Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’: A Melancholy Story with a Happy Ending

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I first read Anne Brontë’s ‘Agnes Grey’ a long time ago – in my early twenties – about the time that I first read ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

I believe a fair number of people consider it her masterpiece in its brevity and tight plotting. I can see it has those features, but I can’t agree that it is the better story . I infinitely prefer the excitement and Gothic drama of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ – but then, as a writer of Gothic myself, ‘I would say that, wouldn’t I?’

There are arguably faults in the structure of ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’;  I don’t know if the ‘story within a story structure’ used in it – also famously used by Emily Brontė in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – is the best method of revealing Helen Huntingdon’s former history.  I personally think a series of shorter flashbacks might be more engrossing – but there are valid objections to two parralel stories as more confusing. It is a problem I know from my own experience when writing ‘Ravensdale’.  There are also notorious faults in character portrayal in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ and other weaknesses.

Overall, thoughy,  I found ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ to be a gripping story in the way that the quiet tale of the dismal existence of the unfortunate early Victorian governess is not. Probably, then, it is a matter of taste.

After all, defenders of the story would say that the quiet tone is the point. The story was written to highlight the miserable position of the governess in the UK of the mid nienteenth century, and could not by its very nature be exciting. Agnes Grey’s lonely existence as a governess contains precious little excitement, pleasure or even peace.

In her position as a social inferior to the family, while also not part of the domestic staff,  she has nobody on her side, and no-one to talk to. She has no social life, and anyway, her wretched salary – £25 a year – is too low for her to be able to socialise, even if she could find a respectable escort to chaperone her.  The families for whom she works don’t even assume that as a young girl she might actually want a little fun. In fact, her feelings are not considered at all.

She has a foreshadowing of this when she arrives at her first post after a long, cold journey: ‘The cold wind had swelled and reddened my hands, entangled and uncurled my hair, and dyed my face a of a pale purple. ..(Mrs Bloomfield) led me into the dining-room where the family luncheon  had been laid out. Some beefsteaks and half cold potatoes were set before me, and while I dined upon these, she sat opposite, watching me (as I thought) and endeavouring to sustain something like a conversation. ..In fact, my attention was almost wholly absorbed I my dinner; not from ravenous appetite, but from distress at the toughness of the beefsteaks, and the numbness of  my hands, almost palsied by their five hours exposure to the bitter windWith a feeble attempt at a laugh, I said, ‘My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I an scarcely handle my knife and fork.’ ‘I dare say you would find it cold,’ replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to re-assure me.’

Unfortunately for Agnes, the husband is even less approachable and often downright rude, while the children are  not only completely undisciplined and unmanageable, but impossible to teach. The parents will not back up any of Agnes’ attempts to get them to learn their lessons. Meanwhile they constantly complain of their offsprings’ apparently learning nothing.

Not only that, but some of the family members encourage the obnoxious ‘Master Tom’ in his cruelty to animals, culminating in the notorious scene where Agnes immediately kills a brood of nestlings rather than leave them to his torments.

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Her next post is not quite as exhausting. Her charges are older, while the two unruly boys are sent off to boarding school after some months. Still, the vain Rosalie and the hoydenish Matilda Murray make life anything but easy for Agnes, and the constant snubs that were a governess’ daily lot are a source of great unhappiness to the sensitive Agnes:

‘…(As) none of the afore-mentioned gentlemen and ladies ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.

If the Bloomfields – who are portrayed as nouveau riche – are ill mannered in their treatment of a dependant, it seems extraordinary that more established families would not have been taught more gracious manners.

Finally, Agnes does find love and happiness. This is after a sub-plot involving the heartless predatory flirtatiousness of Rosalie, who having humiliated the arrogant Rector, moves on to other potential victims.

On the characters in the novel, some of these are excellently done, though it is a shame that so few of them are more likable. In fact, Agnes comments on this dearth of congenial minds about her.  No doub it is based on the author’s own experience in the posts she occupied as governess,  as critics have often noted how both of Agnes’ employer’s families are based on the two for which she worked as govenress.

My own impression is that while the ending is a happy  one, it is so muted in tone that the pervasive melancholy of the novel is what struck me in this reading as much as last time. There is too little happiness in it, coming in at the very end.  Unlike Victorian readers, I find ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ far less distressing. The humour there is more robust, and so is the temperament of the heroine.

Many other governesses in fiction have a less dismal time of it.  Charlotte Brontë’s Jayne Eyre, is plunged into Gothic adventures despite her lowly position as governess, but this is solely dependent on the whims of her master Mr Rochester, who is obliging enough to fall in love with her. I have to admit that I enjoyed that Gothic story, too, far more than the low key and realistic ‘Agnes Grey’.

A story that I didn’t enjoy – though full of wild and improbable adventure involving a governess – is the 1895 one by Charles Garvice that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, ‘The Marquis’.

