Characters Both Flat and Round – Charley Kinraid from ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’


‘O wha’s like my Johnnie,
Sae leish, sae blithe, sae bonnie?
He’s foremost ‘mang the mony
Keel lads o’ coaly Tyne;
He’ll set or row sae tightly
Or, in the dance sae sprightly,
He’ll cut and shuffle slightly,
‘Tis true, were he nae mine.’
‘He wears a blue bonnet,
Blue bonnet, blue bonnet,
He wears a blue bonnet
A dimple in his chin.
And weel may the keel row,
The keel row, the keel row,
And weel may the keel row
That my laddie’s in.’

Curse it, having a lot of trouble trying to enlarge that image. It  doesn’t want to co-operate…

I’ve quoted ‘Weel may the Keel Row’ because it serves as a sort of signature tune for the character I want to talk about in the novel through which he swaggers.

I’m really going to enjoy writing this one as I’ve been long intrigued by the character I am going to use as an example of a fictitious character who is a fascinating instance of both the round and the flat (to use E M Forster’s terms for depiction of character).

I can think of a number of examples of this, and of flat characters who sometimes stray into the territory of the rounded ones – James Bond’s brief period of humanity is one in popular fiction – but few whose ambiguity has so intrigued me; and I have never known whether this was intended by the author or at least partly or a result of conflicts between her views of the people on whom she based this character.

Wait for it – yes, it’s none other than Charley Kinraid from Elizabeth Gaskell’s none too well known historical novel set in Whitby during the French Revolutionary Wars, ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’.

Well, if this doesn’t inspire a comment from my friend Thomas Cotterill, who completely disagreed with me about the fellow’s moral integrity, nothing will…

To start on a humorous note, someone on Goodreads complained that the title of that story belied the content; well, this is ‘lovers’ in the old sense, no Naughty Naughty Tut Tut stuff would be permitted in the UK during her era, when Zola’s novels were regarded with horror.

However, within the perimeters of Victorian prudery, E Gaskell makes a good job of hinting at the aura of physical attraction and macho appeal exuded by Charley Kinraid, the ‘boldest Speksioneer (Chief Harpooner) in the Greenland Seas’.

When we first meet this character he’s acting as a hero, defending his crew from a press gang acting outside it’s remit (as they invariably did; there was no other way to impress enough men into the navy). He gets into a shoot out with them and is kicked aside (ouch!) and left for dead. However, when they’ve gone, his captain and a surgeon manage to revive him, and this the first of many lucky escapes he has during a rise to top which seems almost as inevitable as a cork rising in water.

The impressionable Sylvia first sees him at the funeral of his friend Darley, who wasn’t so lucky. Kinraid still looks like an animated corpse from blood loss, but so impressed is she with his aura of heroism that she becomes infatuated with him anyway.

At this time he is rumoured to be romantically involved with either one or both of his cousins, the daughters of a neighbouring farm to Sylvia’s own, and a lady killer generally (when not looking like an animated corpse).

During his convalescence, Kinraid takes to calling – supposedly to talk and drink with Sylvia’s father, while he just happens to impress Sylvia with his sailor’s tales of dangerous adventure and strange experiences at sea. He gets back his vigour and good looks, with his flashing dark eyes and dark hair curling in ringlets and goes away with no apparent regrets. Sylvia dreams about his stories, but one gets the impression that she would like to be an adventurer herself as much as she would like to win the love of the man who told her the stories.

Chancing to meet Sylvia at a party over a year later on a visit to those cousins with whom he has done so much flirting– one of whom thinks herself engaged to him – the impulsive Kinraid ‘is enough in love with her beauty and pretty modest ways’ to pay serious court to her.

Kinraid is mostly depicted ‘from the outside’ and we only rarely have access to his mental processes. These don’t, for a man with a gaze ‘penetrating and intelligent’ seem to be remarkable for either depth or originality, no doubt showing that he is a quick witted, bold man of action rather than a deep judge of character or one given to pondering on the human condition.

After Sylvia leaves the party, Kinraid, ‘…Accustomed to prompt decision, resolved that she and no other should be his wife. Accustomed to popularity among women, and well versed in the signs of their incipient liking for him, he anticipated no difficulty in winning her.’

