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Having a Good Cry

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‘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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‘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 hanged. On this she based the fate of Sylvia’s father, the farmer Daniel Robson. The plot of the novel is simple: Sylvia is adored by her cousin Philip but she cannot return his love as she has fallen for 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 onetime 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 Charley 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 has really happened to Kinraid and is tortured by the knowledge that his deception has forced Sylvia’s hand. When, a year later, Kinraid returns and comes to claim Sylvia, she is a mother and no longer free. He speedily marries another woman and becomes a successful soldier. 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 seen at work, spinning or darning while her mother knits, milking, carrying the pails on a double-sided yoke or straining the milk – an art she tries to teach Kinraid. Philip, who works in and subsequently owns a haberdashery shop – could there be anything more feminine? – sits comfortably in neither environment. Indeed the press gang, when they do eventually come across him, reject him as being too puny. 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 kind of books that mirror their own misery they might pop fewer pills, so the argument goes. I can see that reading a novel such as Sylvia’s Lovers, where the main characters fall in love with the wrong person with such fearful consequences, might make a lovesick adolescent decide that her own situation is not half as 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. Apart from anything else, 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 that gives meaning to the cliché 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 it is Philip’s lie that is at the heart of the unfolding tragedy. Does he really convince even himself that he was trying to save Sylvia from an unhappy life and an unworthy man? 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 of the novel, 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. 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 its extraordinarily vivid historical detail. We live today still 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, I wonder, and are any of them commemorating lives as rich, varied and raw as that of Philip Hepburn?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Anne Sebba 2006


About the contributor

Anne Sebba is a journalist and biographer. Her biography of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s American mother, was published in 2007.

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