An illustration for Gaskell’s Ruth
Dear Friends and readers,
I’m sad to have to report we seem to have come to an end of our not quite a year of reading Elizabeth Gaskell on my two listserv communities.
What had enabled us to keep on came to an end: three volumes of short stories (Cousin Phillis and other tales, The Moorland Cottage and other stories, A Dark Night’s Work and other Stories), which included two novellas, plus one longer or separately-printed novella, My Lady Ludlow, all of which were online, about which I’ve written two blog: Elizabeth Gaskell festival and Still Going On. About a quarter into her brilliant historical novel, Sylvia’s Lovers, postings ceased altogether. One of the causes of my dereliction was I got caught up in writing a paper on film adaptations of Trollope’s novels with a short deadline; what made the others cease altogether I know not for sure.
I proposed that we return to our original scheme which had been read Cranford (really a fourth volume of short stories) and Mr Harrison’s Confessions (another separately reprinted novella) before going on for a longer novel. As of tonight this is not happening.
So I thought tonight I would write a third and last blog on My Lady Ludlow and Sylvia’s Lovers, since for me this three season journey has been enjoyable: I enjoyed and feel most of the stories (as well as aspects of Sylvia’s Lovers) are fine, authentic, good art, feel I have understood some core aspects of Gaskell’s writing for the first time, and gained a good deal from the postings of listserv friends.
I did love My Lady Ludlow & was exhilarated to find Sylvia’s Lovers so rich in history and downright radical. Alas its heroine & her parents were insufferable (to me) and the book was not at core a melancholy one … I should say the powerful inset story in My Lady Ludlow takes place in the 18th century and Sylvia’s Lovers is a novel set in the later 18th century — just the period of the middle Poldark novels. If you look at my other two blogs on Gaskell, you will discover that this is an era (long 18th century, from later 17th to later 18th) Gaskell returns to repeatedly.
Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow (Cranford Chronicles)
My Lady Ludlow, Chapters 1-4
I started My Lady Ludlow and found myself charmed by the picturesque quality of the description, the sweetly appealing (nostalgia) tone. It’s very much a tale by a woman again, as the outlook is a compound of a widow left with so many children and desperately writing for help, getting none until a cousin agrees to take Margaret, the eldest into her household.
The introduction of Margaret is done in two voices; that of the young girl come there for the first time, and the older woman looking back. The older woman looking back softens considerably the asperity of this crisply hard experience.
I did see the first six of the Cranford Chronicles and know threading in this novel into the Cranford material gave some hard backbone to the series. Francesca Annis was Lady Ludlow and Philip Glenister, Mr Carter, her male servant who tries to persuade her to give a chance to a little boy.
What strikes me this time though comes out of my experience of reading Trollope: this is a remarkably kindly and benign way of describing a woman who while she will give a few people a chance to survive has principles and behavior which are very cruel in their effect. She is against education for anyone but the highest ranking. She would deprive most people of any opportunity to fulfill their gifts. She sends a young girl away for daring to speak eagerly. Trollope does the same thing, takes a woman (often it’s a woman) and make as almost a sweet joke of these pernicious attitudes. I wonder at this impulse and why writers do this — to get themselves to accept this? to exorcise pain this way. The effect is to justify the present order because humanly speaking to make the fiction palatable they frequently show such a woman giving in despite herself. It is despite herself.
As I moved into the novella, I remembered what I liked so about it: the narrator, Martha, becomes a crippled young woman on a couch whom Lady Ludlow takes in for life. It’s her tone and outlook that shape the book and make it (to me) appealing.
The stories of Mr Horner and Joe Gregside carry on this justification of cruelty. This is where I saw the intersection of Dinesen while the fable like presentation and love of old things, old aesthetics, fine, good taste is Cather.
