Book Reviews

Having a Good Cry – Sylvia’s Lovers

By Mrs Gaskell

Slightly Foxed

Review by Anne Sebba, Slightly Foxed, Summer 2006

review good cry cover“The saddest story I ever wrote,” Mrs Gaskell said of Sylvia’s Lovers, published in 1863. The book had been languishing in my daughter’s bookcase for years, bought (but unread) to encourage her when she studied the much more famous North and South for her English GCSE. A year or so ago, utterly smitten by Richard Armitage, star of the four part BBC adaptation of North and South, I went to find the lesser known book again. And I decided Mrs Gaskell was probably right. There is deep sadness and grief in this novel. Unrequited love results in tragic and painful consequences. I was almost relieved my teenage daughter had not read it – then.

The sense of loss is established right from the start as the vivacious 17 year old Sylvia Robson buys fabric for a scarlet cape, flouting the advice to buy grey given by her serious and sober Quaker cousin, Philip Hepburn. The trail of destruction starts there. What else, in addition to her spontaneity and childish innocence, will vanish as a result of such a simple act of defiance? We sense immediately things will end badly, just not quite how badly. Within a few years Sylvia has lost a lover, a father, a home, a mother and her husband.

So why am I recommending such an unremittingly sad story?

Partly because of its vivid historical background, its success in setting the story of four or five clearly defined individual lives against the dramatic backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and the tyranny of the press gang operations in seafaring towns at the end of the 18th century. Mrs Gaskell recounts the story as if it were a local tale she was told and indeed the book was inspired by a visit she made in 1859 with her two daughters to Whitby – transformed in the novel into Monkshaven – a town whose prosperity depended almost entirely on the whaling fleets. Mrs Gaskell based much of the detail on actual events. Researching at the British Museum, she learnt the details of the Whitby Riot of 1793 and of an old man accused of inciting the rioters who was hanged. On this she based the fate of Sylvia’s father, the farmer Daniel Robson.

The plot is simple, with ramifications: Sylvia is adored by Philip but she cannot return his love as she has fallen in love with the dashing but unreliable Whaler, Charley Kinraid. The two declare their love but not long after Charley is seized by the press gang though Sylvia does not know why he has disappeared. Sylvia’s father Daniel, a one time sailor and smuggler, has his own reasons for hating the press gang. Some time after Charley’s disappearance he leads an attack on them is arrested and then hanged – a tragedy that leads to the unravelling of Sylvia’s life.
Believing Kinraid dead, and concerned for the welfare of her ailing and now widowed mother, Sylvia unwillingly agrees to marry Philip, who in turn is loved silently by another Quaker, Hester Rose. But Philip knows what really happened to Kinraid and is tortured by the knowledge of how his deception has forced Sylvia’s hand. When Kinraid returns and comes to claim Sylvia she is a mother and no longer free. He speedily marries another woman and becomes a successful Victorian military man. Philip, now forced to confront the suffering for which he is responsible, sets out to redeem himself by various acts of heroism – including saving Kinraid’s life – and he and Sylvia are eventually united on his deathbed in mutual forgiveness and understanding.

Throughout the novel the world of peaceful female tasks, which are drawn in vivid detail, is a constant counterpoint to male violence and action. Sylvia is usually at work either spinning, while her mother knits, or darning, milking, carrying the pails on a double sided yoke or straining the milk – an art she tries to teach Kinraid – and scrubbing the pails. Philip, who works in and subsequently owns a haberdashery shop – could there be a more feminine environment? – sits comfortably in neither. Indeed the press gang, when it does eventually meet up with him, rejects him for his puny build. There is a particularly poignant scene where he carefully chooses Sylvia a present from his shop, a ribbon of briar rose , deciding the mixture of sweetness and thorns is the perfect flower for her, only to find it looped around Kinraid’s abandoned hat when he is dragged away by the press gang. It is an image that returns to him at the end of his life when the sprigged ribbon is exchanged for a black one.

There is talk these days about the psychological benefit of literature. If people could read more of the sort of books which mirror their own misery they might pop fewer pills, so the argument goes. I can see how reading a book such as Sylvia’s Lovers, where the main characters fall in love with the wrong person with such appalling consequences, might have the effect of making a lovesick adolescent decide that her own situation is not half so bad as she thought. Or, at any rate, that she is not the first to have suffered through love.

But I don’t mean to suggest this as a self-help manual. It’s too important a book for that and some of the North Eastern regional fishing dialect, quite difficult even for contemporaries, slows up the pace of what is in any case a long book. Sylvia’s Lovers – perhaps an attempt by Mrs Gaskell to explain why good people suffer – is sad in a deeply satisfying way, giving meaning to the cliche about having a good cry. Mrs Gaskell understands the human condition and her characters are complex. Philip and Hester Rose are good in a conventional, moral sense and yet Philip’s lie is at the heart of the unfolding tragedy. Does he really convince – even himself – in his belief that he was trying to save Sylvia from an unhappy life and an unworthy man? While Kinraid, although he has killed two men, does stay true to his word over many years. Then, too, the deeply flawed Sylvia – wilful, flighty, spoilt, unable to give herself to her husband – submits to Philip’s love out of a sense of obligation, almost as a way of punishing herself for continuing to love a man she believes is dead. Yet is it such a sin to crave passionate love?

Sylvia’s lament is at the core and her slow development into a mature adult whose anger mutates into understanding and eventually forgiveness is Mrs Gaskell’s triumph. The death bed scene, however melodramatic and “Victorian”, is not necessarily the climax of the novel. There is no triumph in adversity here, more of a cultivate-your-garden ethos. Happiness comes only to the next generation as we learn that Philip and Sylvia’s daughter, Bella, makes a new life for herself in America. It’s a redemption of sorts.

What lingers for me in this immensely rich book is the wealth of colourful historical detail. We live today surrounded by ancient almshouses, many of them erected around the time Hester Rose founded hers for poor disabled sailors and soldiers in memory of her beloved Philip. There are at least six different rows in the town where I live – what are their stories and are any of them commemorating lives as rich, varied and raw as that of Philip Hepburn?

Anne Sebba is a journalist and biographer. Her forthcoming book is a biography of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s American mother.