Friday, September 9, 2011

Sylvia's Lovers, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mark, an English bibliophile, recommended this novel to me as we chattered about fiction over glasses of icy London gin at my Kuala Lumpur dining table. He was homesick, I think, and the gin could only do so much to help.  This book, he insisted, was the best of armchair travel to Yorkshire.

"Early Evening"
by Winslow Homer
Set in the coastal town of Monkshaven at the end of the 18th century, Sylvia's Lovers is a scenic, atmospheric story.  Gaskell's ear for local dialect rivals that of Dickens and the Brontes. Galraverging was in fact one of the words that made Mark's eyes shine.  It means roaming about: Sylvia had been off galraverging. I searched every obscure on-line dictionary I could think of, and the only reference I found was to Gaskell's use of the word in this novel. Maybe she coined it? 

Sylvia herself would not be impressed, as she shuns literacy and her cousin's dogged efforts to teach her: 

"It's bad enough wi' a book o' print as I've niver seen afore, for there's sure to be new-fangled words in 't. I'm sure I wish the man were farred who plagues his brains wi' striking out new words."

They're a proud, stubborn and independent lot, the Yorkshire folks.  They remind me of the old-time Mainers who were my neighbours when I was a child. The Winslow Homer painting, in fact, was the cover art for Penguin's edition of Sylvia's Lovers, and it portrays figures on the Maine coast. Rugged landscapes produce rugged people. Neither Mainers nor Yorkshiremen take kindly to intrusive government. Sylvia's mild cousin Philip tries to discuss the laws of the land with her outspoken father, Daniel Robson.

"But, asking pardon, laws is made for the good of the nation, not for your good or mine."
Daniel could not stand this. He laid down his pipe, opened his eyes, stared straight at Philip before speaking, in order to enforce his words, and then said slowly --
"Nation here! nation theere! I'm a man and yo're another, but nation's nowheere."

During these years, men were at risk of being shanghaied by the government's 'press gangs', carried off against their wills to serve in the British Navy.  Others risked life and limb on whaling ships. Sylvia falls in love with Charley Kinraid, a seaman, but when he disappears and is presumed dead, she capitulates to her mother's wishes and marries her cousin Philip. Philip, having worked his way up to co-ownership of a well-respected fabric shop, is madly devoted to Sylvia and offers her every comfort he can think of. Poor Philip -- he's heart-broken and bewildered when Sylvia responds with weary indifference.
Now she was married, this weekly church-going which Philip seemed to expect from her, become a tie and a small hardship, which connected itself with her life of respectability and prosperity. 'A crust of bread and liberty' was much more accordant to Sylvia's nature than plenty of creature comforts and many restraints. 

Sylvia's Lovers lacks the high drama of Wuthering Heights. It is not, though, without its virtues. And maybe, in the end, the moral of the story is just that: those who make emotional, impetuous choices come to regret them. High drama has high cost. Unfortunately, when it comes to great literature, the meek inherit earthly obscurity.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.