It also has an embedded tragic back story — like gothics. A story that has a hard time getting told and it’s the Marquise de Crequy. That was (terrific loss) omitted from the TV presentation, instead the back story of Lady Ludlow — loss of husband, so many children, living alone now was built up. it’s a secondary novella, a powerful melodramatic tale of the French revolution recounted in My Lady Ludlow. Could this have influenced Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, as the dates tie in well. I haven’t noticed any strong similarities between the two in terms of the plot or characters – but the dark emotional atmosphere is quite similar. We see she is on the wave length of Carlyle and those who read about the revolution because it remained hotly relevant even in the UK, certainly in France (1830, 1870 – when a slaughter of people was done by the French government which equaled the Reign of Terror so talked about so much.
This inset novella adds to the weaving of the poverty and despair of some of the inhabitants into its portrait of small-town life. There was a powerful moment in the the TV episode where Lady Ludlow comes face to face with just how some of her tenants live, and is lost for words
The result is a back story put before the public that upholds the present order, and the erasure of the novel’s true back story that give it its real grit and subversive critique.
Like Dinesen, Gaskell has a narrator (Margaret Dawson on her couch) who then gives way to narrators. It’s an intricate fiction with levels of pastness and memory. Stunning that it was forgotten until this film adaptation. Also the very interest in the French revolution which one finds in women writers as disparate as Suzy McKee Charnas (Dorothea Dreams) and Isobel Colegate.
There is a servant, Martha, in Cranford: Claudie Blakeley played the role in the film adaptation
Chapters 7-9: An inset story from the past: a Paul et Virginie tales of the French revolution
The inset novella is very moving towards the end: I said last time it made me think of people in concentration camps waiting for death, people fleeing pogroms; at the close when both young people are in prison together, find comfort in their last days (even though he is badly wounded) and then guillotined reminded me closely of the atmosphere of Bernardine de Saint-Pierre very late tragic romance tale, Paul et Virginie. It was translated by Helen Maria Williams and influenced Sand (Indiana). There is an English translation online; I don’t know good it is, I can vouch for the beauty, poignancy of Williams’s.
It’s a tale which insists on the cruelty of people to one another casually and at large, on how much chance played a part in who died — as well as personal vendettas, anger, greed (just like in the 1950s in the US against socialists, communists and France in the later 1940s against those who were high up in the Vichy regime). I find myself identifying and in a way (perhaps this is intended) having a La Rochefouauld response: maybe I should not lament my troubles for how far worse is this (“there is something in the misery of others &c&c). I’m drawn to this material too because of my interest in the 18th century.
It does help justify the cruelty of Lady Ludlow for being this utter snob and considering anyone of the lower orders ontologically different from those in the upper she sees all the betrayals of the two young aristocratic lovers as facilitated by their lower class keepers knowing how to read and write. She puts the revolution down to education — which perhaps is a real cause of it.
Gaskell does immediately enough show that Lady Ludlow’s refusal to allow Mr Horner to make a clerk of the gifted little boy and her wanting to put him in the fields is keen cruelty. It made me think of communist and other revolutions where people of gifts and middle class are forced to work in the fields — spite is behind this in these regimes (like spite is behind some of what the Tories, Republicans and other new reactionary masters around the world are doing to their people when they rack up the prices of colleges out fo reach of most young adults without horrendous debts).
Then we get a return to another paradigm of hers: Miss Galinda takes in crippled people to serve and work for her, providing them with a decent place. We saw in her early short stories how often she recurred to the pattern of a mother-figure taking on a disabled child/brother. Miss Galindo takes in one such person, deformed, who had a very ill temper — Gaskell is not an idealist. Again My Lady Ludlow has to be lied to about this. It’s a very curious center for a book. I’ve seen Trollope do this but not so relentlessly and admit I much prefer a Mr Harding.
Lady Ludlow seems to believe that only chaos and bedlam can result in giving the underclasses their due. She doesn’t believe for a second that they will be better off–she thinks the world will be turned upside down and the natural order of things will be destroyed. It is not only that she wants to hold onto her position and wealth that makes her deplore the idea of education for the underprivileged. She really believes it is a bad idea all around. In a way it resembles those in the South before the Civil War who didn’t believe that blacks could take care of themselves and handle freedom. Yes, there was economics involved but also a terror of changing the social order.
