“Yes; with God all things are possible. But ofttimes He does his work with awful instruments. There is a peacemaker whose name is death.”
Elizabeth Gaskell’s final novel Sylvia’s Lovers is a historical tale set in a whaling town in northern England in the 1700s, and, not unlike Mary Barton and North and South, amid the struggle of an oppressed class against its oppressors. But instead of the factory workers against the owners, in the town of Monkshaven sailors have to worry about being “pressed” (kidnapped) into naval service by press-gangs, which had legal auspices. Although the press-gang incidents in the novel shape the plot, Gaskell doesn’t attempt here to reconcile these two hostile groups like she does in other novels. Rather, other than a brief commentary early on, she appears to avoid the political and focuses on the characters’ lives, and weaves the story into a tragic, haunting tale not unlike Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, replacing the wild moors with the wild sea perpetually washing up on the shores below Monkshaven. Sylvia’s Lovers would make a wonderful movie.
Beautiful Sylvia Robson is sought after by two lovers, a charming, flirtatious sailor, Charley Kinraid and a serious, responsible cousin, Philip Hepburn. The heroine falls for the sailor, but when he disappears and Philip supports her during the terrible tragic events surrounding her father, she feels she has little choice about her future. She later experiences regret.
*some spoilers ahead*
Charley and Philip are foils for each other: when Philip rises in the reader’s estimation, Charley seems to fall, but then in the middle of the novel Philip seems to sink in our estimation, while Charley rises, only to apparently change places again at the end; except by then, it is too late for happiness to ensue (without giving away too much). Thus, it can seem difficult to gauge Philip’s character with finality. Like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, at times I was disgusted by him, but it is also difficult not to sympathize with him and wish that Sylvia could just return his love, so that he could be happy. But his love is not without a shadowy undercurrent, for his love is so exhaustive that it almost borders on obsession. His tricking Sylvia into marrying him by not revealing the truth about her lover seems to confirm this. In the end, he admits his idolatry in putting Sylvia above all else, even before God himself. If he is a tragic hero, this is his tragic flaw.
Within the larger narrative of governmental tyranny (regarding the press-gangs), I believe Gaskell inscribes a tale of domestic tyranny. While he may have had good intentions (as the government would also claim it had – for the safety of England against Napoleon), because Philip tries to control Sylvia’s whole future and does not let her be free to make her own choice, he appears, to me, to be as tyrannical as the government which mandates the kidnappings of its own citizens. Such a marriage must necessarily be loveless. There can be no happiness in a marriage where the wife does not willingly submit. We see the contrast with Sylvia’s own parents’ happy relationship, where her mother Bell takes pleasure in yielding to and forbearing with Sylvia’s father Daniel, even though Gaskell makes clear several times that Mrs. Robson is certainly his superior in intellect and sense. Many times Philip becomes frustrated with Sylvia’s emotional distance and automatic obedience and longs for a feisty retort or expression of anger. She appears to have lost her will altogether, and her will, which he most desires, is not hers to give because she married him under pressure. He stole a thing which can only be given.
Perhaps their story is Gaskell’s answer to the political tyranny transpiring in the background. The government that attempts to control (and trick, as the press-gang does with the fire bell in the novel) its citizens, will necessarily meet with resistance, and disharmony will ensue. Submission is unquestionably the Christian’s duty, but where it is forced its virtue is taken away and we are left with oppressed and oppressor, and these are injustices that Christ came into the world to set right. Consider that we are under Satan’s tyranny, but Christ calls us freely to come to him – or reject him. Consider too that Christ’s greatest act of submission was done of his “own accord,” which is what makes the deed so especially wondrous (why did he do it?); if he had been forced, the deed would be emptied of love (and divinity), and we would probably feel rather sorry for Him. We could not say that it was done out of love for us; love is a gift. I think it is worth pointing out that Gaskell aligns Philip with the press-gangs early on in the novel, when he defends the legality of their actions – “But t’press-gang had law on their side, and were doing nought but what they’d warrant for” – and later with Satan. Daniel calls the deeds of the press-gang the “devil’s work,” and Alice warns Philip that “The flesh and the devil are gettin’ hold on yo’, and yo’ need more nor iver to seek t’ ways o’ grace.” (Here she is referring to his pursuit of Sylvia, although she does not know of his deception.) This may seem harsh on Philip to associate him with Satan (and Alice’s warnings perhaps can be seen as excessive), as he certainly had good intentions by deceiving Sylvia; he believed he was protecting her, and his concerns about Charley may have been justified. But we know to what destination good intentions pave the road.
Only at the end, when Sylvia can truly make her own choice, can she return Philip’s love, and God finally brings about Philip’s greatest desire. But such an outcome can only arise after Philip casts down his idol and lets her be free, and in this final act of submission to God, and allowing Sylvia to willingly submit to him, Philip’s sanctification is complete. All along Sylvia’s happy submission to him was what Philip most desired, but his tyranny over her prevented such a possibility.
I don’t know whether Gaskell intentionally set out to write a novel with the above moral, and perhaps some will say I have read too much into the story. Primarily, Sylvia’s Lovers is a haunting, tragic romance with a beautiful setting and page-turning plot. But if Sylvia’s Lovers is a response to Jane Eyre, which the editor to my Oxford edition insists that it is – well, Jane Eyre contains one of the greatest expositions of Christian ethics in all of literature. It would be no surprise that Gaskell’s novel might respond in kind. (She and the Brontës were good friends.) And if the editors of the Oxford edition can interpret this story to be primarily about a young girl’s “sexual journey,” I think I can take a little theological licence with a novel by a minister’s wife.