes through with flying colours. Gaskell points the way to happier lives. Have courage. Recognize, and responsibly look after, your real interests. Use your head.

Sylvia’s Lovers is a rich and rewarding historical novel that does not romanticize foolish behaviour.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

10 thoughts on “Review: Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell”

  1. Fascinating review, Thomas, and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. As I am sure you guess from my own reviews, I can’t agree with you about Sylvia and Kinraid getting the fates they deserve. Philip I would say behaved so badly he does more or less get the fate he deserves.

    Sylvia doesn’t have the choices, the freedom, open to the men – she is a bold, physical sort of girl who would probably go to sea given half the chance, but instead has to stay at home and look after her parents. She is dismally mistaken to marry Philip instead of working at keeping on the farm, as Kester suggests, but she seems to do this out of a mistaken idea of duty to her mother, and suffers horribly for it.

    Does Kinraid really deserve his glowing future? That he seems to be more or less indestructable and always comes out smelling of roses is obvious – but Mrs Gaskell does in some sentences in Chapter 22 come down on the side of authority about the anti press gang riots (which would indicate that while an unobtrusive author, she personally considered Kinraid’s killing of the two press gang members to be wrong (he was, of course, only spared from being hanged for it by the fact that he was mistaken for dead).

    Now, as a lefty my views aren’t so firmly on the side of the authorites, but I am stating what I take to be E Gaskell’s portayal of Kinraid’s moral stature.

    He comes across, in fact, as a dyed in the wool opportunist, who once he becomes interested in carving out a career in the Royal Navy, is happy enough to collude with the press gangs he once opposed to the extent of killing off two of their members (this is a fact that most people, who possibly don’t realise how much Navy Captain’s depended upon the press gangs for men – as is mentioned in the Hornblower series, don’t tend to realise; but Gaskell could be very subtle in her depiction of character).

    Then again, there’s an awful lot of talk about his trifling with women for him to be guiltless – and William Coulson hasn’t got anything to gain by lying about his sister; On top of everything else, Bessy Corney thinks that she is engaged to Kinraid too. E Gaskell would have taken a much stronger line against trifling with young girls’ feelings than we would understand now.

    Then, according to the notes regarding the dates of Sir Sidney Smith’s venture in my edition, Kinraid was an impressed man for about a year and then imprisoned in France until he came home in the same month he sees Sylvia, so while it may seem touching he comes back to her, he was in circumstances where she didn’t exactly have any competition.

    And then, his marrying that heiress eight months after their dramatic parting is downright insulting to her; sensible, yes, but highly unromantic of him to get over her so easily (and didn’t he swear to her he’d have her or nobody?).

    He shows another hallmark of a shady character in E Gaskell’s reckoning by talking lightly about poor Sylvia with his wife (in E Gaskell’s works, men of honour never do that if they were genuinely attached).

    My own belief is that E Gaskell used him as an example of the injustice of fate (for instance, Daniel Robson gets hanged for his much less serious opposition to the press gang) and possibly because we would feel more sorry for him if he didn’t have a glowing future, and she wanted the reader to forgive Philip (I’m sorry to say I couldn’t forgive Philip).

    I think Sylvia’s judgement of him ‘fickle and false’ is about true – but sadly, Philip Hepburn, who is just the opposite, causes her untold misery. She would have done much better to have married Kinraid, and get disillusioned with him gradually.

    I never could understand why E Gaskell had to make Philip Hepburn so unprepossesing; now, if he’d looked like Jem in ‘Mary Barton’ (who’s honourbale and very attractive) then women readers would feel a lot less sympathy for Sylvia as she obsessively mourns for Kinraid during their marriage, before she knows of Hepburn’s treachery.

    Lol, I told you I am loquacious about this novel…

  2. Our views on this novel do diverge sharply, Lucinda!

    I do not see Sylvia as bold and physical. She has a “slight figure.” We see her childish dainty ways during the walk into town to buy a cloak. When she quails at jumping from the rock to the stream’s bank (for fear of getting her stockings dirty) her friend Molly says she has “no gumption.” Sylvia replies, “[you] shall have all the gumption, and I’ll have my cloak.”