He seems to have no idealistic notions regarding his choice of wife, and for the perceptive reader, this all fits in with the character of the emotionally superficial Lothario given to him by Hepburn’s workmate Coulson, who’s sister supposedly died of a broken heart after being jilted by Kinraid: –

‘He came after my sister for better nor two year…and then my master saw another girl, that he liked better…and tha’ he played the same game wi’, as I’ve heard tell.’

Sylvia’s ready acquiescence in her hero’s wooing of her certainly makes an interesting change from novels where the hero is attracted by the sheer challenge of winning over an indifferent heroine.

Kinraid is perceptive in his dealings with people; when she refuses him a kiss as a forfeit at a party game, and then regrets the snub and sits tearfully by the fireside, he follows her out of the room and soon gets that kiss.

Soon Sylvia and Kinraid are secretly engaged. Sylvia’s interest in Kinraid torments her devoted cousin Philip Hepburn. He is the only person to see Kinraid press ganged on a deserted beach and hears Kinraid’s plea for him to pass on to Sylvia that he will come back to marry her.

Instead, her keeps quiet and marries her himself, and on the consequences of this shabby trick the plot of the novel hinges.

Kinraid is away for three years; first he’s an impressed man, but then, resuming his heroics, he’s promoted to warrant officer, and following a daring raid on a French port, is imprisoned for many months. Finally he escapes to be raised to the rank of Lieutenant at the special recommendation of Sir Sydney Smith.

Hurrying back to renew his court to Sylvia, he finds that having been duped by her cousin about his supposed drowning, she’s married him instead and they now have a baby.

The three meet in a fine piece of melodrama, but Sylvia refuses to leave her baby, and Kinraid leaves in fury.

Before this, however, the author gives him some speeches that
as Graham Handley points out, are trite and more suited to a sailor in an action story than in this complex novel: –

‘Oh, thou false heart!…If ever I trusted woman, I trusted you, Sylvia Robson…Leave that damned fellow to repent of the trick he played an honest sailor…’

His own history of fickle dealings with other woman doesn’t decrease his outrage at this betrayal, and he leaves in high dudgeon on the mail cart.

However, Sylvia, having renounced Hepburn and mourning her loss of Kinraid, is to hear later that Kinraid is married to another woman within a few months of this dramatic parting from her. Though he had sworn more than once that he would marry her or not at all, he has cheerfully wedded a very eligible, pretty and superficial heiress with the ridiculous name of ‘Clarinda Jackson’ (I borrowed a version for my own Claribelle Johnson in ‘Aleks Sager’s Daemon’), who worships him.

After doing some more heroics at Acre (where by a wild co-incidence he meets Hepburn, who turns hero too and saves his former rival’s life) Kinraid is promoted to Captain and having once again survived serious gunshot wounds without any lingering effects on his health, he again faces a glowing future.

Clarinda Kinraid, happening to be staying with Kinraid’s old flame cousin Bessy Corney (who married someone else  on Kinraid’s disappearance) decides to call on the Hepburn household to see if Philip is back and to thank him.  From her easy air, it is obvious she knows nothing of Sylvia’s old relationship with her ‘dear Captain’ (Kinraid has been promoted again). One assume that neither has he troubled to tell her about his relationship with Bessy, who seems to keep discreetly silent about both matters.

After their passionate parting, and having taken a vow against Hepburn on her former lover’s behalf, the unlucky Sylvia is outraged at ‘The conviction, strengthened by every word that happy, loving wife had uttered that Kinraid’s old, passionate love for herself had faded away and vanished utterly.’

One of the few times when Kinraid’s thoughts are revealed is when he lies wounded at Acre. Here, they are as predictable as those he had at the party, and perhaps this is why Gaskell reveals them so rarely.

Of course, this may be a true depiction of how a wounded soldier’s confused senses may wander, but they seem, in contrast to those of the injured Hepburn on his own deathbed at the end of the story, to have no spiritual component at all (though we know from a throwaway comment of Kinraids’ in the course of his tales at Sylvia’s farm that he is no agnostic). Neither does he go in for any soul searching over what Jane Spencer calls his ‘complacent view of his past’: –

‘(He had) thoughts of other days, of cool Greenland seas…of grassy English homes…the unwonted tears came to his eyes as he thought of the newly-made wife in her English home, whom might never know that he died thinking of her.’

