‘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 not read) to encourage her when she studied the much more famous North and South for her English GCSE. A year or so ago, 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 that 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 novel?
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 in seafaring towns at the end of the eighteenth century. Mrs Gaskell recounts the story as if it were a local tale she’d been 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. Researching at the British Museum,she learned of the Whitby Riot of 1793, after which an old man accused of inciting the rioters was
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