To which I replied:
I might be suggested this dreadful woman is put at the center of the fiction to make us see how the mind of aristocrats worked. Well, it doesn’t quite wash or convince since Lady Ludlow is idealized. She has really no mean, sordid, envious, jealous, ordinarily spiteful (&c) characteristics a realistically conceived character would have; plus many of the aristocrat emigres, counter-revolutionaries had anything but high principles to motivate them. Read Stael’s Delphine and you come across the same kinds of ruthless horrors that once in a while take off their masks in public: say that CEO who came before Congress last year.
My Lady Ludlow like Dinesen and Cather’s books of this type is fable. Dinesen gets us to accept her reactionary point of view that way, and Cather her nostalgic dwelling in the aesthetics of the past.
The line that stood out for me in Lady Ludlow was her comment, ‘I always said a good despotism was best form of government’ and the story was indeed reminiscent of the cult of personality built up around some of the so-called ‘enlightened’ despots of the past.
Interesting to me, too, was the fact that while she had been so adamant about not wanting to educate the masses, Lady Ludlow’s own increasing enlightenment was furthered by the lessons she herself was taught by the example of her presumed inferiors.
I brought up Trollope’s Mr Harding because he too is an idealized exemplary center: he is given a few more unadmirable traits: he’s a coward (a big no-no), he’s (albeit comically) super-sensitive, but he is made lovable because all his principles tend to strict real justice and kindness. He’s capable of overlooking principles to do a kindness too (which Lady Ludlow is not).
I was chuffed to find that Uglow saw the inset story as in the French tradition — and her account reminded me the heroine’s name is Viriginie. I should have thought of that: yes, an allusion to Pierre de St Bernardine’s tale then. Uglow’s account dwells on the present time story and contrasts Lady Ludlow with Miss Galindo, and apparently what is to come is an awakening and change of heart in Lady Ludlow. Finally when Lady Ludlow personally encounters rural misery and poverty she is against the laws of the time that keep all this in place. Uglow admits the story is “a gentle rural wished-for revisions of history.” Then Uglow looks at some of the comedy at Lady Ludlow’s expense — ironies.
The novel reminds me of modern Booker Prize type books where we have these inset embedded novellas from the past which contrast to an ameliorated present.
We might see it as a counter to stories like “Lois the Witch,” “The Grey Woman” and many others we’ve read of strong injustice perpetrated without recourse.
Philip Glenister, Lady Ludlow’s steward, a good man (Mr Horner in the novel becomes Mr Carter in Cranford Chronicles)
Chapters 10-14: The conclusion
Back to the present time story and Lady Ludlow begins to retrieve herself: when confronted with real misery, her instincts are at least right when it comes to an individual. So Harry Gregson has had a bad accident, is miserably crippled and now it’s clear to put him in the fields would be monstrous. It took that, though.
I’ve been ignoring the narrator: Martha Dawson, it’s her love for this woman who has been kind to her that makes for the tone.
I finished the novella and by the end finally saw that the whole book should really be seen as Margaret Dawson’s story. I suppose we might say the book qualifies as a gothic because it has taken all novel long for me to realize what is the back story, what the story that was trying to get itself told and finally did.
The tone of the novel — finding Lady Ludlow lovable, the buying into Lady Ludlow’s values (or at least not critiquing them) is to be put down to this narrator who is not Gaskell. We read several stories by Gaskell where she takes on the tone of arristocracy worshippers, naive people we are to see. I have to say it still can and does function to support the present hierarchies of our world.
She is writing from memory and present life up north with a brother who while he is kind is nothing like the one in My Lady Ludlow. There are hints that her life now is one of loneliness, deprivation and hardship, particularly as a cripple. We might say this is another disability story, one told by the disabled person for once.
