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.

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