“Really it is very wholesome exercise, this trying to make one’s words represent one’s thoughts, instead of merely looking to their effect on others.”
E. Gaskell, Cousin Phillis

Welcome to the 13th stop on the Elizabeth Gaskell 200th Anniversary Blog Tour! I chose to dive into Mrs. Gaskell’s novellas, so after some online search and a lot of indecision I decided to review three of them (a bit ambitious, I know, but I just couldn’t choose): Mr. Harrison’s Confessions (1851) and Lady Ludlow (1959), both part of the Cranford Chronicles, and Cousin Phillis (1964), which according to the Literary Encyclopedia, “has been called the most perfect story in English”. They can all be read online for free. Please also note that there will be some spoilers in the reviews.

You’ll be happy to know that one lucky commenter will win a copy of an unabridged edition of North and South by Naxos AudioBooks read by Clare Willie. Deadline to leave your 2-cents is midnight US Pacific-time on 7 October. The winner will be drawn from names from all the posts in the Tour on 8 October (CD shipments to US and Canada, download for all other countries). Good luck to all of The Sleepless Reader’s commenters, I’m rooting for you!

You’ll find the next blog on the Tour after the review. Enjoy and Happy Gaskell anniversary :)

Cousin Phillis (1864)

For an unknown reason, Paul Manning wants to tell us about his Cousin Phillis. His first-person narration starts when he is seventeen years old and has just left home for the first time to become a clerk at a railway company. They are building a new branch line from Eltham to Hornby, and his mother insists he visits some distant relations living nearby in Heathbridge. It is here that he meets Minister Ebenezer Holman, a farmer-clergyman, his wife and his beautiful daughter Phillis.

(Just a small parenthesis to say that I liked Paul right from the first pages because I also found that the best thing about moving out of my parents’ house was to be able to eat what I wanted when I wanted.)

Phillis’ world is small, simple and regular, the predictably of the seasons so vital to the farm also apply to her day-to-day. However, there is a side to her that goes beyond this fenced world: she reads in Virgil in Latin, she’s trying to read Dante in Italian and she’s her father’s best scholar. The unexpected intellectual vastness in such a Victorian heroine as Phillis (all freshness and innocence) is one of the first glimpses we have into how, with Cousin Phillis, Gaskell astutely crafted a gentle tragedy that does not follow a conventional Victorian pattern.

We are tricked into expecting a love-story between Phillis and Paul, but almost from the start Paul realizes he cannot think of Phillis in any way other than as a sister: she’s smarter and more educated than he is and (unforgivable!) she’s taller. However, Paul will be responsible for introducing to the family their future nemesis in the form of his manager, the widely travelled and worldly Mr. Holdsworth.

Inevitably, Phillips and Holdsworth fall in love, but before they openly admit it to each other, Holdsworth is invited to work for 2 years in Canada. It’s an opportunity he can’t refuse and before he leaves he confesses to Paul his plans to come back and marry Phillis. Like the good Victorian heroine, Phillis health starts to decline and to comfort her, Paul tells her his secret – as expected, Phillis blooms once more. Tragedy however, looms in the horizon: Holdsworth is a man of the world and before long he is engaged to another. The shock of this news and knowing that for the first time her father knows what is wrong with her, leads Phillis into a “brain fever” so serious it threatens her life.

But our Dante-reading heroine has the nerve not to die. Instead, in comes Gaskell’s delightful sense of humour, and the servant Betty shakes Phillis out of her illness with her no-nonsense attitude:

‘Now Phillis!’ said she, coming up to the sofa, ‘we ha’ done a’ we can for you, and th’ doctors has done a’ they can for you, and I think the Lord has done a’ he can for you, and more than you deserve, too, if you don’t do something for yourself.’

Like other Gaskell’s stories, Cousin Phillis revolves around the themes that seemed to have worried Elizabeth Gaskell: the not-so-smooth transition into the Industrial Revolution and the different worlds in which men and women live. Paul and Holdsworth are the new world of mechanicals and railways, meeting and changing the traditional English rural way of life. Phillis’ gentle tragedy is a micro-example of what was happening in a larger scale to villages like Heathbridge all over England.

But will Phillis and her family go back to ‘the peace of the old days’? We know they can’t. From what I’ve read online, Gaskell wanted to write two more instalments of the story showing an unmarried Phillis doing good works in her little community. I have to admit that I’m glad she didn’t. This way we can still imagine a happy future for Phillis. The maiden who loved once and can never love again was one Victorian cliché that unfortunately Gaskell could not overcome here.

Another great image by the Queen of domestic descriptions:

The tranquil monotony of that hour made me feel as if I had lived for ever, and should live for ever droning out paragraphs in that warm sunny room, with m two quiet hearers, and the curled-up pussy cat sleeping on the heart-rug, and the clock on the house-stairs perpetually clicking out the passage of the moments.

*****   *****   *****

Follow this link to the next blog on the Elizabeth Gaskell Bicenterary Blog Tour by Janeite Deb at Jane Austen in Vermont, who will make available a Gaskell Library, full of MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources.

The other stops on the Tour:

Biography

Novels/Biography

Novellas – me!

Resources

  • 14.) Your Gaskell Library – Links to MP3′s, ebooks, audio books, other downloads and reading resources available online: Janeite Deb – Jane Austen in Vermont
  • 15.) Plymouth Grove – A Visit to Elizabeth Gaskell’s home in Manchester: Tony Grant – London Calling
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