    She is an only child and “was made much of” by her parents. That is to say, she is spoiled. Gaskell goes to great lengths to describe Sylvia’s preference for a showy red cloak, the crimson lipstick of its time. She has the feminine taste for ribbons and the like. In the shop, “Sylvia … is a little shy, a little perplexed and distracted by the sight of so many pretty things.”

    Being new to the coast, whaling ships captivate Sylvia, but she knows nothing about sailing and the sea. Gaskell describes her “impressionable nature that takes the tone of feeling from those surrounding [her] …” The townsfolk are deeply interested in whalers so she is as well. Gaskell also mentions that Sylvia is “fancy-free,” and has no responsibilities. When embarrassed by jokes about having a sweetheart, she “pouts” and considers it beneath her wounded dignity to thank a lame man for doing her a favour. All this is hardly the portrait of a bold and physical sort of girl.

    The family farm makes Sylvia appear more robust than she really is. Her duties are light since Kester, the farmhand, does all the heavy work. Her taste for farm life has a lot to do with having warm friendly animals to pet and fuss over. She also prefers the brightness of the farm cottage to the dim illumination in Philip’s house in town.

    Gaskell makes it quite clear that Sylvia is not obligated to stay at home and care for her parents. They look upon Philip as a good marriage prospect, although her father does begin to favour Charlie Kinraid after the two men become friends. Either way, marriage is definitely in the cards for Sylvia. Sylvia herself chooses to make a big fuss of looking after her mother and father. Here Gaskell is showing Sylvia’s bad character. In those Christian days a woman was expected to be loyal above all else to her husband.

    Especially revealing is Sylvia’s stubborn insistence on being married in her black mourning clothes. Everyone else (in spite of the 18th century’s lengthy grieving customs) is urging her to wear a proper wedding dress. Her decision shows that Sylvia is unable to let go of her childish attachment to her parents. It also reveals her callous disregard for Philip’s feelings. As with all immature people, only her feelings matter. Later in the book, Gaskell openly describes the “weakness and superstition of her nature.”

    As for Charley Kinraid: It is vital to understand that the good people of Monkshaven see him, not as a killer, but as a hero. He fought the hated press gangs. Gaskell is working within the morality of the place and time. Her intention is to show Charley’s boldness and willingness to put his life at risk in the service of his shipmates. She also wants us to see his courage in a fight. This is essential for understanding his later success in the navy.

    Charley is not an opportunist. He is a realist. Finding himself pressed into the navy, he makes the best of his new situation. Once fiercely loyal to the shipmates he depended on aboard his whaling vessel, he is equally loyal to the shipmates he depends upon aboard a warship. Men in dangerous situations, good men, always behave this way. Survival depends on everyone pulling together and doing what is required. If you balk, others may die. Yes, this does put him in an awkward moral situation where press gangs are concerned. Seen from his position, he was capable of becoming a good navy man, while there was nothing he could do about the press gangs.

    I accept that Charley is a womanizer (or was). My point is that since he is indeed a womanizer, he shows true feeling for Sylvia by coming back for a lowly farm girl. A year or more is a long time in the hectic romantic life of a handsome uniformed philanderer. His marrying another woman so quickly is further proof that he is a realist. Rational, emotionally mature people are able to work through setbacks quite quickly (and Charley was definitely hurt). Since Sylvia had made it clear she would not leave Philip, what would be the point in a long delay? Romantics refuse to recognize that prolonged emotional agony is not a sign of virtue; it is proof of emotional immaturity.

    I agree Philip’s treachery is hard to forgive, but not just for Sylvia’s sake. We must also consider Charley’s relatives. Philip’s dishonourable silence left them uncertain of whether Charley was dead or pressed.

  3. Well defended, Thomas. Like Isabella, ‘well you can persuade.’

    Now, on Librarything I warn you I kept discussing these sort of points abut SL for about a hundred posts, and the woman I was discussing them was agreed with me in the main, so you can see how loquacious I can be (I was registered there as Mary Lou but somehow managed to forget my password and had to register again and lose my old identity lol).

    Because I am so fair minded – winks – I think you have to some extent reconciled me to Kinraid’s contradictory attitudes towards the press gangs at various times of his life – if you accept him as a man of action who doesn’t go in for much moral reflection (ie his not giving a hoot about the finer points of the Siege of Acre, only that his commander has told him to take a point, and that’s good enough for him).