He mourns her loss of such a prize as himself with all sincerity.

Kinraid I found a puzzling character. He appears to be a hero. He certainly looks like one and is physically brave – but the same is true of Heathcliff and Lovelace, two of the worst villains in English Literature . Of course, Kinraid is nothing like as bad as either, but he does , apparently largely unintentionally, cause a fair amount of grief for various people and neither is it easy to see him as a hero except in the military sense.

To me he comes across as a superficial opportunist, with what even Andrew Sanders, a great admirer of his, terms ‘limits to his loyalty’. In some ways his fickle treatment of various love interests indicates this early. He has no scruples about changing allegiances when the old ones are of no further use to him.

Critics who point out his faithfulness to Sylvia during his three years away after his impressment as evidence of loyalty overlook that as an impressed man he would hardly get leave, and as he spent most of his time after his promotion to warrant officer in a French prison, his being faithful to Sylvia during this time wasn’t very difficult. However, once he begins to adjust to his new life as an officer, he aims high above his illiterate farmer’s daughter on the social scale.

As a Captain, of course, just like Horatio Hornblower, Kinraid, who once shot dead two press gang members, would have routinely to use their services to get enough of a crew to sail. It is very ironic that the man who might have been hanged for mutiny as the rebellious Specksioneer – had the navy known of his survival – later finds glory through them and becomes a naval hero.

As Graham Handley remarks in his notes on the book, Kinraid is a puzzle; various accounts of his history conflict, and only so much of the character is revealed. This was a clever achievement of Gaskell, as a partly unknown, ambiguous character is fascinating.

In a previous post dealing with the recycling of a character type, I have suggested myself that Gaskell may not have known her own mind about the character and that may be one reason for her leaving the options open about his history. As Jane Spencer points out, about the time that she was writing this novel Gaskell’s daughter broke off a brief engagement with a military man who seems to have been charming but unreliable,one Capain Charles Hill; this may have been a factor in her creation of this character.

But Kinraid is also a sailor, and Gaskell had an abiding respect for the Royal Navy and a love for sailors as her own beloved, entertaining and yarn spinning lost brother had been one.

He had been a merchant navy officer, supposedly disappeared mysteriously on a trip; I have sometimes wondered if some aspects of this story weren’t concealed by his family, but however this may be, Kinraid and his earlier incarnation, the charming Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ are both rebels who defy authority and who go on to find success. They also are embodiments of the return of a lost sailor motif which turns up not only in these novels, but also in Cranford. This is easy to define in our own post-Freudian days as wish fulfilled in Gaskell’s writing.

Kinraid gets a better fate than he probably deserves if his apparent opportunism is intended and if only half of the stories about his callous treatment of his former girlfriends are true.

This is in line with Gaskell’s religious conviction that the emotionally superficial and morally unscrupulous flourish in this Vale of Tears, whereas true justice is a matter for divine judgement beyond the grave. It also fits with her wish to write a happy ending for her brother’s own tragic story.

What I find undeniable is that a fairly flat character – almost a stereotypical brave, macho, handsome, hard-drinking womanizing hero type. is given an extra depth by a certain ambiguity in his portrayal.

One of the failures in Kinraid’s characterisation, however, is his lack of human weaknesses, in contradistinction to his rival Philip, who is a walking mass of them. Kinraid’s tendency to philander can’t really count, being traditionally seen as an acceptable one for a macho hero. But Kinraid comes across as too inhuman ever even to get seasick in a gale, unlike Hornblower or for that matter, Nelson. In the stories he tells that have such an effect on the impressionable Sylvia, he is always heroic – he doesn’t tell any where he makes a fool of himself for laughs. So maybe there are two very human weaknesses revealed there, vanity and inability to mock himself. This deficient sense of humour is a quality he certainly shares with Philip Hepburn, and for that matter, with  Sylvia. The three main characters, in fact, all view themselves with deadly seriousness.

In conclusion, for any who might be interested in my take on the treatment of the romantic theme in this novel here’s a link to my own F Word article written a few years ago.





18 thoughts on “Characters Both Flat and Round – Charley Kinraid from ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’

  1. Who is ‘Andrew Saunders’, Kinraid’s great admirer who admits limits to his loyalty? I’m interested in reading his view of Sylvia’s Lovers.

