Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Protagonists and Antagonists and More Farce


Clarissa and LovelaceCaricature-1780-press_gangLucinda Elliot, ascending platform:

OK, so I am back again after escaping the clutches of that press gang in that time warp occasioned by my last post; here I am, restored to being a blogger sitting at my pc and typing up a geeky post and planning on making a cup of tea…

On protagonists and antagonists in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ then –(glances nervously about; no sign of anyone in old fashioned dress in the cyber hall). I have bored on about this before a fair amount.

Why does Gaskell have two male leads, and unsatisfactory ones at that, both a bit too inclined to the stereotypical, though in opposite ways? Why is one a cardboard hero type, one his shadow image?

It is almost as if Gaskell had drawn up a balance sheet and listed qualities on either side of it for Kinraid (clearly meant to be Sylvia’s notion of her ideal man) and Hepburn, something like this: –

Credit and Debit

Kinraid  (credit) Handsome

Hepburn (debit) Plain

Kinraid (credit) Recklessly brave

Hepburn (debit) Cautious

Kinraid  (credit) Sociable

Hepburn (debit) Withdrawn

Kinraid (questionable credit) Womaniser

Hepburn (debit) Invisible to women

Kinraid (credit) Jolly life and soul of the party

Hepburn (debit) Wallflower

Kinraid (credit) Raconteur

Hepburn (debit) Can’t tell a tale to
save his life

Philip Hepburn, then, is (in so far as past centuries understood these terms) totally uncool and a complete nerd.

And so on, with Hepburn’s only plus points being:

Kinraid  Light minded (debit)

Hepburn Serious and some (questionable credit)

Kinraid Reputation for fickleness (debit)

Hepburn Unswervingly constant (credit)

These latter qualities are the ones that swing it for Hepburn with Sylvia in the end and lead to their reconciliation on his deathbed.

Here, however, I don’t want to explore that (general sighs of relief from small cyber audience impressed into cyber room). I’ve done that often enough in past posts)  – but the question of why Gaskell, having posed the problem of having two opposing male leads, then went on to develop Philip Hepburn enough for him to come alive in the reader’s eyes, and left Charley Kinraid an oddly unrealised character.

12618f13I personally do not find Hepburn’s protestant ethic oriented, sexually repressed and grimly humourless persona remotely congenial; but I do concede the author makes a good job of bringing the character to life in the author’s eyes. I find his silence about his rival’s impressment, and not passing on his love message to Sylvia, so dismal that I could never bring myself to like him, but again the author does a clever job of providing excuses for him (Kinraid’s reputation as a heartbreaker as related by Coulson, etc; Bessy Corney’s insistence that she was engaged to him at the same time that he became engaged to Syvia, etc).

Graham Handley comments: –

‘Seen in terms of depths and sympathy, Philip is Kinraid’s superior on every count. It must be admitted that the amount of space devoted to each is uneven, and that we know and live with Philip as we do not know and live with Kinraid; we see Kinraid, his tenderness and his heartiness, his stance and his impact, from the outside. We share Philip’s reactions, temptations, frustrations, anguish and later physical agony from the inside.’

This is the crux of the problem. Philip Hepburn is given vivid life through internalisation; Charley Kinraid is not.

This might be because, as Jane Spencer suggests, the whaler is not cerebral or given much to original thought anyway (even if he can spin a fine yarn), so that Gaskell does not think his mental processes would be of much interest to the reader.

Or it may be, as Graham Handley suggests in his excellent ‘Oxford Notes’ on the novel, because mystery, about his motivations, history and his thought processes ends an element of fascination to the character: –

‘His colourful appeal is more important than the qualities of his mind…Gaskell does not give him depth; what she does do, with tamtalizing art, is to leave us always in doubt about him.
Nothing stimulates an interest in character so much as mystery; the mystery of half knowing the characters we meet. Is Kinraid’s reputation justified? Is Sylvia the real love of his life? Is he, in fact, a man whose eye is always on the main chance? His career, and advantageous marriage, would tend to reinforce this view…’

John MacVicar (the literary critic, not the ancient villain) suggests that Charley Kinraid was in fact Elizabeth Gaskell’s original hero, as is indicated by the fact her original title was ‘The Specksioneer’ but that her focus of interest changed over time (especially as it took her an unusually long time to write this novel; perhaps so much as three and a half years) to Philip Hepburn, the original antagonist.

