Sorry there’s been such a massive posting-gap!
I’ve just been on a camping trip to Whitby, a seaside town in Yorkshire which used to be an important whaling-port – the setting for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers. The heroine, Sylvia Robson, lives in Whitby (renamed ‘Monkshaven’ in the novel) in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when ‘Monkshaven’ (at the peak of its whaling success) was under threat from press gangs.
Sylvia is courted by her sober cousin, Phillip Hepburn. But his love isn’t returned. Sylvia’s hero is the dashing sailor Charley Kinraid, a specksioneer (chief harpooner) on a whaling ship, who wins her heart with his bravery defending his shipmates from the press gang. They become engaged – just before Kinraid is pressed and taken to sea. Everyone, including Sylvia, believes he is drowned. Only Phillip knows what really happened. He was the only witness to the scene on the beach when Kinraid was ambushed and forced to enlist. Lying bound in the bottom of the boat, he gave Phillip a message for Sylvia. “Tell her what you’ve seen. Tell her I’ll come back to her. Bid her not forget the great oath we took together; she’s as much my wife as if we’d gone to church; – I’ll come back and marry her before long.”
Instead of giving Sylvia message, Phillip lets her believe that Charley is dead. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s father is hanged for being involved in a riot against the press-gang. Miserable and desperate, Sylvia finally agrees to marry Phillip.
They have a daughter – but not long after Kinraid returns to claim Sylvia and she discovers Phillip’s deception. She swears never to forgive Phillip, but refuses to live with Kinraid because of her child.
Despairing of ever winning Sylvia, Kinraid marries another woman. Meanwhile, Phillip enlists in the army, heartbroken at Sylvia’s anger against him, and ends up saving Kinraid’s life in a battle against Napoleon. Wounded, Phillip returns to Monkshaven and saves Sylvia’s child from drowning. His is fatally injured during the rescue, and Sylvia forgives him before he dies.
I read Sylvia’s Lovers before coming to Whitby and the book and the place combined have laid a hold on me.
Having visited all the places mentioned in the story I was impressed by the way Gaskell conveys the atmosphere of them in Sylvia’s Lovers. Her descriptions are really accurate in a practical way, too. Here’s a passage about Whitby taken from the first chapter:
Monkshaven was a name not unknown in the history of England, and traditions of its having been the landing-place of a throneless queen were current in the town. At that time there had been a fortified castle on the heights above it, the site of which was now occupied by a deserted manor-house; and at an even earlier date than the arrival of the queen and coeval with the most ancient remains of the castle, a great monastery had stood on those cliffs, overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky. Monkshaven itself was built by the side of the Dee, just where the river falls into the German Ocean. The principal street of the town ran parallel to the stream, and smaller lanes branched out of this, and straggled up the sides of the steep hill, between which and the river the houses were pent in. There was a bridge across the Dee, and consequently a Bridge Street running at right angles to the High Street; and on the south side of the stream there were a few houses of more pretension, around which lay gardens and fields.
Whitby today is still Gaskell’s Monskhaven, even to the ‘bridge-street running at right angles to the High Street’ and the lanes ‘straggling up the sides of the steep hill’. The monastery ‘overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky’ still stands today.
I visited Whitby Abbey, and saw that same vast ocean blending with that same distant sky through the ruined arches. It’s wonderful to think of Elizabeth Gaskell standing there and feeling the same rush of excitement as me. It’s easy to see why she wanted to write about Whitby.
One of the most memorable scenes of the book is at the beginning when the first whaler comes home, and all the women and children are waiting to see their sons and sweethearts.
The whalers went out into the Greenland seas full of strong, hopeful men; but the whalers never returned as they sailed forth. Whose bones had been left to blacken on the gray and terrible icebergs? Who lay still until the sea should give up its dead? Who were those who should come back to Monkshaven never, no, never more?
“To think o’ yon ship come in at last!” says Sylvia, “And if yo’d been down seeing all t’ folk looking and looking their eyes out, as if they feared they should die afore she came in and brought home the lads they loved, yo’d ha’ shaken hands wi’ that lass too.”
Then the press-gang turns up and carries away the whalers before they can greet the watchers on shore.
…Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.
‘Hech!’ said she. ‘Hearken! how they’re crying and shouting down on t’ quay. T’ gang’s among ’em like t’ day of judgment. Hark!’
