Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

17 thoughts on “Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Elena says:

    Wonderful review and comparison to Tess, Helen! I read Cranford this year and loved it. I even explored the beginning of Ruth and liked it, although as you point out, it reminds me of Hardy on the pessimism, the sad tone. I was also interested on Sylvia’s Lovers but did not have time to explore it yet, but now that I have an e-reader, I can easily download it and take a good look. The idea of a woman caught between two men in the 19th century sounds amazing, not only in terms of literature, but exploring human’s psychology, emotions and social rules.

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Elena. I haven’t read Cranford or Ruth but would like to read them both eventually. And yes, one of the good things about having an e-reader is that you can download most of these older classics for free.

  2. Alex in Leeds says:

    It’s interesting to hear you contrast this book to Tess and Hardy’s work, I’ve not read it but had an awful time with Mary Barton earlier this year. In the end I only finished it because it had been selected for a new book club I’d joined and it seemed wrong to abandon the first choice. The Whitby-esque setting appeals but I’m not sure I can face such depressing writing again…

    • Helen says:

      Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy Mary Barton. I’ve read a few negative reviews of that one so I think I’ll probably leave it until last.

  3. Anbolyn says:

    I really don’t know much about Gaskell’s writing, but I like the comparison to Hardy. I love Tess and, though it is depressing, it is also so beautiful that I’ve never regretted reading it. It sounds like ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ has the same quality.

    • Helen says:

      It did definitely remind me of Tess, though not as good (Tess is one of my favourite classics). I’ve enjoyed everything of Gaskell’s that I’ve read so far.

  4. Deb Atwood says:

    I also love Gaskell’s writing. I’ve resolved to re-read North and South this year. I don’t think I’m in a place to read Sylvia’s Lovers, though, as you’ve described it as depressing. I had to give up Hardy for the same reason. Mary Barton is kind of in between–contains lots of dialect, but it’s a good read.

    • Helen says:

      I don’t mind reading depressing books sometimes, but this one got so sad and bleak towards the end that I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading it if you’re not in the right mood.

  5. lindylit says:

    Your review of Sylvia’s Lovers and the comparison to Hardy (who I love) have made me determined to add this to my TBR list. North and South is on the reread list, but maybe I’ll get to this one first.

    • Helen says:

      I enjoyed North and South, though not quite as much as this one. I’d like to re-read it sometime, but probably not until I’ve read all of her others.

  6. Lucinda Elliot says:

    Fascinating review, I did enjoy reading it, you’ve made some perceptive reports. I found Kinraid an unsatisfactory character, too, he comes across as rather cardboard, without human weaknesses (womanising and boozing harldy count); we almost never have access to his thoughts and motivations; he’d sworn to love Sylvia forever, he marries another woman less than eight months after their dramatic parting, but there are all those rumours of his trifling with girls, Annie Coulson, Bessy Coulson and others…And then later on, as a Captain during the Napoleonic wars, he’d have to use the press gangs to get men, that was routine, and that’s a dismal compromise when he opposes it to the point of killing two press gang memebers at the beginning. Is he meant to be an opportunist?

    • Helen says:

      Hi Lucinda, it’s good to know that someone shares my opinion of Kinraid. I do think he was probably meant to be an opportunist, yes. I didn’t particularly like Philip either, but I thought his character had much more depth than Kinraid’s and I had a lot more sympathy for him.

  7. Lucinda Elliot says:

    Hello again, Helen! Yes, it’s a puzzle about Gaskell’s treatment of Kinraid and Hepburn. In true geekish style I’ve done some reading of the literary criticism. Some think that EG changed her mind about who the hero was to be, but it seems she had that ending planned early on, so the argument of one, that Kinraid may have been meant to be the original hero seems unlikely.
    Like you, I didn’t like the dismal, puritanical Hepburn, and I thought his deceiving Sylvia was really dreadful. Both characters are unsatisfactory, too much polar opposites.
    I was interested to read that Gaskell may have been influenced in her depiction of Kinraid by her sailor brother, lost on some voyage when she was still a child, by all accounts a merry, dashing character who influenced all her later sailor creations, Will Wilson in Mary Barton etc. Then, just before she was writing this, EG’s daughter had been engaged to some dashing officer but broke off the engagement after she heard rumours about him. You can see both influences in the character, and it may have been her longing for a ‘happy ending’ for her lost brother that makes her give Kinraid such a glowing future. It’s really ironical that though he’s the one who shoots down the press gang members, it’s poor old Daniel Robson who gets hanged, while Kinraid gets glory and promotion. Some take this as evidence that EG intends Kinraid to be fully admirable, but that wasn’t my impression.
    I really felt for Sylvia when she was humiliated by Mrs Kinraid turning up; she is disillusioned with both men; I think male critics tend to underestimate how this is in crucial to the balance of the plot before the apocalyptic ending.

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