As nobody who reads this blog can fail to know, I find this novel particularly fascinating for many reasons; but it is also intriguing as one where the antagonist has in fact, taken over through having too strong a voice.

I know from my own experience that giving the antagonist too vivid a voice can be a danger.highwayman_body

While I make no claims to have depicted in the antagonist of my spoof historical romance ‘Ravensdale’ as vivid an antagonist as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Philip Hepburn, I did, nevertheless, depict his consciousness.

This was partly because I found the motivation of pure greed of so many of the villains of historical romances using the clichéd theme I satirized – Wild Young Viscount is framed for murderer by machinations of a Conniving Cousin and next in line to an Earldom –-unsatisfactory; why shouldn’t unrequited love play a part, battling with envy?

But, here I encountered a problem; a number of readers tell me that they find my antagonist Edmund Ravensdale, despite his duplicitous behaviour, more sympathetic, precisely because they had access to his thoughts as they did not for those of the frequently insensitive but generally straightforward and open-hearted Reynaud Ravensdale.

There is of course, that cliché , ‘to know all is to forgive all’. This is fascinating food for thought.

End of Sane Bit of Post: Now for some absurdity…

[A familiar figure in eighteenth century naval captain’s uniform enters at the back of the hall.]

Lucinda Elliot [Turns, outraged]: Well, would you credit it! Here’s that Charley Kinraid back again. After I had ripped his character to shreds last week. Some of these fictitious creations have got an incredible nerve!..[waxes thoughtful].But in line with ‘To know all is to forgive all’ come and have that tot of rum…

Charley Kinraid: Now, that is more civil, I’ll take that kindly… And what’s more, so will t’other Seven Most Annoying Heroes you used such hard words of in yon post, namely: – Georgette Heyer’s  Marquis Vidal, Mary Renault’s Theseus, James Bond, Heathcliff, Charles Garvice’s Heriot Fayne, Viscount of Somewhere I’ve Forgotten and not forgetting Georgette Heyer’s Ludovic Lavenham, Earl of Somewhere Else…Rinaldo in pub

James Bond: Bond, James Bond, 0000007 [I’m in semi-retirement].

Theseus [strides in, followed by half a dozen adoring war prizes]: By the Great Lord Zeus, not a robber left on the Corinth Peninsula.

Heathcliff [goes over to kick in window to make the decor resemble that at Wuthering Heights] Curse it all, I have no pity! Let the worms writhe!

Vidal: Damme, by Hell and the Devil! A Plague Take Me! What was I saying? Clean forgot what I was saying…Many hands make light work, mayhap?

Ludovic Lavenham: [shoots out lights in chandelier] Whose for a game of cards? [throws down talisman ring]

Heriot Fayne: I’ll play in the dark. Give me a gargle of whisky…What am I saying? I promised What’s-her-name – the heroine in my book, that’s right, Eva –-I’d reform.

Lucinda Elliot [shouting over racket]: I can only apologise to the reader for these continual interruptions; normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

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2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ Protagonists and Antagonists and More Farce

  1. Having learned so much about ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ from you, Lucinda, I feel I now have to read it! I like such of Gaskell’s works as I’ve read, so there’s really no reason why not.

    Can I borrow the ‘Curse it all, I have no pity! Let the worms writhe!’ quote? 🙂

  2. Hello, Mari. I’m flattered I’ve stimulated your interest in SL. As with much of Gaskell’s work, there’s the combination of the realistic and the wildly melodramatic. I’ll be interested in your reaction to SL. ‘I have no pity! Let the worms writhe’ was pinched by me from Bronte anyway; it’s what Heathcliffe says of Isabella when Nelly rebukes him for his treatment of her. I probably only remembered the quote myself because I’ve always rescued worms from the pavement…

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