The last part of the novel has Mr Gray emerge who ends up marrying Bessy, the illegitimate daughter of Gibson who is rejected by the snobbery and narrow-mindedness (very like Lady Ludlows) of the Galindo family. The daughter who is led to reject him suffers in the sense that she has been deprived of a lived life. It’s all done by indirection — this last section is startlingly kept off stage: we only see the characters as Margaret sees them, but enough is told to show us what sensitive decent hero Mr Gray is and Captain James. At the end of the story after all the little boy who was crippled for life and Lady Ludlow would have deprived of education and put to work as a laborer ends up the rector and happily in a home with loving wife.
Fairy tale which exonerates Lady Ludlow by how she is individually humane – and she is and by the fact that our author (who is Goddess of the book, the presiding spirit) gives everyone happy endings. At the end all the Lady Ludlow professed to believe in has been overturned and she is accepting. Illegitimate children grow up to marry well; people marry out of their order, are educated.
She also took Margaret in and would have kept her all her life if Margaret had wanted to stray. quietly we are to wonder if biology should trump deep friendship. Lady Ludlow is a Sergeant George figure after all — I’m thinking of Dickens’s Bleak House and how the Sergeant is in a tender companionship relationship with Phil and supports him utterly. (Ours is turning back to be a world where this is all the safety net there is for lots of people).
Miss Galindo is a parallel to Lady Ludlow: another of these apparently narrow, bigoted women who turns out to be a kind fairy godmother to a few people. Now I feel she’s a parallel to Margaret: Miss Galindo is herself a cripple, ugly (we are told) and has built herself a happy life by serving others, especially Miss Bessy, child of Gibson.
The one person we do not hear of except by indirection is Bessy’s mother. An unwed mother who presumably died — or what? I cannot believe Mr Gibson would have thrown her off.
I loved the tone of the ending, the kindness of the book. I can see why it was threaded into the filmic Cranford now, for it belong in its matriarchy, attention to the vulnerable and hurt, to women especially.
The structure of the story (not the length of installments), with this weaving process whereby the effect is cyclical is typical of women’s art. I have Hughes’s book too and Dickens’s complaint was that there was not enough suspense and not enough action: one of the things that makes for the present situation where some 75-90% of what is published by men is that men are the editors, publishers, and owners, and they want structures that are what you are calling dramatic: high drama. Dickens pushed Gaskell to change her “Old Nurse’s Story” to make that lurid ghost scene at the end.
The structure Gaskell opted for is a repetitive one where things are held back, indirect; the outline Hughes gives is the “conscious” narrative but even that is this gradual inward kind of thing.
It was not my point what either of us liked or not, but that the art here is l’ecriture-femme as the French women critics have described it — the most classic case is Virginia Woolf and the book about this (alas just in French) Didier’s L’Ecriture-Femme. She has a long chapter on Woolf.
This idea is a commonplace now when Hermione Lee defended Ian McEwan’s Atonement against the ridicule of the critics she said (what the narrator in the book tells us) it’s an imitation of Woolf, and (Lee’s words) a man writing in female drag.
Winslow Homer, Early Evening (1881), cover for edition of Sylvia’s Lovers
We see two women in the dark light, waiting on a rock, with a fisherman sitting near them, perhaps like Trollope’s Mally (“Malachi’s Cove”), they are remembering someone who did not come home alive.
Sylvia’s Lovers, Chapters 1-6
I began this today and just fell in. The last time I read a book which so gradually puts you into a landscape, step-by-step, first physically, then socially, then economically, was Hugo’s Les Miserables. I could picture Yorkshire, northeast, the seacoast, the agricultural farm land redolent of whale oil, the bridges, the different levels of houses, with outlying ones avoiding “contamination” of the smell of the source of wealth.
She enters into the outlook of sheep at moments, and then in passing what whaling is about: it reminded me of how cruel it really is: the people are killing whales for the oil. No crueller than this pressing where you snatch people (as in slavery), imprison them and then flog them into obedience.
A sense of the 18th century landscape and its typical size, amount of people and places — very like what I’m reading at the same time in Miller’s Dance, the Cornish coast, mining and its worlds (that still include smuggling through Stephen Carrington).
Trollope has a slow build-up like this for American Senator where he builds up Dillsborough, its environs, its hunting clubs, and then its people.