    E Gaskell, interestingly, does finally come down on the side of the press gang in that chaper I quoted above, and I wonder if she saw his transformation from a wildish sort of fellow into a career Naval man in the same light that Colonels in armchairs in clubs recommend for juvenile delinquints.

    His showy act of bravery is necessary for the plot to make Sylvia infatuated with him and also it shows him as a man of action, who as you say, has to act instantly to defend his mates and think later (though it is arguable that he could have aimed for the legs of the men who were coming on, as in a duel not taken to extremes, though of course, flintlock pistols weren’t too accurate).

    (By the way, off point for a second; Kinraid is meant to have said all his mates are married men and that is why he stands over the hatches alone. But in fact, later Darley is mentioned as unmarried and Kinraid even looks at the blubbering Sylvia at the funeral because he thinks she might be a sweetheart of his. A rare mistake from her. Although she didn’t do much editing by modern standards, she was very thorough generally. She also makes one abut the dates, where the action is actually meant to start a couple of years before she says.)

    I get the impression that Gaskell is showing Kinraid as originally a wild, rebellious type, like Sylvia, who did come across to me as quite physical if slim (ie she wants to join the press gang riot outside the shop; she doesn’t want to sit down and learn to read, she likes ‘running out in all weathers’ and dairy work is heavy work for a slim girl – prodding cows along, lugging about pails of milk, etc.).

    Kinraid’s general wildness comes across in his tales about smuggling. His feelings for girls are meant to be warm but transitory in line with a superficial nature (Gaskell often makes a true Victorian thing about family resemblance, and Molly Corney, his cousin, is emotionally superficial ). His wife Clarinda comes across as unthinking and superficial, too. Her gushing talk about ‘my dear Captain’ comes across as insincere; you can imagine if he had been killed at Acre she would have ‘been comforted’ by marrying another man in about a year or so. Gaskell’s sincere women never go in for that sort of display; their feelings are too deep to be shown easily. Note how Sylvia doesn’t really confide in anyone about her worship of Kinraid.

    It seems to me that two people go mistakenly in for ‘making an idol’ (to use EG’s own phrase) of another human in this novel, as in my summing up: ‘Hepburn worships Sylvia, and finds dishonour; Sylvia worships Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Kinraid worships himself, and finds a Naval career and a wife who agrees with him’.

    He does come across as an egotist – as Graham Handley comments in that wonderful book of his about the novel.

    One of the tragic things in it, as I see it, is that he assured Sylvia he will marry her or remain unwed (for all we know, he could have told all the girls that) and she believes him. Thus, it is terribly disillusioning for her when he marries another women so soon.

    With regard to the point I was making about Kinraid’s three years’ absence and being faithful to Sylvia’s memory, he after all wasn’t in a position to get another girlfriend, so she would linger in his memory, as impressed men didn’t exactly get leave in the year he spent as an impressed man, and then he was in gaol in France until he sailed home in the same month he saw her. He leaves Monkshaven – rather bathetically – on the mail cart in April and his wedding is on 3rd January next. Taking into account that he wouldn’t have had much shore leave, and that Clarinda would insist on some sort of a show to her wedding, which would take a few weeks to arrange, and we must assume that he really found a bride not only speedily,but with an almost indecent haste. For sure, he was briefly upset by it to the extent of leaving the inn without taking any breakfast – but no doubt it was quite fleeting.

    Gaskell being so devout, I think Kinraid’s trying to get Sylvia to elope with him is meant to be shocking. For us, of course, it isn’t at all – but Gaskell does seem to have this view of him as morally unsound. Kinraid can’t really have believed that his Admiral could procure Sylvia an annulment when that was difficult even for royalty, and Gaskell was very strict about marriage vows as a minister’s wife.

    Following Sylvia’s melodramatic renunciation Kinraid leaves Monkshaven – rather bathetically – on the mail cart. This is late April and his wedding is on 3rd January next. Taking into account that he wouldn’t have had much shore leave, and that Clarinda would insist on some sort of a show to her wedding, which would take a few weeks to arrange, and we must assume that he really found a bride not only speedily,but with an almost indecent haste.

    She comes across as pleasant, but silly – not intense and passionate like Sylvia.
    In other words, we get the impression that for Kinraid, women are much of a muchness – his real emotional commitent is to life at sea.

