Saturday, July 05, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’

I don’t know. You read a book by Herman Melville about a perfectly calm journey in a paddle steamer, not a whale to be seen. You turn to Elizabeth Gaskell, hoping for some more of the wholesome small town good sense of Cranford and Wives and Daughters, and this is what she comes out with:

I stands up, right leg foremost, harpoon all ready, as soon as iver I cotched a sight o’ t’ whale, but niver a fin could a see. ’Twere no wonder, for she were right below t’ boat in which a were; and when she wanted to rise, what does t’ great ugly brute do but come wi’ her head, as is like cast iron, up bang again t’ bottom o’ t’ boat. I were thrown up in t’ air like a shuttlecock, me an’ my line an’ my harpoon – up we goes, an’ many a good piece o’ timber wi’ us, an’ many a good fellow too. (p. 99)

This is Daniel Robson, Sylvia’s father, reminiscing with Charley Kinraid about his time as a specksioneer, or chief harpooner, aboard a whaler. The novel is set in Monkshaven, a fictionalised Whitby, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Greenland whaling was the town’s main trade. The use of a historical setting reminded me a little of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, in which social unrest forms the backdrop for the romance that its opening page denies is in store. There is social unrest in Sylvia’s Lovers, too: press gangs prey on the community, forcefully recruiting whaling men for the navy. It’s a very disruptive set-up: not only do a great many of Monkshaven’s working men spend half the year away, out of touch and employed in a dangerous occupation (and the other half at a loose end, with nothing to do but exult in their status as returning heroes), but there is also the constant threat of kidnapping hanging over the same group. Yet only rarely does the novel stray from Monkshaven: it is about the people who are left behind.

There is a lot of unrequited love in Sylvia’s Lovers: Charley Kinraid loves Sylvia, who loves him too, but it is Philip Hepburn she will marry, when Kinraid disappears and is presumed drowned. There are other layers too: Hester, with whose mother Philip lodges, loves him, and Philip’s partner in the running of the shop, William Coulson, loves Hester, at least for a little while. There are also echoes of past loves: Jeremiah Foster, who with his brother John owns the shop and also Monkshaven’s bank, tells Philip about his brother’s love for Hester’s mother Alice:

As he could not have her, he has lived a bachelor all his days. But if I am not a vast mistaken, all that he has will go to her and to Hester, for all that Hester is the child of another man. (p. 221)

The main focus of the novel, though, is Philip’s love for Sylvia. The reader’s sympathy is gradually drawn on in favour of this serious and awkward man. He is not easy to like early on, especially in contrast to his glamorous rival Kinraid. Philip gives Sylvia lessons as a way of spending time with her, but her only enthusiasm is for geography, and within that only for knowing where Greenland is, where the whaling happens. There is a New Year’s Eve party, at which Philip is in agony watching the way Sylvia favours Kinraid. He is anxious about what might have happened when they both disappeared to the kitchen at the same time: obviously, they kissed. But Philip reasons his way out of this conclusion with some heartbreakingly decent logic:

He could smile now, after his grave fashion, and would have shaken hands again with Kinraid had it been required; for it seemed to him that no one, caring ever so little in the way that he did for Sylvia, could have borne four mortal hours of a company where she had been, and was not; least of all could have danced a hornpipe, either from gaiety of heart, or even out of complaisance. He felt as if the yearning after the absent one would have been a weight to his legs, as well as to his spirit; and he imagined that all men were like himself. (p. 154)

While his love builds like this, Gaskell is on strong enough ground. Later, when things get bleaker, and we get to the loveless marriage of Philip and Sylvia, I began to wonder. The comparison with Shirley started to look unflattering, because you always know with Brontë that passionate personal feeling lies behind what she writes. The immense effort of trying to hide this is what gives us her wonderful novels. Gaskell is far more down to earth, and is better when the scope of her writing is broader (which is why, with Cranford, she was able to write a whole novel about old women gossiping – this would have been quite beyond Brontë). With Sylvia’s Lovers, it seemed as though she rather lost her way with the emotional stuff once Philip and Sylvia were married: both characters are slightly too generic to sustain the book on their own for so long. His only characteristic is his love for her; hers is her love for Kinraid. It becomes apparent that Gaskell is striving for effects that don’t quite come off, though a glimpse through the chapter titles is enough to reveal her intention: ‘Loved and Lost’, ‘A Rejected Suitor’, ‘Deepening Shadows’, ‘Retaliation’, ‘Brief Rejoicing’, ‘Coming Troubles’, ‘A Dreary Vigil’, ‘Gloomy Days’, ‘The Ordeal’ are chapters XX – XXVIII. Which excludes my favourite, chapter XXXV: ‘Things Unutterable’. She wants this book to have quite a wallop. And actually it does, despite the shortcomings of Philip and Sylvia: the story, as it plunges from disaster to disaster, is moving in its own right, and it is beguiling to watch Gaskell manoeuvre it away from Brontë territory back to values which one suspects were closer to her own: a less demonstrative constancy.

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