No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer.
‘They’re taking ’em to t’ Randyvowse,’ said Molly. ‘Eh! I wish I’d King George here just to tell him my mind.’
The girl clenched her hands, and set her teeth.
‘It’s terrible hard!’ said Hester; ‘there’s mothers, and wives, looking out for ’em, as if they were stars dropt out o’ t’ lift.’
Looking out on the houses past which the whaler sailed in that memorable scene I took a few photos. A rainbow framed the curve of the town, above the water, lying slate-coloured and quiet in the early morning sun. The red-rooves of the old houses were tightly packed, the steep streets like the steps of a ladder up the hillside.
Under the modern-day quietness, snap shots of view bring back the dramatic past of the place about which Gaskell wrote. The masts of the boats, clustering close together against the pale morning sky. The cobbles over which crowds of desperate people must have run,
…anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors, who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler’s crew..
After exploring the narrow, cobbled streets of the town (Georgian for the most part, with a few older houses scattered here and there and and a Regency and Victorian resort area across the river), we went up to the church.
The Monkshaven church is also described in detail in Sylvia’s Lovers – a sailor who has been killed by the press-gang, Darley, is buried there, and Sylvia and her friend Molly Corney go up to see the burial.
…on the Sunday afternoon to which Sylvia had been so looking forward, to scale the long flights of stone steps – worn by the feet of many generations – which led up to the parish church, placed on a height above the town, on a great green area at the summit of the cliff, which was the angle where the river and the sea met, and so overlooking both the busy crowded little town, the port, the shipping, and the bar on the one hand, and the wide illimitable tranquil sea on the other – types of life and eternity. It was a good situation for that church. Homeward-bound sailors caught sight of the tower of St Nicholas, the first land object of all. They who went forth upon the great deep might carry solemn thoughts with them of the words they had heard there; not conscious thoughts, perhaps – rather a distinct if dim conviction that buying and selling, eating and marrying, even life and death, were not all the realities in existence.
There, too, lay the dead of many generations; for St. Nicholas had been the parish church ever since Monkshaven was a town, and the large churchyard was rich in the dead. Masters, mariners, ship-owners, seamen: it seemed strange how few other trades were represented in that great plain so full of upright gravestones. Here and there was a memorial stone, placed by some survivor of a large family, most of whom perished at sea: – ‘Supposed to have perished in the Greenland seas,’ ‘Shipwrecked in the Baltic,’ ‘Drowned off the coast of Iceland.’ There was a strange sensation, as if the cold sea-winds must bring with them the dim phantoms of those lost sailors, who had died far from their homes, and from the hallowed ground where their fathers lay.
These ‘upright gravestones’ and memorial stones can still be seen today, though the sentences engraved upon them have faded and grown ghostly and illegible since Mrs. Gaskell’s time, let alone since Sylvia’s — worn by the ‘cold sea-winds’ which still come keenly whistling over the tops of the gravestones.
And inside the church, the high box pews are still lined with green-baize, as Gaskell describes. Curious how some things remain the same, and other things change.
We passed from the sharp sea-wind that billowed round the tombstones, sending a flush into my cheeks, into the warmth of the church’s gift-shop. Stands and racks were everywhere, covered with little gift cards and and cheap jewellery.
Instinctively I thought back to that scene in the beginning of the book when Sylvia is in Phillip’s shop, hearing the noise of the press-gang outside. Entering into the down-to-earth of this very different shop gave me a feeling not unlike the feeling I have reading Sylvia’s Lovers whenever Phillip Hepburn turns up on the page.
The shop seemed confident, ordinary, and full of itself just like Phillip. It came in contrast with the romance of the churchyard. Gaskell unconsciously thought of this herself when she made Phillip the owner of ‘Fosters Shop’.
Fully within the church, things grew better. It was stepping into a bubble of romance that hung between the stone pillars, only allowing some to enter it, and shutting out others. In that early scene of Darley’s burial Sylvia was allowed into the romance – Molly Corney (thinking about what was the most fashionable pattern for a cloak) was shut out.
The unwonted sternness and solemnity visible on the countenances of all whom she met awed and affected (Sylvia). She did not speak in reply to Molly’s remarks on the dress or appearance of those who struck her. She felt as if these speeches jarred on her, and annoyed her almost to irritation…
The love between Kinraid and Sylvia grows naturally out of the instinctive passion of the town and countryside – of the great sea stretching away behind all. When Sylvia returns from Darley’s burial her head is full of Kinraid, who she has just seen for the first time, wounded from an encounter with the press-gang.