    Women then had few choices; their ‘career’ was mainly marriage. Sylvia was no doubt expected to get married, but failing that, she would have to stay living at home. Sylvia’s tragic mistake is to marry Philip to give her mother an easy life. I can’t think why she wouldn’t accept Kester’s offer of running the farm with him. That is necessary for the plot, as is the fact that she is depicted as having only the choice of two admirers – neither, as some women critic whose name eludes me at the moment points out, being the right choice for her future happiness. I don’t think it was particularly realistic for Sylvia to be portrayed as having only the choice of two men – the port is in walking distance, and I find it hard to believe that she wouldn’t attract the attention of other dashing sailor boys – as Gaskell says, the sons of local households there either went to sea or farmed.

    I suppose whether Kinraid is seen by one as an opportunist or a realist is a matter of opinion. Some critic – I think Patsy Stoneman – suggests that at the end of the novel, ‘the old heroic days’ are passing, and Kinraid adapts to life as a social climber, no longer a rugged whaler and man of the people, but a social climing naval captain.. It might be realistic, but is it morally admirable?

    As Gaskell writes as a Christian, I assume the moral issues of betrayal and forgiveness and reconciliaton between Hepburn and Sylvia chiefly fascinated her.
    As I have said, I can’t think why she didn’t make Hepburn more like Jem in ‘Mary Barton’.

    What a long, long comment!

  4. Lucinda, in your first reply to the review you mention Kester’s suggestion that Sylvia stay on at the farm. This is not an option as the Robsons were tenant farmers and the death of Sylvia’s father results in their eviction from the property. In Kester, Gaskell is pursuing her theme of showing us the ineffectual unrealistic way that most people think. Kester then proposes that Sylvia and her mother might move in with his widowed sister. Philip boards with this same woman when he slinks back into Monkshaven and you can see how well that worked out. He had sixpence a day from his military pension; Sylvia and her mother would have had nothing.

    You claim that Charley Kinraid was ungentlemanly in speaking of Sylvia to his new wife. I say that he was being very gentlemanly indeed in praising Philip for saving his life, especially when you consider the grave injustice Philip has done him. Charley could hardly have spoken of Philip without mentioning Sylvia. Notice how Charley’s wife has nothing but respect for both Sylvia and Philip. Far from being offended, she has gone out of her way to make a visit. Also, recall that Charley has told no one of Philip’s dastardly deed. He did not attack Philip’s reputation even though he had the best possible cause.

    The idea that Gaskell’s theme is the injustice of fate flies in the face of her Christian beliefs. She would see fate as a pagan concept and reject it as superstition. Depending on their denomination, Christians believe in free will followed by God’s judgment or that everything that happens is part of God’s plan.

    Now to your most recent reply.

    Your notion of Sylvia as a physical woman relies heavily on her dairy work. Yet Gaskell makes it plain that she does little besides carry a few pails of milk some yards between barn and house. When Charley Kinraid visits and finds her chatting in the barn with Kester he asks, “Do you often come and see the cows milked?” Sylvia agrees she usually just watches, adding that she does help occasionally, but “now we’ve only Black Knell and Daisy giving milk.” The farm is tiny and has only a few cows. Kester reveals that Sylvia’s mother usually carries the milk. When Sylvia moves to impress Charley with her ability to bear the two pails of milk safely into the house, Kester says, “She thinks she’s missus a ready,” the “missus” being Mrs. Robson. Keep in mind that Sylvia, although she is being seriously courted for marriage, is only seventeen or eighteen at this time. Girls married young in those days. She would soon be a mother.

    You are determined to see poor Charley Kinraid as some kind of scoundrel, or at best a partially rehabilitated ungentlemanly delinquent. I simply cannot accept that Gaskell meant for us to see him this way. She presents us with his overhasty bravery in trying to save his whaling shipmates from the press gang. Then we have his participation in the daring raid on the French port where his courage and initiative bring him favourably to the attention of his Admiral. His promotion to Captain reveals his leadership skills. At Acre, he lies wounded, not among the fallen English, but among the French, which means he was leading the charge. The fact that he was outside the walls reveals he was carrying out a sortie, the most dangerous action performed by defenders in a heavy siege. Given that most of Charley Kinraid’s story unfolds offstage, what more could Gaskell have done to demonstrate the man’s genuine heroism?