    I’m currently reading ‘Aspects of the Novel’ (brilliant book) and I like your examples of flat and round characters!

    However, I think you are a little too hard on Charley Kinraid. In a way, the fact he marries somebody else makes him less of a ‘flat character’ and more realistic. He behaves the way a real life character probably would – not with romantic-hero constancy. And it is not really Kinraid’s fault that “the man who might have been hanged for mutiny as the rebellious Specksioneer – had the navy known of his survival – later finds glory through them and becomes a naval hero.” He is forced to, as you say, ‘change alliances’, he doesn’t choose too. Anyone reading the scene where Kinraid is impressed would have to agree he would MUCH rather have stayed the rebellious specksioneer. Once is pressed, the only thing he can really do is make the best of it. I consider his optimism rather more admirable than otherwise. He’s been through lot.

    First he’s seriously shot and narrowly escapes being pressed – then, just as he’s recovered and begun to fall in love with Sylvia, he runs into the press gang again. He makes the best of it and shoots up the ranks in the navy, and just as he thinks he’ll be able to return and get Sylvia at last he finds Phillip has betrayed him and Sylvia is forever beyond his reach! Phillip, on the other hand, has had very little to go through till the very end of the book and yet he’s always known as ‘poor Phillip’.


  2. Interesting comments, Ide. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    I’ll take some time off I shouldn’t from other writing to expound on my views on this fascinating topic.

    Re: Andrew Sanders on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’: He was a Gaskell expert years back. If you type in Andew Sanders on any search engine, you will get a list of
    his books and among them will be the one I read. Regrettably, I can’t remember the title offhand. I’d say his view is typically that of a pre-feminist male reviewer of Gaskell’s work, where he misses the ambiguity of Gaskell’s portryal of a macho male character – and assumes that he is intended, unamiguously, to be a hero, even though in her short story ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ Gaskell speaks slightingly of ‘the military heroes’.

    I am probably unusual in actively disliking both Charley Kinraid and Philip Hepburn in their treatment of ‘Sylvia’. I consider, as she shows she does at the end of the story, that they both betray thei rsupposed love for her in their individual ways.

    All the characters have glaring weaknesses, which as you say, makes them more interesting. In the Victorian age, there were too many perfect heroes. One critic, I think Tessa Berlowsky (I never can remember the spelling of her surname) argues that this is the crux of the novel: Sylvia’s weakness is her inability to forgive, Hepburn’s is his dishonesty and Kinraid’s an inablility to love deeply and lastingly.

    The interpretation by Jane Spencer on Sylvia’s tragedy. that as a girl of the UK of the Georgian era, she could not go off and have adventures at sea herself, and so she had to transfer her infatuation from Kinraid’s adventures to the fallible man himself, is to my mind astute,.

    Also in the article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ by Christine L Krueger in ‘Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender or Narrative Closure’, she emphasises how in Sylvia’s bitter words on being: ‘Let down by men as she trusted, and has no help for it’ she is expressing her sense of betrayal by both of the male leads and won’t accept their patriarchal explanations for those betrayals.

    Many readers might join you in being kind and arguing that Kinraid hasn’t betrayed Sylvia, though he tells her that he has sworn ‘to marry thee or none’, but people can’t fall in love to order. His caring enough for an heiress just a few months after the break with Sylv ia to marry her for love is just too convenient by half. Sylvia indicates as much to Kester and even to Philip at the end. ‘Tha said he were fickle and faithless, and so he were. He were married to another women not so many weeks after thou went away.’ – Or words to that effect.

    As I say in my my F Word article on the novel, much of the theme is on the issue of what Gaskelll saw as a sin; making an idol of another fallible human being;. Accordingly, I made up my summary: – ‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson and finds dishonour. Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds disillusionment; Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him, and a career in the Royal Navy’.

    As I say, I didn’t personally, take either to the dismal, repressed Hepburn or the flashy, superficial Charley Kinraid, whom in my latest blog post I define as a ‘Black Hole Marty Stu’, with poor Sylvia caught in his event horizon, with Hepburn as the polar opposite of such a character. Niether is fully rounded.