Attracted by Sylvia, Kinraid begins to call on her father, Daniel Robson. Sitting in the warm, fire-licked parlour that Sylvia would often recall in her memory he tells stories of whaling-voages.
All night long Sylvia dreamed of burning volcanoes springing out of icy southern seas. But, as in the specksioneer’s tale the flames were peopled with demons, there was no human interest for her in the wondrous scene in which she was no actor, only a spectator. With daylight came wakening and little homely every-day wonders. Did Kinraid mean that he was going away really and entirely, or did he not? Was he Molly Corney’s sweetheart, or was he not? When she had argued herself into certainty on one side, she suddenly wheeled about, and was just of the opposite opinion. At length she settled that it could not be settled until she saw Molly again; so, by a strong gulping effort, she resolutely determined to think no more about him, only about the marvels he had told. She might think a little about them when she sat at night, spinning in silence by the household fire, or when she went out in the gloaming to call the cattle home to be milked, and sauntered back behind the patient, slow-gaited creatures; and at times on future summer days, when, as in the past, she took her knitting out for the sake of the freshness of the faint sea-breeze, and dropping down from ledge to ledge of the rocks that faced the blue ocean, established herself in a perilous nook that had been her haunt ever since her parents had come to Haytersbank Farm. From thence she had often seen the distant ships pass to and fro, with a certain sort of lazy pleasure in watching their swift tranquillity of motion, but no thought as to where they were bound to, or what strange places they would penetrate to before they turned again, homeward bound.
Sylvia does not know herself in that passage. She does not know that her love for Kinraid is made of those ‘marvels that he told’. Kinraid and his whaling-stories are one and the same, in Sylvia’s mind and in the mind of the reader. They can’t be separated. Take away the whaling-romance, take away icebergs and press-gangs and Whitby, and there’s nothing left.
Several critics have complained that Kinraid has no real character -— that he’s only a surface with nothing underneath. That’s certainly a point of view — but given that his surface reflects whales and dazzling icebergs like the surface of Greenland waters, I think he’s in fact an exceptionally vivid and somehow living figure.
Phillip Hepburn arguably has more character than Kinraid – certainly we’re given more isight into his thoughts – but Gaskell has utterly failed in making him him sympathetic. Described at the beginning as having ‘a long face, with a slightly aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a long upper lip, which gave a disagreeable aspect to a face that might otherwise have been good-looking’, he comes across as arrogant and selfish, and incredibly boring.
His character is fixed from the very beginning – the scene in the shop when he stops Sylvia from joining in the riot against the press gang.
‘Let us go into t’ thick of it and do a bit of help; I can’t stand quiet and see ‘t!’ Half crying, she pushed forwards to the door; but Philip held her back.
‘Sylvie! you must not. Don’t be silly; it’s the law, and no one can do aught against it, least of all women and lasses.’
Still makes me furious! As my younger brother Tass said: ‘Sylvia should have knocked him down flat and ran out. Serve him right!’ (it is now a favourite game in our house to think of things to ‘do to Phillip’. Tass has thought of some pretty fitting punishments)
The contrast between Phillip and Kinraid is seen at its strongest in the scene where Kinraid is pressed. Phillip sees the press-gang waiting, and, seeing Kinraid as his rival for Sylvia’s affections, doesn’t warn him.
The instant Kinraid turned the corner of the cliff, the ambush was upon him. Four man-of-war’s men sprang on him and strove to pinion him.
‘In the King’s name!’ cried they, with rough, triumphant jeers.
…Although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, Kinraid did not lose his wits. He wrenched himself free, crying out loud:
‘Avast, I’m a protected whaler. I claim my protection. I’ve my papers to show, I’m bonded specksioneer to the Urania whaler, Donkin captain, North Shields port.’
…. ‘D – n your protection,’ cried the leader of the press-gang; ‘come and serve his Majesty, that’s better than catching whales.’
‘Is it though?’ said the specksioneer, with a motion of his hand, which the swift-eyed sailor opposed to him saw and interpreted rightly.
‘Thou wilt, wilt thou? Close with him, Jack; and ware the cutlass.’