    I have already mentioned his remarkable gentlemanly way of handling the affair with Philip’s betrayal. He has become sophisticated enough to hobnob with the gentry and win himself a wealthy, pretty, and compatible wife. We see the now Captain Kinraid moved to sympathy by the sight of wounded Marines when they disembark in Portsmouth. Prompted by gratitude, he wants to do something for the service in which Philip served. Ironically, it is wretched Philip himself to whom he gives a crown piece when he encounters, but does not recognize, his badly burned fellow Northumbrian.

    This carefully staged coincidence is crucial to understanding the novel. Contrast healthy Charley Kinraid’s small act of symbolic kindness with crippled Philip’s sullen self-defeating desire to jettison the coin even though he has desperate need of the money. Naturally, Philip, who could use some help, and would undoubtedly get it from Charley, does not identify himself. Once again, we see Gaskell’s theme of contrasting obtuse self-defeating behaviour with the attitudes of a more honourable and successful man. Charley Kinraid has forgiven Philip for what he did, egregious as it was. Philip still blames Charley, even though he has done nothing but compete fairly for Sylvia’s affections.

  5. Lol, but I did concede ‘Well you can persuade, like Isabella’ Thomas, over the issue of whether CK can be blamed for having two contradictory attitudes towards the press gang at different times in his life!

    I personally think it sad that the man who defied unjust authority ends up as a Captain, and himself sending groups of men out to do a bit of impressing (as often had to happen during the French Revolutionary Wars if they weren’t to leave port short of sailors). The wildness he displays early on, in that and smuggling, etc I find far more appealing than his later respectable self as a career navy man married to an heiress.

    But I am not sure that Gaskell, whose views were much more establishment oriented, wouldn’t see the later development as a great improvement; she was after all, from a naval family; that’s what I meant by my Colonel’s im armchair remarks. It is peculiarly ironical, though, that the Navy. who would have sent him to be tried for his life had they known him to be alive at one stage, later promote him. Daniel is hanged instead.

    The odd thing is in her portrayal of Kinraid. Exactly what is her intention? That is why I said in my Goodreads review that this book is so open to different interpretations. Graham Hindley puts it well:

    ”His colourful appeal is more important than the qualities of his mind. Mrs G does not give him depth; what she does do, with tantalising art, is to leave us always in doubt about him. Nothing stimulates an interest in character more than mystery…Is K’s reputation justified? Is S the real love of his life? Is he, in fact, a man whose eye is always on the main chance? His career, and his later advantageous marriage, would tend to reinforce this view. In other words, by revealing only so much of him Mrs G makes him so much more than the merely stereotypical hero…’

    She gives him some qualities that are obvious, the courage and the womanising, for instance; but others, such as the depths of his feelings for S – yes, he comes back for her, but as I have pointed out, as an impressed man and then in a French prison he hasn’t been in the position to get another girlfriend; when he is in that position, he does easily find someone else; yet how calculating is his marriage? – yes he marries an heiress, but he makes her money over to her (in those days, a married woman’s property became her husband’s on marriage ); Mrs G always makes the evidence such that it can be interpreted either way regarding his moral character.

    We don’t even know if K knows of his wife calling on S – she merely says that as she was visiting the former Bessy Corney (another former sweetheart) she decided to call to thank H if he had returned. If K did agree to this social call, it does strike me personally as insensitive, given how he and S last parted and his knowledge of her vow against H. In fact, would he even expect S still to be living at home? Mrs G was silent on these points; we have no idea.

    Certainly, his gratitude to H is a point in his favour. I suppose as he leaves Monskhaven on the mail cart shortly after the Showdown at the Drapers, we may assume that he didn’t have time to complain about H’s shabby behaviour. Soon after that, he loses interest in S anyway, and he would hardly be tactless enough to complain to his wife about how H’s treachery deprived him of S; as S says, ‘he’s too fase (cunning) for t’ speak of me to her as he did to me.’

