Classics Circuit: Sylvia’s Lovers

Sylvia’s Lovers

Elizabeth Gaskell

Oxford University Press

503 pages

The saddest story I ever wrote

-Elizabeth Gaskell

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.

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9 Responses

  1. I really need to read something by Gaskell. My only experience with her was a very badly done audiobook of Ruth, which I only managed to get 12 chapters into before abandoning. I don’t even remember what the story was about. All I remember is the narrator reading as if we were all slow, slightly deaf 5 year olds.

  2. Great review!! I have this book sitting on my shelf and really need to get to it one of these days!

  3. This sounds so different from the other Gaskell novels I’ve read — and I’m very intrigued how you say it’s not about the plot but about the other aspects. Thanks for such a thoughtful review, and thanks for joining the Circuit!

  4. Oh, I so need to read this! It does sound sad, but also very much like my kind of mood. I’ve become a big fan of Victorian novels this past year, and plus if there’s one thing I love, it’s strong character development.

  5. >all three of the main characters are hard to tie down

    Absolutely! I never really warmed to Sylvia as a character, but I found her story very interesting. Early on I was rooting for Phillip until he got underhanded, and then I ended up admiring Charley until he got feet of clay. I think all three are realistic–not on a pedestal but with some good points and some bad points.

    I found Whitby and the whaling industry to be absolutely fascinating, though, and I just loved Hester and thought she would’ve made the better heroine than Sylvia.

    I think what irked me most about Sylvia was her unwillingness to learn. She’s so different from Margaret Hale and Molly Gibson and even Phillis of Cousin Phillis.

  6. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JanetGS and The Classics Circuit, Stephanie Dargusch. Stephanie Dargusch said: Sylvia's Lovers, for the Classics Circuit https://reviewsbylola.wordpress.com/2009/11/30/classics-circuit-sylvias-lovers/ [...]

  7. This sounds really good. I was sorry that I missed signing up for Gaskell’s Classics Tour, having heard about it too late but I made sure to sign up for Wharton. :-)

  8. Hi! I landed on your blog because we both signed up for Dreadlockgirl’s readathon for the coming weekend! I am curious who else will be participating and so I decided to do a little blog tour ;-).

    I’m not really good in reading classics, let alone international classics (I’m Dutch). But I’m always willing to learn and Gaskell was on my TBR list to read. I should put it on my list for next year! I guess your review made me wanna know more ;-)

  9. [...] Sylvia’s Lovers, Elizabeth Gaskell [...]

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