    I suppose all the characters suffer – I would say Bell Robson more than anybody. I was touched by the image of the poor, stiff, debilitated woman, shaking all over at seeing her husband dragged off, later to be hanged, searching about for a purse to put some coins in it for him. That is as one would expect in a war – and to me as a supporter of the aims of the French Revolution, an unjust war to impose a monarchy on a foreign power (interestingly, as a Unitarian, Gaskell would have been a supporter of the aims of the French Revolution herself).

    Nevertheless, though Kinraid has suffered wounding and imprisonment and betrayal, I would argue that he still faces an undeserved glowoing future, given his various personal and ethical betrayals.

    I was certainly irritated by ‘poor Phillip’s” masochistic pursuit of Sylvia and thought his treachery disgusting, I did, however, a;sp think that in having his face burnt and torn away in the explosion, doing away with all his naïve dreams of coming home a hero to impress Sylvia, he did suffer a lot. Doubly ironically, in the end coming home a hero in Sylvia’s eyes, is just what he has done by his rescue of Kinraid.

    I think that most critics are too soft on male characters, and too hard on female ones. To my mind Sylvia, an active woman forced to be inactive by being unable to think outside society’s norms for a woman, suffers through being forced into the role of the passive victim.

    Kinraid’s character is one that has fascinated me as an example of an author making a stereoptyical mahco hero more interesting by revealing only so much of his motivation and internal dialogue, and by making his character ambiguous. Graham Handley in his 1968 Oxford Notes on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ comments on that ambiguity, and how Kinraid’s later career and ambitious marriage, seems to indicate that he is ‘Always a man with his mind on the main chance.’ It’s a device I have used myself in my own writing.

    I have to say, having been so fascinated by this book that I have read it three times, that I can only explain the enigma of Charley Kinraid’s improbable escapes and glowing future, by reference to the fact that Gaskell had a sailor brother who was lost on a voyage. Thus, when Gaskell uses a sailor character, she always bases the character on that brother, to whom she is giving a vicarious happy ending. It’s the same with Frederick Hale in ‘North and South’ and Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’. They are all forms of the Dashing Handsome Daring Yarn Spnning Jolly Sailor.

    But Winifred Gerin also describes Kinraid as possibly partly based on am enigmatic, charming Captain Charles Hill, who was engaged to Gaskell’s daughter Meta and about whose character Meta discovered things (one suspects, to do with light o’ love behaviour towards other young women before he met her) which caused her to break off the engagement. Kinraid is even called ‘Charles’. Thus, Gaskell’s childhood hero brother John and the charming but morally questionable Captain Charles Hill seem to be combined in Kinraid.

    Certainly, he can be held up as a prototype of the Victorian ideal of the ‘self made man’ who overcomes all obstacles. But even Andrew Sanders concedes that this is at the price of a deeper emotional connection with people. When dying (as he thinks), his thoughts are singularly superficial, and, as noted by Jane Spencer, he shows no remorse or even recollection of, his duplicity towards various women. Yet he is not an atheist. We know that he admits on the voyage through the iceberg, he ‘took to praying o’ nights’.

    I would say Kinraid is revealed by his actions as a superfical man, and a prize opportunist, by his actions throughout. He is brave, yes, but a bit of a showman. Interestingly, he says before the fight on the ‘Good Fortune’ that he is the only unmarried man, and that’s why he will stay above and fight. In fact, Darley is unmarried, as we discover at his funeral, when Kinraid thinks that Sylvia is his sweetheart (our century would make something of this over protectiveness of his mate; maybe Darley is his real true love?)

    As he could have been hanged for mutiny by shooting on the press gang, even though they were operating unfairly (as they always did, as in Hornblower), which is certainly unfair but what happened to anyone who offered them armed resistance at sea, Kinraid is actually lucky in that being unconscious, the press gang mistake him for dead. He is also lucky to recover so well from gunshot wounds in that era of primative medical treatment, not once, but twice. Also, in that era, a broken leg usually meant a limp for life if not an amputation , and yet he is described later as ‘walking briskly’.

    Gaskell makes the extent of Kinraid’s former ‘love ’em and leave ’em’ treatment of trusting young girls ambiguous enough for Sylvia to be able to dismiss it, but surely not the reader. Coulson’s talk about Kinraid’s deserting his sister Annie after a courtship of two years, and in turn two of her successors, is clearly not meant to be lies, seeing that as Quaker he would think a lie a serious sin. Annie proably dies of TB or some such thing rather than a broken heart, but we know in our own age that we can give up the will to live , and that seems to have happened to her.