    Patricia Beer makes a fascinating comment: ‘Kinraid’s courtship of Sylvia is straightforward and successful, and in all the miserable events that follow we can say nohting rational to his discredit. He cannot help being taken by the press gang; he does his best to get a message to Sylvia of the fate which has befallen him and his constancy to her, though the only messenger available is his rival Philip Hepburn, who surpresses the knowledge. He comes back to Sylvia as soon as he can, only to find her the wife of Philip. All perfectly sincere and honourable; yet Elizabeth Gaskell manages to surround him with an atmosphere of suspicion throughout. It is not for nothing that she introduces an obvious parallel with Othello’s technique of winning women by story telling.Hepburn always regards him as untrustworthy and it may not only be jealousy that makes him think so. And there are those stories about the other girls. After Charley’s discovery of Sylvia’s marriage and her refusal to elope with him, he finds a wife with indelicate haste. Again, why should he not, and why should he not choose, advantageously, a girl above him in station? And why should he not be very happy with her? But, the suspicion is always there.’

    Now, I thought Heathcliff’s obsessive moaning and groaning about his loss of Cathy, his years spent trying to get his revenge as not romantic, but purely absurd; but the ironical thing is that I find Kinraid’s superficial relationships with women almost as unattractive. Both seem extreme to me.

    According to the notes in my edition, Mrs G refers to ‘Kinraid’s ‘feebleness’ in marrying so soon, and then in second and subsequent editions, changed it to ‘fickleness’.

    You are right that Mrs G would regard thinking of ‘an unfair fate’ as heathen thinking, but she would as a Christian take the view that justice belongs to the next world, not this one. Therefore, I suppose the happy and unhappy fates of her characters don’t necessarily reflect her opinion of their deserts? There is Ruth, who obviously an unwitting sinner who turns into a sort of saint by the end of the story…

    It does seem that the landlord only gives the Robson’s notice to quit after Hepburn writes to him agreeing to it, as he doesn’t see how Sylvia and Kester can manage alone, and Hepburn only does that after Sylvia gives in any struggle to maintain the farm and agrees to marry him, so it even seems ambiguous how much leeway she had about keeping it on. True, Hepburn later starves on his soldier’s pension at his sister’s, but even scraping along there might be preferable to Sylvia to being trapped in the dark house behind the draper’s shop.
    there is Mrs G’s quote about ‘a crust of bread and liberty’ and S’s pathetic escapes on walks by the sea which seem to show she feels smothered.

    Personally, as I say, I thought Hepburn was first a fool in pursuing an empty headed girl who didn’t return his feelings, and he then behaved so treacherously that he deserved his miserable fate (many disagree with me).

    Mrs G seems to demonstrate S’s physical appeal and immaturity more than anything. She remarks that as she wears her red cloak she ‘looks like Red Riding Hood’. She does seem over attached to her parents, at least by modern standards – but she would probably have been delighted to leave home to marry her idol Kinraid. Women then were in the position of a sort of eternal half child – they went from the guardianship of their parents to that of their husband.

    I am in fact, getting another book on EG from the library, by one Jane Spencer, and it will be intriguing to see what line she takes.

  6. Lucinda, you prefer Charley Kinraid as a womanizer and a rogue, but events nudge us all down the road, and the press gangs have made a respectable navy man of Kinraid whether or not he originally liked or wanted such a life. I do not share Graham Hindley’s view that Kinraid is endlessly ambiguous. He clearly always had it in him to be a successful man. His courage, intelligence, physical abilities, and winning ways with the ladies are beyond doubt. That he succeeds in all these areas is not surprising. Your own position that his navy success and landing an heiress hint at suspect character is ungenerous. He boldly and repeatedly risked his life to become a navy captain. He did come back for Sylvia. He may be fickle when it comes to women, but he did right by Sylvia, and Gaskell gives no obvious sign that he is being anything but honourable with his wife.

    With her chronic obtuse unwillingness to see what is in plain sight, and her understandable bitterness, we may take Sylvia’s lowered opinion of Kinraid with a large grain of salt. His wife does love him as we see in her response to his gift of a crown piece to the unfortunate Philip.

    The moral questions surrounding Kinraid’s (unmentioned) use of press gangs seem of little importance in the novel, even to the author. Few people caught in a moral conundrum throw their lives away because they are in such a position. They adapt and compromise; obviously, Kinraid did just that. Moral purity is for saints; the rest of us have to live. What would you have him do? Must he spend his days in the navy protesting the moral injustice of it all? Perhaps you would admire him had he spent years in the brig so he could emerge all dewy and morally pristine. Then again, perhaps you would like him better if he had deliberately held back and done poorly to avoid promotion. I would denounce him for a worthless slacker and a scoundrel. Morality has its place, but life’s hard realities must come first. England is at war.