It seemed Scott-too, high romance is not forgotten through memory: as the new castle are looking at replaced one where a throne-less queen landed — clearly Mary Queen of Scots, and before that a monastery. A sense of the wildness of this world is on the first page, but this granddaughter of Scott does not have a man glimpsed coming down the landscape.
Gaskell ends on the chapters with an analysis & description of those classes of people who supported the press-gangs: the landed gentlemen who didn’t have so much money as the merchants and commercial and whale-fishery men below them — and liked to see them in distress. Gaskell puts it nowhere as bluntly as that, but it’s what she means. Their wives who were glad to see the upper class types who ran the snatchers as possible husbands for their daughters.
Of course those in the gangs. Everyone professed to despise the actual snatchers but Gaskell says of these, whatever else they were, they were brave and daring and led an exhilarating life of adventure — she appeals to us to remember how human nature has “this strange love of chase,” of “outwitting” others.
In the film adaptation of Graham’s novels (set in the later 18th century in Cornwall) by Episode 6-7 we have the militia — corresponding to their appearance in the last half of Graham’s second novel, Demelza, and there we get these exhilarating clashes — but also the deaths they cause, the great misery, how they do prey on the locals and rationalize it as patriotism. Donald Douglas is superb as Captain MacNeil.
Chapter 2 zeroes in on the women’s matter or romance part of the novel if I may be allowed: both working class girls out to sell butter and eggs, but Sylvia the darling, an only child, and Molly (Mary) one of many. I’ll stop here as I didn’t get far, only remark the way to read this for me is to try to hear it aloud. Then I get the dialect — otherwise I’d have trouble.
The book is very good: in Chapters 3 and 4 we learn why it’s called Sylvia’s Lovers. Yes we have one of these supposedly charming heroines in Sylvia: I’m not charmed, no more than Molly. But the context is what matters: it reminds me a bit of Les Miserables where the characters were in effect emblems and types. They did appeal to me deeply (especially Jean Valjean) but like this it’s the larger picture they are part of that’s compelling. Gaskell recreates the place of Whitby in the previous century and she is drawn to the wild shores — as a southerners she was released by these; as someone who saw the mean streets of Manchester she saw an analogy up north too.
We have a scene of sudden pressing by the gangs; we are not at the scene, rather experience it as heard of by the women not far off and then the men, what they see of ravaged and distressed and betrayed people who were waiting for men relatives, friends, lovers to come off a whaler.
There’s an argument about pressing between Sylvia’s father and Philip Hepburn, his nephew, the man who works in the shop Sylvia and Molly patronize, and takes her home. Hepburn, our normative gentleman produces an argument which defends this cruelty. Hepburn does it by this reification: the underlying idea is individual belongs to some entity called a nation, and if X is good for the nation, so the individual must obey. So if the nation feels it needs to win a war in France, it must take (kidnap) men. If we cannot pay in taxes, we must pay in person.
Sylvia’s father retorts laws are made to keep people from harming one another.
I’ve no time or perhaps inclination to work out an argument, only say that there is no such thing as a nation that is unified by one interest. There are individuals who share an interest and can act as a group. The war in France would not help the poor individuals it murders one bit, none of the wealth that would accrue to those winning would be shared with them as at this time there was no decent progressive income tax and no social services worth the name.
Groot and Fleishman (two critics) argue that the historical novel of the 19th century is a serious instrument for presenting political visions in debate. Gaskell’s certainly is — let us see if she brings in issues of political moment which affect women as individuals and people, not just as the sisters, wives, daughters of powerless men
G. Morland, Smugglers
Ch 5-6: what a quiet radical is Gaskell; a film adaptation would be terrific
Chapters 5-6 are powerful and how Gaskell to be a radical, however quietly. She has thus far shown us the political context and who and why press-gangs were supported. Rather ugly some of these. Then how press-gangs are experienced by those who are waiting for and dependent on the men coming home from a long journey. Then who are these gangs. We meet our two heroines and go home with one, Sylvia Robson and a young man who produces a philosophical argument defending them. Our heroine’s father, Mr Robson knows a thing or two of that: laws are made or should be to protect people. If his representative votes for the gangs, he won’t get my vote. A man after my heart voting for his interest.
