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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Book Review: Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell

This novel follows Sylvia Robson, a farmer's daughter, as she grows into adulthood in Monkshaven (a fictionalised version of Whitby) against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Although loved by her cousin Philip Hepburn, Sylvia falls for the charms of sailor Charley Kinraid, However, despite their urge to be married he has to first return to his ship and disaster strikes. Much more information would ruin the twists and turns of this book for anyone who hasn't read it so I'll refrain.

Perhaps the first thing to say about Sylvia's Lovers is how visually evocative it is, from the bedraggled farm distant from the village to the coastal paths that play such a pivotal role in the story. The setting is irrevocably woven into the narrative - without the stench of fish hovering around Sylvia the main points of the novel just couldn't occur. Gaskell draws vivid connections between character and setting and, in truth, the latter is more memorable than the former. Something also to note is that there is a lot of regional dialect in the book - I'm from Yorkshire and I was having difficulty with it so I don't know how others might cope!

This novel is a tragic story, there's no question of that. It begins in the shadow of the press-gang and the gloomy atmosphere pervades the novel. However, it is a little uneven. Gaskell spends a lot of time building up Sylvia and Kinraid's relationship then the conclusion feels a little haphazard. Similarly, the perfunctory ending of Hepburn's story jarred with me. One thing I did appreciate about the novel, though, was the way I see-sawed between who I wanted to succeed in the battle for Sylvia. That said, she's a very limp character, who only felt interesting to me when she was resisting something. The cautious friendship between her and Hester Rose (Hepburn's colleague who is in love with him) is fascinating and certainly proved to be one of the elements that kept me interested in this one.

Ultimately, everything's wrapped up a little too quickly in Sylvia's Lovers for my liking. Even so, the scenes of Monkshaven will stay with me, as will the fates of some of the smaller characters who captured my interest.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

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