    I must take Patricia Beer to task for suggesting the link to Othello’s “technique of winning women by storytelling.” Men have been telling tall tales to impress women since God invented the “fairer sex.” It is in our genes! Most women understand this. Even naïve young Sylvia is aware that some of Kinraid’s colourful whaling yarns are probably self-serving exaggeration. Surely, as wise women know, the attempt to impress is all that matters. He would not bother if Sylvia meant nothing to him. We must remember that sometimes Kinraid walks many miles to pay these visits to Sylvia. She is no tavern wench. He is not exerting himself from sheer lust.

    As for Philip’s involvement in Sylvia leaving the farm, I must protest the insertion of the feminist idea that women in the late 1700s “were in the position of a sort of eternal half child – they went from the guardianship of their parents to that of their husband.” The idea behind patriarchy as practiced in those more-rugged days is simply this: things work better if someone is clearly in charge. Career military personnel are not half-children because their officers tell them where to go and what to do. Having men in charge was the accepted social contract of Sylvia’s time.

    Sylvia leaving the farm was entirely necessary. Her mother had gone to pieces and both Kester and Sylvia are illiterate. Recall Sylvia’s futile attempts to read *The Farmer’s Complete Guide* to Kester. Sylvia says about staying on the farm, “If it were all dairy I might ha’ done, but wi’ so much of it arable.” She adds, “It would take two pair o’ men’s hands to keep t’ land up ….”

    Your point about judgement being deferred until the afterlife is, I must admit, telling. However, I do not think the novel is about people getting (or not getting) their just deserts. The notion that cheaters prosper or life is unfair, but God will see everyone right in the end seems a pitifully inadequate theme for a novel of such depth and sophistication. Notice that Gaskell has Philip and Sylvia reconcile their differences before Philip dies.

    Interestingly, Gaskell then has Hester be the one to close poor dead Philip’s eyes. As usual, Sylvia is all wrapped up in herself. Notice too how Sylvia then returns to her follies with mourning clothes and ostentatiously spends the rest of her days in black. The woman loves to grieve. This is what the religious writer Charles Williams would call refusing Creation. She has turned her back on the life that God has made for us on His earth. One can never accuse Kinraid of doing that.

    The ending of the novel makes two clear statements. First, that we should put the love of God before all else. Philip blames himself for loving Sylvia more than he does God. Second, that forgiveness is essential for both giver and recipient. This was Hester’s great concern and her motivation for trying to reunite the estranged pair.

    (The waves washing on the shore throughout Philip’s extended death scene were the probable inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s novel, *The Waves*.)

  7. Lol, Thomas, I would rather Kinraid stayed a rebel, though I didn’t like his womanising. I agree life is full of compromises, and no doubt my position is partly influenced by my thinking that the imperial powers weren’t fighting a just war against France, anyway… Perhaps as Kinraid is a ‘favourite of the admiral’ he could probably have left the navy after his return to England when he gets offered promotion to Lieutenant, and so not got involved in the press gangs as Captain (and that was unavoidable; the shortage of men was a chronic problem). Not many people think of it as an important point, but to me, if he killed two men to oppose it, it had to be a thing he hated and didn’t want anything to do with, and as I say I personally find it sad that he compromises over it. I am, of course, an idealist (adjusts halo proudly).

    When I first read the story, ten yeas ago, I found the character of Kinraid unsatisfactory, and on further readings of this provokingly fascinating tale, I still do; then, he came across to me as rather a ‘cardboard hero’ type, without human vulnerablities; he doesn’t have enough human weaknesses to seem real and the most macho of men have human weaknesses. Hepburn, on the other hand, seems to be a walking mass of weaknesses,and I found it one of the most unsatisfactory parts of the novel that we have so much of his internal mental processes, which are as depressing, self-deluded and negative as can be.

    In the interval, I’d read various of E Gaskell’s other works and come across other dashing but rather emotionally shallow types which is one of the reasons I suspect that she did not intend the reader to have an unqualified admiration for Kinraid. Admiraton for his courage and liveliness, yes. But wariness about his capacity for deep feeling. For instance, there is Edward Holdsworth in ‘Cousin Phyllis’. The story there is about a man who is charming but shallow and a girl who is intense.

