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Sylvia's Lovers cover

Gaskell’s engrossing novel of life and love in an 18th-century English whaling town deserves to be more widely read.

From a masculine standpoint, Sylvia’s Lovers is not a promising title for a novel. It sounds like a Harlequin romance when, in fact, it is a marvellous evocation of life in a rugged Yorkshire whaling town in the late 1700s. The English are at war with the French (again) and the vividly depicted harbour town bustles with whaling activity while the King’s press gangs roam the narrow streets looking for able-bodied sailors they can strong-arm into a navy desperate for new recruits. As they make their daily rounds, the locals must walk furtively, resentfully watchful for the hated gangs. Emotions run high. There are outbreaks of violence.

The lovers of the novel’s title are Philip Hepburn, an intelligent stooping local shop clerk, and Charley Kinraid, a fine figure of a man who is a daring harpooner on a whaling ship. Sylvia is a pretty farm girl with an aversion to all book learning that does not involve the “Greenland seas” where the romantic Kinraid plies his perilous icy trade. The classic love triangle sets up when Philip loves Sylvia but she falls hard for Charley Kinraid after he is wounded while bravely defending his shipmates from a press gang. (The name Kinraid is suggestive. Philip is a cousin of Sylvia’s and Kinraid is trespassing on a relationship blessed by Sylvia’s parents.) On the side, we have quiet self-effacing Hester Rose, who loves Philip with the constancy and devotion that men dream of but seldom find.

When it comes to competing for Sylvia’s affections, bookish sombre Philip does not stand a dog’s chance against the manly Charley Kinraid. And here is where the author sets out her theme. Every major character in the book, barring quick-witted Charley, is relentlessly obtuse and self-defeating. Philip could have Hester’s abiding love, but barely notices the faithful young woman. Charley is a known womanizer, but Sylvia will hear nothing said against him. Sylvia is a deliberate dunce, too tightly bound to her parents, and treats Philip with callous disregard, but the learned and sensitive Philip overlooks all. Instead of turning away, he masochistically continues to woo silly Sylvia in spite of her cruel slights and rebuffs. Hester refuses to declare her ardent love for Philip. Sylvia’s father foolishly leads a mob against an active press gang going about the King’s business. Sylvia’s mother cannot cope with her grief. When faced with disgrace, Philip runs off like a child who has wet himself rather than deal with the situation like a man. Naturally, his craven act wins him nothing but catastrophe.

Gaskell is revealing just how weak, foolish, and self-defeating most people are. We turn away from what we could have, to chase things that can never be. We delude ourselves, ignore reality, and engage in the worst kinds of wishful thinking. We run away when we should make a stand. We make trouble when we should make peace. We hurt one another when, with just a little more intelligence, we could improve one another’s lives immensely. Gaskell’s theme is humanity’s most egregious and enduring flaw.

Charley Kinraid is Gaskell’s foil. Charley is always effective. He is a first-rate harpooner who always hits his mark. Even when captured by the press gangs he manages to pass a message for Sylvia to Philip (although Philip then betrays him). Once pressed into the navy, the capable and courageous Charley buckles down and quickly rises to the rank of Captain. When he learns that Sylvia has married treacherous Philip in his forced absence, he simply finds himself another suitable woman (there are plenty of fish in the sea) and happily marries. Romantics, of course, will say that Charley never really loved Sylvia, but a womanizer only comes back for his lady after such a long time if he truly cares for her. Naturally, this obvious fact is lost on muddle-headed Sylvia.

Things end badly for all the obtuse self-defeaters while Charley Kinraid, as is only fair and reasonable, comes through with flying colours. Gaskell points the way to happier lives. Have courage. Recognize, and responsibly look after, your real interests. Use your head.

Sylvia’s Lovers is a rich and rewarding historical novel that does not romanticize foolish behaviour.