    Bessy Corney thinks she was engaged to Kinraid, unlike Molly, who makes that story up to indicate that she has admirers. Daniel Robson suggests that Bessy is a flirt, and sees him as a potential husband who will do as well as any, but she insists that they had an unofficial engagement after he is taken. Interestingly, Molly defines his behaviour regarding girls as ‘Allus having two strings to his bow’. After Sylvia’ leaves the New Year’s feast he transfers his attention promptly to the ‘next prettiest girl in the room’. We are not told whom she is. Perhaps it is Bessy. For a man who has just fallen in love, that is oddly fickle. You would think he would be in a mood to leave the girls alone for a bit while still being sociable…

    I think it is easy to get the dates a bit mixed up regarding the timing of the two rum-ins Kinraid has with the press gang (I’m a geek about this book and know it by heart), and that’s what has happened in your interpretation, which makes Kinraid’s courting of Sylvia more intense and consistent.
    In fact, the there is seventeen months between Kinraid’s first run in with the press gang, leading to his first courtship of her when he visits Haytersbank, and the second, after he accidentally meets her at the Corney’s New Year Party, and becomes engaged to her, and is taken by the gang on his way back to sea.

    He visits the farm for a few weeks while he recovers from the gun shot wounds, but then goes away to sea again, leaving a casual message with Daniel Robson instead, which Daniel forgets to pass on (shades of what is to come and all that). After that, Kinraid makes no effort to contact Sylvia until he meets her again at the New Year’s party, fifteen months later. Notably, he doesn’t recognise her at first, which would indicate that he needed glases if that happened after only a few weeks! He decides that she has grown up to be so attractive that, ‘She and none other would be his wife’.
    He goes away again for some weeks, and then returns to propose to make sure of her before going to sea in March. It is then that he runs into the second press gang.

    And then, as an impressed man or in gaol, he has to be faithful to Sylvia – he wouldn’t exactly have got shore leave and he is in a French prison for many months until the Sidney Smith group escape. Certainly, he returns to her to face Philip Hepburn’s treachery. One supposes the tender memories do keep him going through these tribulations in all male society. However, after the dramatic scene with Sylvia and Hepburn in May, he marries Clarinda Jackson, with a fortune of £10,000 (as quoted in the notice in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’ kept by Molly) in the beginning of the next January. That is just over seven months between the two events.

    It may be realistic, indeed, of the sort of man who thinks that one attractive women is as good as another. It is hardly a sign of deep passion, or a compliment to Sylvia, when, as Jane Spencer comments, Clarinda Jackson has none of the qualities possessed by Sylvia – depth of feeling, for one, as Clarinda is depicted as superficial with her blithe talk of her ‘dear Captain’. Sylvia – who knows how she and Kinraid were troth plighted’ as Molly does not – sees what an insult is to the supposed love he had for her, that Kinraid recovers from her loss with such astonising haste. She says bitterly to Hester, ‘Those one thinks the most on, forgets one soonest.’

    As Graham Handley comments, Kinraid seems to have been disingenuous in his depiction of his ‘friendship’ with Sylvia to his wife, and also, earlier, in trying to urge Sylvia away on a false promise that his admiral can get her a divorce. Divorce was practically impossible for a women to come by, and required an act of parliament, and it is hard to believe he really is naive enough to think that himself.

    And then, while Kinraid could not escape from staying as an impressed man without becoming an outlaw, after he was promoted to ieutanant, he could have asked the said admiral for an honourable discharge, explaining how he really wished to be a specksioneer, if it was really still the case that he wished to be a whaler (a barbaric job: it is difficult not to be appalled by the ‘exciting’ tales of slaughtering whales with which Daniel and Kinraid impress Sylvia and ‘Sylvia’s Mother’. Of course, the 18th century whalers did not understand that they were decimatng the whale population in the Greenland Seas). With his record of heroism, it seems unlikely that the admiral wouldn’t be able to wangle an honourable discharge for Kinraid, though not a divorce. Instead, Kinraid accepts a promotion to captain, and of course, the only way a captain could ensure a full crew was to send out press gangs and ignore the rules about landsmen and whalers being exempt, as is illustrated to vividly in Hornblower.

    So, I think you are a being too kind about Kinraid and his shabby record of constancy towards either women, or his integrity and lack of free will. Yes, in real ife, people do excuse their compromises by saying that they ‘had to’ do this or that. and their friends protest that they have ‘been through a lot’. At this time, raddial opponents of the imperialist war were being persecuted and enduring rather more than Kinraid. I see both Hepburn and Kinraid as showing a basic lack of integrity,but Sylvia never abandons her own,

    Goodness, I have written a long message in my enthusiasm for the topic – I have long been fascinated by this novel, and intend someday perhaps to write a research MA thesis on it – not enough money or time to spare from the other writing at the moment, though! Nice talking to you.

  3. Well, I think we can at least agree in being ‘fascinated by this novel’! I think Sylvia’s Lovers deserves more fame. I’m pretty obsessed with it, especially since I visited Whitby and looked at the places mentioned in the novel. I’ve written an essay on Sylvia’s Lovers with details of my trip to Whitby. You can read it on my blog –

    I totally agree with you that Sylvia was treated unfairly by fate and by all the characters throughout the book, particularly by Phillip. It is true that Phillip suffered a lot at the end, and I would have been more prone to forgive him for his previous treachery if he hadn’t been known as ‘poor Phillip’ from the very start, even in the chapters where he wasn’t in nearly as bad a situation as Kinraid. I know there are seventeen months between the two press-gang encounters, but that’s still pretty bad luck to run into them twice!

    I agree it was very bad taste on Kinraid’s part to go for Clarinda Jackson. I can’t bear the way she calls in ‘captain’ every few seconds! But I’m not sure if we can judge whether Kinraid could get a discharge. Maybe it was really hard to get out of the Royal Navy in those days.

    I’m still in favour of Charley Kinraid. There is something about him I find entrancing. I too hate the ‘slaughtering whales’ aspect of his profession, but like Sylvia I’m fascinated by his stories of fiery icebergs, etc. I think a lot of the wonderful passion which Elizabeth Gaskell put into ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ (which is mainly what makes it such a fascinating book) has been channeled into Kinraid and his stories. Lots of lively, brave sailors pop up Gaskell’s books. Probably, as you say, her sailor characters were inspired by her brother, and maybe that is why she portrays them so warmly and passionately.

    Thanks for the information about Andrew Sanders, and for this interesting conversation!


  4. A pleasure to talk to you, Ide. I will certainly follow your link.
    I too, was inspired to visit Whitby as a result of reading ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. I dragged my family there a few years ago.
    I have found the name of the Andrew Sanders work with a chapter on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’; it’s called, ‘The Victorian HIstorical Novel’.
    There is some fascinating literary criticism of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ though it is, as you say, a neglected book.
    There is Terry Eagleton’s article on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers and Legality’. There is John McVicker (I think) with his article ‘The Making of Sylvia’s Lovers’.
    Another classic writer on Gaskell is J G Sharps on ‘Mrs Gaskell’s Observation and Invention’ which has a long chapter on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’.
    There is the chapter in Winifred Gerin’s ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’. there is Graham Handley’s 1968 Oxford Notes on ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’. There is Jane Spencer’s work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’. There is Patsy Stoneman’s book called, surprise surprise, ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’. These is Hilary M Schor’s ‘Schezerade in the Marketplace’ There is the chaper in ‘Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure ‘ edited by Alison Booth, and in the Everyman Classics edition version of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ edited by Nancy Henry, there is a collection of criticisms of the novel, including some when it came out.
    I’ve written a few posts on it and a few years ago, published an article with ‘The F Word” but – lol – I don’t think you’d find me views on it as an ‘anti romantic novel’ congenial!
    I think Elizabeth Gaskell would be delighted that readers are still so interested in it, as she thought that it could never rival George Eliot’s ‘Adam Bede’.

  5. Thanks so much – that’s a load of interesting Sylvia’s Lovers articles for me to check out there! I’m particularly interested in the one called ‘The Making of Sylvia’s Lovers’. I’ve always been fascinated by the making of the book – all the indecision of the title and Kinraid’s name, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s visit to Whitby – and I’ve been finding it hard to get information on it. Have you read Frances O Gormon’s introduction to his edition of Sylvia’s Lovers? Among other things it explores the similarities between Sylvia’s Lovers and Wuthering Heights, which is another one of my favourite books.

  6. Not read that one, ide. I’ll have to get round to looking at that. That influence must be there, when we think how recently Elizabeth Gaskell had written Charlotte Bronte’s biography.
    On the Bronte’s, have you read Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’? Now, there’s a book I consider to be greatly underestimated.

  7. Yes, I have read the ‘Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, Lucinda. Brilliant, isn’t it? I absolutely love all the Brontës works. I’ve read all their works except Villette, which I mean to read as soon as I can.

  8. Thank you! I love reading classics. Yes, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has a beautiful moral and a wonderfully determined heroine. The Brontës are great for creating strong female characters.

  9. By the way, did you know that Tennyson’s poem ‘Enoch Arden’ was inspired by Sylvia’s Lovers? Apparently Tennyson acknowledged the influence himself. Like Sylvia’s Lovers, Enoch Arden is about a lost sailor who returns home to find his love has thought him dead and married. The name of Enoch’s rival is ‘Phillip’ and the ship he sails in is called the ‘Good Fortune’ like Kinraid’s ship. I read the poem and found it lovely, but unbearably sad.

  10. I had read that somewhere., Ide, and that Gaskell’s story was in turn inspired by a poem about impessment called ‘Ruth’ by Crabbe. To my shame, I have yet to read either.

  11. Yes! I’d heard about Ruth. I haven’t read the whole poem but an old illustrated edition of Sylvia’s Lovers I posses (the same one you show an image of in your post) quotes part of it in the introduction. It’s pretty fierce against press-gangs, but I approve of that. Sylvia’s Lovers has made me fuming with anger against them, although I guess they were needed to man the Navy. Napoleon is really the one to be blamed.

    1. Ha, Ha, Ide, the press gang was iniquitous, but oddly enough, seen as more acceptable than national conscription. It was, of course, a brutal age, and one piece of injustice among many. I’d say myself that both Napoleon (for converting the French Revolution into a war of conquest) and the Imperial powers for trying to restore monarchial rule, were to blame. I gather that as the wars dragged on naval captains were ordered to muster a crew to leave port, by whatever means… I believe that when E Gaskell was a young woman, it was her dream to write like Crabbe.

  12. The main reason that impressment seems to me worse than conscription is that people are torn away from their families and sweethearts without even being allowed to say goodbye, which is pretty horrible and – as we both know from Sylvia’s Lovers – can result in terrible misunderstandings! It’s a very moving scene in the beginning of Sylvia’s Lovers when the whales are returning, eager to see their families again, and are pressed just as they’ve landed. I believe it was a rule with impressment that sailors outward bound couldn’t be pressed, only homecoming ships. Unfortunately this rule makes it even more upsetting for the whalers, who are, as Daniel Robson expresses it – ‘cotched up’ just as they are coming ashore.

  13. I discovered that the press-gang’s ‘foul trick’ of bringing out the villagers by ringing the fire-bell (which makes me furious!) was a real incident in Whitby. While writing Sylvia’s Lovers Mrs Gaskell was staying in the house of a woman who I think might have been called Mrs Rose (though I’m not sure). Apparently Mrs Rose’s grandmother had been in the riot when the Rendezvous was set on fire, and had heard William Atkinson (the real life leader of the riot) say the very words Gaskell later used in Sylvia’s Lovers – i.e ‘If a was as young as onest a was, a’d have t’ Randyvowse down, and mak’ a bonfire on it. We’d ring t’ fire-bell then t’ some purpose.’. I found this piece of information fascinating!

  14. I found this – among lots of interesting Sylvia’s Lovers information – in a book called ‘Mrs Gaskell – Haunts, Homes and Stories’. I also figured out that Haytersbank Farm was based on a real house. The house used to be owned by Du Maurier, who is, I think, the illustrator of the edition of Sylvia’s Lovers I mentioned earlier. But Haytersbank has now been turned into a golf club house! In my opinion, the people who turned it into a club house deserve to be impressed!!

  15. Very diligent research, Ide. I knew that Elizabeth Gaskell stayed with someone called Rose, but not that the underhand fire bell trick was based on reality.
    Interesting about there being an original of ‘Haytersbank Farm’. It’s a great shame it hasn’t be preserved properly.

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