    Of course, all Gaskell’s seafaring men are more or less influenced by her girlish memories of her jolly and lively sailor brother, who vanished on a voyage; the theme of the returning sailor comes up a few times,and is touching.
    I wonder if her giving quite such a glowing future to Kinraid might be a bit of wish fulfilment regarding this brother? She does the same with Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’. But Kinraid was also created just after her daughter Meta’s aborted engagement to one Captain Hill, who seems to have been a dashing fellow who captivated the family; however, when Meta heard rumours about him that his sisters couldn’t deny, she broke of the engagement.

    Impossible to tell, of course; one can psychologise on forever…

    Various people have pointed out that E Gaskell changed her point of focus. The first title was apparently ‘The Specksioneer’ and then it went to ‘Philip’s Idol’, as some writer MacVicar I think (not the villain) points out. On the change of focus from the extravert man of action to the brooding tormented Hepburn, the whole tone of the story changes too. I think the hemming in of Sylvia by a man she doesn’t feel for as she should makes for dismal reading.

    Jane Spencer’s view is fascinating. She suggests that the novel depicts the passing of the old , heroic age where people acted rather than thought, to the nineteenth century self awareness. Hepburn is reflective, but it does him no good morally:
    ‘It is as if Philip’s modern, brooding mind leads to errors that can only be atoned for by simple unreflecting heroic action …’ She goes on: ‘Gaskell’s picture of historical development in this novel is a sombre one. The vital, heroic, rebellious past, so vividly evoked in the first few chapters, is progressively distanced…Those who embody its values, Sylvia and in the end, Philip – have tragic fates, while those who will go on to succeed in the new century, like Kinraid, do so by losing their heroic glamour and becoming merely ordinary…’

    There is also the aspect that not one, but two people mistakenly make an idol of another human being in the story; one may or may not like Hepburn and Sylvia (I didn’t like Hepburn at all, as you know) but they are emotionally intense; the sketch of Clarinda Kinraid is fleeting and incomplete, but I have to say that like Graham Hindley I find her rather superficial herself. Fond of her husband no doubt, but not exactly deeply devoted, as Sylvia is capable of being. Being stoic about a far away husband in danger is one thing, but being totally blithe is another.

    There’s an article by one Rignauld about how Kinraid and Hepburn change places in the novel which I am acquiring (geek or what?) and I’ll find that intriguing.

    I think you are a little hard on poor Sylvia; she has limited options (as I have said, I think she would have more choice than she is depicted as having in admirers, though) and has worshipped Kinraid, refusing to believe a word against him; he promises her when he proposes that he will either have her or remain unwed; eight months after their dramatic parting, he marries someone else. There is rather a comical element to this but for her, it must be really disillusioning…

  8. Great review!

    I totally agree with you about Charley Kinraid, who I think is by far the best character. He stayed constant to Sylvia all that time in the navy, which proved that he really did love her, and I don’t blame him at all for marrying someone else eventually. As Kester says near the end of the book: “He were a fine stirrin’ chap; an’ when he found he couldn’t ha’ one thing as he’d set his mind on, a reckon he thought he mun put up wi’ another.”

    “Sylvia’s Lovers is not a promising title for a novel. It sounds like a Harlequin romance when, in fact, it is a marvellous evocation of life in a rugged Yorkshire whaling town” The title of the book really does give a wrong impression. I’ve heard Gaskell originally meant to call it ‘The Specksioneer’. It’s a shame she didn’t go ahead with that; it would have been much better than ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.

    It’s one of my favourite books (I wrote a review of it myself -

  9. Thanks for your interesting comment, Ide. I too would have preferred The Specksioneer as a title for this novel, but Mrs. Gaskell was an eminently practical woman and novels in her time were read mostly by women. I suspect she was looking to her sales. A staunch Unitarian (her father and husband were both ministers in that church), she did a lot for the poor and uneducated wherever she went. As you probably already know, the character of Charlie Kinraid was inspired by her beloved older brother, a would-be naval officer who ended up in the merchant marine and was lost during a voyage to India.

    Btw, I have read your own review of the book and enjoyed it very much.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: