Oxford University Press
The saddest story I ever wrote
When I heard that Elizabeth Gaskell was one of the authors featured on the Classics Circuit, I was ecstatic. This is another classics author that I have been meaning to read for the longest time, but I just never got around to it. I would have probably picked up Wives and Daughters or North and South, but when I filled out the survey for the circuit, I offered to read any book that was assigned to me. A gamble, for sure, but it worked in my favor!
Sylvia’s Lovers is the story of Sylvia, a young provincial girl growing up during the French Revolutionary Wars in a whaling-port in England. Because the back of the book blurb makes much of the presence of the war, I was nervous that this book would turn out like A Tale of Two Cities, which I loathed. Fortunately, by fears were unfounded. The book focused mostly on Sylvia’s maturity and her issues with love as opposed to her political surroundings.
At the beginning of the book, Sylvia is a carefree, impetuous young girl–an only child living with her parents. She is doted upon and although her family is not well-off, Sylvia is given a lot due to being the only child. The story starts off with her going to town to get a scarlet cloak, which seemed innocuous at first but gathered meaning by the end of the story. Sylvia buys the cloak at the local shop, where her cousin Philip Hepburn is employed. Philip has been enamored with Sylvia for quite some time and is just biding his time until he is able to express his feelings to her.
While in town, the press gangers attack a ship pulling into port–their objective is to kidnap sailors off the boat and force them against their will to fight for the English, regardless of whether the soldiers wish to fight on the war or not. Sylvia witnesses the riots that ensue once the sailors are kidnapped, and is distraught at the scenes that have played out before her. However, once she is back home in the country, the thought of press gangs soon fades from memory.
Soon after, the third part of the love triangle is introduced–Charley Kinraid. He has the reputation of a womanizer, but he and Sylvia soon catch one another’s eye and soon they claim to have fallen in love. Charley has to set sail soon afterward, but he tells Sylvia he will be back soon to wed her, even gaining her father’s permission before setting off. As he is making his way to port to set sail, he is ambushed by a press gang and taken prisoner. Philip just so happens to witness the entire encounter, and as Charley is hauled off, he screams to Philip to pass a message to Sylvia–he will be back and Sylvia should wait for him. However, Philip is put off by Sylvia’s attraction to Charley and Charley’s reputation, so he decides to keep Charley’s message a secret, leading Sylvia and everyone else to believe that he drowned.
Philip and Sylvia end up marrying. The circumstances surrounding their marriage are unfortunate, but they lead Sylvia to believe that marriage to Philip will have the best outcome. However, she eventually discovers Philip’s betrayal and is utterly heartbroken.
It may seem like I have given away a lot of the plot, but it is much more involved than that. It is also a very difficult story to digest on a whole. Sylvia quickly lost her carefree ways–her transformation was depressing and her anger against Philip was understandable. However, Philip was a pathetic character and despite his transgression against Sylvia, he truly loved her and believed wholeheartedly that being with him was what Sylvia would eventually discover that she most desired. Both characters were tragic and their decisions led to some harmful consquences.
As for Charley Kinraid . . . I don’t know what to believe of him. He doesn’t act like your typical Romeo, but really, that’s not realistic. Does that mean his reputation was warranted? I can’t decide.
As you can see, all three of the main characters are hard to tie down. Gaskell’s character development is really something to be lauded. In reading this book, I had some of the strongest emotions I’ve had in awhile. The majority of the time when I finish a book, I move immediately on to the next one. But with Sylvia’s Lovers, I felt as if the wind had been knocked out of me when I finished the last page. I remember just sitting there for awhile and attempting to digest what I had just read.
Although Sylvia’s Lovers may have moved slowly at times–it definitely was not as plot driven as novels of today–it was beautifully written and completely evocative.
To check out the tour stops for the Elizabeth Gaskell tour, check here.