Then we get this uneasy slightly comic intimate scene where Mr Robson is this restless person who has no intellectual life but is himself old and partly crippled and in the bad weather has no where to go. The mother and daughter contrive to make him feel he’s the boss and the daughter concocts a scheme where a tailor is induced to visit on the supposition he’ll make a sale. Gaskell is quietly showing how superior the mother and daughter are to the father in many ways but she does uphold this way of keeping this man in charge. Still she makes their subservience visible and how in order to be comfortable they are pushed into being devious.
When the tailor comes in, he is induced to talk to entertain the old man and what does he tell but of the experience of being pressed. What a violent horrific scene. We see the intimidation, the deceit and treachery, the killing and vicious shooting to maim, and the men giving in rather than be maimed or die. I’ve not time to scan it in or try to paraphrase.
It speaks for itself.
This is the era of slavery, of ubiquitous wife-beating too, high drunkenness, mass wretched poverty. Most men are not the sweet mythic manipulatable man Mr Robson is. He succumbs sweetly to his wife removing his bottle. Oh yeah …
The problem with this modern illustration is it makes the pressed man altogether too healthy and strong
I looked up “Specksioneer.” This word was one of Gaskell’s choices for her title: The Specksioneer.” Naturally the publisher would not hear of it. It refers to the chief harpooner, who also directs in cutting up the speck, or blubber; — so called among whalers. By chapters 6 and 7 we realize the specksioneer Gaskell intended to title her book after is Charles Kinkaid, the man who attempted to fight with force the press-gang, was shot at, kicked viciously, beaten down and left for dead so they could by threats of murder kidnap the men come home from whaling.
They did kill his friend Darley a mass funeral on whose behalf we go to in Chapter 6. (Does anything ever change? a mass funeral can spark a mass protest). This funeral is overseen by the vicar who knows in his gut he ought to keen for Darley and cry out against the press-gang, if only to comfort the impoverished father and mother whose son this was. But that morning he gets a letter from the head of the press-gang telling him they were within the law, why this is needed (it seems “the English” need to go to war with the “French” and haven’t enough men, and so partly intimidated and (Gaskell would have us realize) partly persuaded, he gives a banal generalized speech.
This continual sticking up for the vicious is continued in the off-hand speech of Philip Hepburn who is Sylvia’s follower — quite literally. This kind of thing is partly put there to make us experience how these false voices nag at us.
Philip and Sylvia visit her cousins, Hester’s parents, the Coulsons and we watch the mother make out her pitiful will on Hester’s behalf. Women did make out such wills; Jane Austen has one. They try to give their little bits of property and money to someone who meant something to them, who helped them. The mother wants to help her daughter, Hester in case she marries her suitor, Will. A woman’s novel: we are made to feel how women experience time in the home: Sylvia’s mother feels how time slips by (p. 60
The scene of the funeral is powerful — the seacoast, the church on the high rocks, the crowd, and especially we are led to “dwell on the tall gaunt figure” of the specksioneer.
Unless I’m mistake Molly is in love with this specksioneer — our secondary heroine. And we see her home too. What is it bout gauntness. By Poldark Novel 9 Ross Poldark is continually described as gaunt.
Emma dancing with Mr Knightley at the Crown Inn (2009 BBC Emma)
Sylvia’s Lovers becomes a kind of Emma, Chs 11-12
Despite the sweep of the pictures, the analysis of economic, political and other angles on reality, and the action-adventure, not to omit radical sceptical politics, the book shows its roots or origins as a courtship novel in Chapters 11-12. And here it reveals Gaskell’s limitations. Sylvia is not just too good to be true, she is that way because she is ontologically superior to those about her. One cannot say she is above most others in class, but I feel in Gaskell’s core being, that’s it. And why we are supposed to be on the side of this catering to the husband no matter how distasteful his behavior apparently potentially is, how obtuse and at times ignorant or determinedly dumb his outlook, is beyond me. The fiction in this vein cloys.
