I just finished book number eight, Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell, published in 1863, and considered to be one of her lesser known works. While this book could fit in a number of categories, I’ve chosen to place it in the category of a classic written by a woman.
The title of this book sounds like it belongs in the genre of romance novels. It conjures up the image of a loose woman with many men in her life but nothing could be further from the truth.
The story takes place in the north of England, along the East coast, in the late 1700’s. Napoleon is on the move and England is at war with the French. Whaling and the press-gang, England’s military “draft,” serves as backdrop. It’s the story of actions taken with resulting consequences, of unforgiveness and regret and all that that entails.
Sylvia Robson is loved by two men. Phillip Hepburn, her cousin, works as a clerk in a store in the village of Monkshaven, while Charley Kinraid, earns his living as a whaler. The press gang figures heavily in this love story bringing pain and misery.
The press gang, under the authority of the crown, kidnapped able bodied men, forcing them to serve in the British Navy, likely never to see their families again. The impact this system could have on the families of those who were “pressed” into service was huge. Men would be snatched, carried off, while the wives and children were left without protection or provision. Families were often left destitute by the practice. And even worse, some of the families, were completely in the dark that the kidnapping had even occurred. Their men could be here today and gone tomorrow without a trace.
When the story opens Sylvia is 17 years old, an only child living with her parents on a farm. Phillip, her rather dull Quaker cousin, tutors her in reading, geography, and arithmetic. His love for her grows, but unfortunately for Philip, Sylvia barely notices him. Instead, she is drawn to the exciting and handsome Charley Kinraid, usually referred to as just “Kinraid,” in the book. It doesn’t help Philip’s case with Sylvia that her father was a whaler himself, back in the day, and because of that he and Kinraid have a special connection with so much in common.
I hesitate to give too many details because I don’t want to spoil the story. It was not knowing what would happen on the next page, in the next chapter, that kept me on edge and turning the pages.
There was one problem with the book though, a problem great enough that I was tempted early on to lay it aside. Every conversation is written in dialect.
Every. Single. One.
Not just one or two characters, every so often, but every time quotation marks were used, I felt like I needed sub-titles, at least initially. Some characters’ dialect was easier to understand than others but the reading could be slow going at times.
The whaling ship has just been sighted, returning after being gone for 6 long months, and there is great excitement in the village. A lame man is speaking to Sylvia…
“Time was I should ha’ been on th’ staithes throwing up my cap wit’ t’ best on ’em; but now it please t’ Lord to keep me at home, and set me to mind other folks’ gear. See thee, wench, there’s a vast o’ fold ha’ left their skeps o’ things wi’ me while they’re away down to t’ quay side. Leave me your eggs and be off wi’ ye for t’ see t’ fun, for mebbe ye’ll live to be palsied yet, and then ye’ll be fretting ower spilt milk, and that ye didn’t tak’ all chances when ye was young. Ay, well! they’re out o’ hearin’ o’ my moralities; I’d better find a lamiter like mysen to preach to, for it’s not iverybody has t’ luck t’ clargy has of saying their say out whether folks likes it or not.”
|Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865)|