In a minute his cutlass was forced from him, and it became a hand-to-hand struggle, of which, from the difference in numbers, it was not difficult to foretell the result. Yet Kinraid made desperate efforts to free himself; he wasted no breath in words, but fought, as the men said, ‘like a very devil.’
Hepburn heard loud pants of breath, great thuds, the dull struggle of limbs on the sand, the growling curses of those who thought to have managed their affair more easily; the sudden cry of some one wounded, not Kinraid he knew, Kinraid would have borne any pain in silence at such a moment.
There is massive contrast here between the physically brave Kinraid, battling the press-gang, ‘fighting like a very devil’ and ‘although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, not losing his wits’, and Phillip, crouching awkwardly behind a rock. This contrast is too strong throughout the book – sympathy with Phillip is impossible.
We spent the night in the carpark of Sandsend, nearish the beach below Haytersbank Farm (Sylvia’s house), where Kinraid is pressed.
Evening. I lay stretched on a wall in the carpark, reading Sylvia’s Lovers. Beneath me was the beach, winding away, and hugged by the line of distant green cliff on the furthest point of which stood Whitby Abbey.
The sky was thundery, the sea coming in, stretching in in an uneven line along the beach. In the distance it was smooth and quiet-looking as silk with a ragged hem. But beneath me the waves crashed over the large, green, agley-draped rocks, sending up a mist of fine spray. Far away along that green headland the lights of Monkshaven began to twinkle, appearing one by one as night fell around me. I was totally pulled into Sylvia’s Lovers.
…the grass was crisping under their feet with the coming hoar frost; and as they mounted to the higher ground they could see the dark sea stretching away far below them. The night was very still, though now and then crisp sounds in the distant air sounded very near in the silence… The long monotonous roll of the distant waves, as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…
Usually when I’m reading something that really grips me I forget where I am. I’m transported to the place I’m reading about.
This time there was no need of transportation. I was here, along with with Sylvia. I could hear what she heard – the sound of the waves ‘as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…’ I saw what she saw – the sea ‘sea stretching away far below’ and my night, like her night, was ‘very still’.
Instead of the words pulling me away from the real world as they would normally do, they helped me to trap the whole of the wildness of the view inside me as I read. I think it was at that moment that I realised the uniting force of the book, from which both the faults and the virtues of the characters, and the faults and the virtues of the plot spring.
Sylvia’s Lovers certainly has some flaws, particularly toward the end, and having Phillip Hepburn as a main character was a really terrible mistake.
But there’s something about the romance of the battle between the press-gangs and the whaling ships that really sweeps one away. It’s because Sylvia is swept up in this romance that she loves Kinraid, the specksioneer (chief harpooner). And it must have been because Mrs. Gaskell was swept up in it that she was able to write such powerful scenes. That’s what’s special about Sylvia’s Lovers. It’s that exhilarating feeling of comradeship. You’re really sympathetic towards Sylvia because you share her infatuation with Kinraid and her bitterness against the press-gangs. She loves the idea of him, and the reader loves the idea of him, too. She falls in love with Charley before she’s even met him, when she hears the story of how he stuck up against the press-gang out at sea.
It is this, too, which creates the great fault of the book – the over drawn contrast between Phillip and Kinraid. Main characters ought to contrast – but the contrast between these two is far too great for sympathy. Unlike the specksioneer, Phillip does not seem part of the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang. He puts a damper on the flow of excitement we feel reading it.
When Sylvia marries Phillip, she does not cease to feel that he is opposing the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang – nor does the reader cease to feel it. But the battle with the press-gangs has changed from being a romantic dream (as it seemed in the beginning of the book) to being terribly, frighteningly real. Then later in the book Kinraid himself turns out to be less romantic than we originally though him.
More than the misery of the characters, it is the breaking-up of the romance that makes the ending of the book so sad. The night after I finished reading Sylvia’s Lovers I had feverish dreams.
We were leaving Whitby, never to return again – the red rooves were disappearing into the distance – something indefinable but terrible had happened to Kinraid …
The ending is painful because, like Sylvia, the reader has been swept into the great, wavy, rippling dream of romance, and then grounded on a sandbank.
We have Whitby to thank for all the passion of Sylvia’s Lovers. The story has grown out of the clustering red-roofs of Whitby and the wide sea beyond. Gaskell’s sea, Sylvia’s sea – my sea.