Sylvia’s friend, Molly, marries a man much older than she for his status, wealth, and just triumphs over all. Perhaps we are to feel that Sylvia’s romance love of Kinkaid will not bring her a necessarily happier life, but it’s the condescension and thus falseness of the portraiture that is the problem too.
Why Gaskell “sides” against Philip Hepburn puzzles me too. It appears she too finds something lacking in him — insufficiently macho male. Oh Elizabeth I am disappointed there and begin to be on his side against the heroic harpooner.
I am enjoying this read though: I’m reading another book set in nearly this period (Graham’s Miller’s Dance is set in 1812-13) and also about people who make their living occasionally by smuggling and are threatened by pressing, and just at this turn have gone to a social occasion where there is dancing, gaiety and games, and presents a parallel to Gaskell’s A New Year’s Eve. However, Gaham’s Truro Races (Bk 2, Ch 6) do not feel at all like Emma because the focus is ont a young women “just out” (or its equivalent) going to rare chance at a ball/dance from life in a tiny community where she cares for a parent and knows only a very few friends. When Sylvia entered the ballroom, it was distinctly Emma entering the Crown Inn for her ball, and incidents of embarrassment, awkwardness ensue. I wondered if Gaskell was remembering Emma at all or if this was rather the result of two similar women not so far apart in era, type, genius and fundamental attitudes towards sex and marriage.
One striking quality of this book — now making me realize how it’s also found in North and South and Mary Barton is its radical political vision. For that it’s enormously valuable because she’s so intelligent and brings in a large picture and explains.
If I just praised the book, what I would say would be valueless because it’d be unreal.
I agree too that Philip is a hero. In the above chapters what I thought about was how real he is; he is much less a stereotype than Sylvia. He does not conform to stereotypical heroes; he’s given far more interesting and mature and believable thoughts than anyone else thus far. He’s not over-sentimentalized and genuinely somehow individualized — especially in the dance as this semi-outsider. Gaskell enters into his feelings and thoughts as someone not appreciated or understood because he feels (as a psyche) cleverer (being less a stereotype) than just about all the other characters whose minds we have been given access to.
His lack of macho maleness is in Austen’s tradition: a redefinition of manliness which is not based on appetitive rakes and glamorous sexuality (the ultimate of this might be Richardson’s Lovelace) but is first seen in the 18th century in grave heroes and then Grandison, but most appealingly in some of Austen’s heroes, especially Mr Knightley.
In fact when it comes to Philip I thought she began to side very strongly in these chapters — seeing his profound valuing of quiet domestic stable life and his kindness and tenderness and generosity. This has nothing to do with his political vision; that is critiqued. Gaskell can use a character consistently in various ways — as in life a man can be very good in private life and yet have real lacks when it comes to wider understanding. The voices she wants us to hear are also Kinkaid, Sylvia’s father especially and the narrator’s.
For a female reader a real woman at the center is more valuable – and Sylvia is a virtuous stereotype. Cynthia in Wives and Daughters is more valuable. These fictions are supposed to be exemplary. Gaskell’s heroines in this novel show the same compromises as George Eliot’s — not quite as self-sacrificing but as “innocent’ sexually and when not we are supposed to dislike or distrust or reject them. Yes it’s Victorian fiction.
But this does trouble me: again and again in her fictions she will endow the male with depths and originality of feeling (nothing coy) and not the women. We see this especially when the narrator is a male — it’s seen in Cousin Phillis for example. Men are not presented cloyingly. She respects them too much. So there is in spite of all her woman-centeredness and proto-feminism a dis-valuing her own sex in this book. It’s not in all of them (e.g., “The Grey Woman” does not).
In terms of the story it seems that Philip is in line to inherit the shop and so is in a position to ask Sylvia to marry him.
I stopped here. I account for one aspect of my stopping in the comments. Another was no one was posting with me regularly. The fun had ceased.
Read Full Post »