I’m hosting a readalong of Sylvia’s Lovers over on Instagram and I’d love to have you join! Please grab a copy of the book and hop on over to check out the weekly discussion posts between now and the end of November.
Hi Readers, welcome to week one of Sylvia’s Lovers! Thank you so much for joining me in reading this novel by Elizabeth Gaskell which, on first glance, seems so disparate from her other works. While Gaskell had focused on contemporary stories set either in industrial settings or sleepy countryside villages, this book is a historical tale set in an English seaside town (inspired by the real whaling village of Whitby). This novel closely parallels the whaling story found in Melville’s “Billy Budd”, the brooding atmosphere of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”, and the enduring passions of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”. It is to Gaskell’s credit that she could be so heavily inspired by her peers, and yet create an original work that, while it reflects those influences, turns them into a story uniquely its own.
In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Francis O’Gorman notes that this novel isn’t so disparate from Gaskell’s other works as it would seem: “It belongs, in mood and setting, with the Gaskell of the shorter fiction. It belongs with ‘Cranford’… and its melancholy exploration of lost loves and ordinary lives on the margins; with the small community and the hidden inner life of a young woman in ‘Cousin Phyllis’… It is no departure from her life-long concern with the sorrow of ordinary lives and the inevitability of suffering, the tragic potential of obscure communities, and the pain endured by seemingly unremarkable men and women.” Patsy Stoneman also observes that Gaskell’s “ industrial novels traced working-class violence to frustrated parental love, and in Sylvia’s Lovers, this process is ritually enacted.”
I feel it my duty to warn you that you’re not going to experience a heart-warming story with this one. This novel aligns more with “Ruth” in its stark unhappiness than any other of Gaskell’s novels which, while they may be tragic overall, they also conclude with hope-tinged finales. In fact, it is believed Gaskell stated that this was “the saddest story I ever wrote.” This novel will be one in which from, beginning to end, there is no shortage of tragedy, passion, and sorrow. But oh reader, how much there is to explore in the grief-filled novel… Ahead of us is a journey of truth and deception, love and hate, religion and the public sphere, to be explored in all the gray areas that form the vast dichotomy between the opposing contrasts.
Until Next Time,
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