This novel, which ranks as literature rather lower than that of the Brontė  sisters, revolves around the said Marquis falling in love with his governess. He has been decidedly wicked, but he repents very soon after meeting the noble Constance , governess to his annoying   Little Lord Fauntleroy-esque annoying nephew. She has been forced to earn her living as a governess after her father becomes insane after discovering a formula which rivals that of the Alchemists.

Though the Marquis eyes have to flash and Constance has to turn from red to white (but never blue) innumberable times during the improbable happenings that follow, the happy ending is naturally a foregone conclusion. Written as appalingly as only Charles Garvice can, this heroine of this piece of nonsense is so unsympathetic that for my own part, I felt far more anxiety about the fate of Matilda Murray’s  terrier, sold to the cruel local rat catcher, but finally rescued by the hero.

More on Antagonists: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and the Eponymous Lovers as Antagonists.

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Following on from my recent post about antagonists, it is interesting how that role is often played by an inhuman character, and can even be an impersonal force. Sometimes, the identity of the antagonist can even appear to shift from one character to another: one formerly not perceived as an antagonist can become one as regards the protagonist’s aims and goals.

How far this is deliberate obviously varies. In older novels the antagonist, of course, was largely seen as ‘the villain’ and was as often as not fairly obvious, like Count Dracula. Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian times.

Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian timesThese days, all writers are far more aware of the mechanics of plot, character development, the necessity of a strong antagonist, and so on.

The shifting role of who is the antagonist is particularly intriguing in one of my favourite classic Victorian stories, Elizabeth Gakelll’s Sylvia’s Lovers. How far this is intentional I find it hard to assess: perhaps the author did it unconsciously.

In the beginning, the antagonist comes across clearly as an impersonal force, the use and abuse of the press gang to recruit sailors by force to fight in the French Revolutionary Wars. In depicting how this changes, I can’t make this point without detailing the plot at various points as I discuss the antagonist aspect. I hope regular readers who have read other articles about this favourite novel of mine will bear with me.

In the second chapter we see a press gang taking the crew of a whaler as it returns from Greenland. A riot breaks out amongst the townsfolk of Monkshaven (Whitby), then a busy whaling port. The passionate, untamed and pretty teenage Sylvia Robson reacts with violent longing to join in the riot. Her shopman cousin Philip Hepburn, who is anything but her idea of a man, regards that as ridiculous in a young girl. His own view is that ‘it’s the law and you can’t do anything about it’.

It was not legal for the press gang to impress whalemen, who were supposedly protected by law from their encroachments. Least of all was it legal to impress them as they returned for six months’ away in the Greenland Seas. In practice these regulations were ignored: any Naval captain was expected to make up his crew with few scruples and much expediency.

For instance, In the Hornblower series, Horatio Hornblower as an naval lieutenant and then as a captain knows, and quietly endorses, the press gang working for his ship taking ‘country bumpkins’ who have obviously never been near the sea in their lives. Its remit is limited to ‘seagoing men’ and I believe, ‘vagabonds’, but this bending of the rules is seen as an unfortunate necessity: without flouting the regulations a captain could not get enough of a crew to leave port. This is a fact to be taken into account when we come to the later career of the gallant rebel, Sylvia’s love object Charley Kinraid.

What can be termed ‘the inciting incident’ of the story, which sets off Sylvia’s infatuation for the Specksioneer Kinraid , is caused by his showy heroic defiance of the gang who come to impress the crew of The Good Fortune.

This tale is recounted to the impressionable Sylvia and her family by the tailor Donkin when he visits their farm. He recounts how Kinraid stood over the hatches, armed with a whaling knife and two pistols, and declares: ‘He has two good pistols, and summat besides, and he don’t care for his life, being a bachelor, but all below are married men, you see, and he’ll put an end to the first two chaps who come near the hatches…’

Stirring heroism, indeed. He does just that with the first two who approach, and for my own part I had to feel for those men, unscrupulous or not, when they were ordinary sailors themselves, and under orders to obey or face hanging for mutiny.

In fact, there is another single man in the crew below, Kinraid’s friend Darley. He does however, have a bedridden sister, though alsi a father living and working for the Vicar, so perhaps that is the reason he is seen as having dependants.

The gang shoot down Kinraid and kick him aside for dead, and fire into the hold, killing Darley, and taking off the others.

Sylvia is agog to hear if Kinraid will survive his wounds. In fact, He is lucky that he was ‘kicked aside for dead’, as if he hadn’t been asssumed to have been killed, he would have been tried for mutiny. She goes to enquire after him of his cousins, the Corneys, and at the same time, arranges to go to Darley’s funeral with Molly Corney. Here, she meets Kinraid, whom two sailor friends have carried up the famous steps to the church. Although he looks like a living corpse, she is still very taken with him, ‘Full of shy admiration of the nearest approach to a hero that she had ever seen.’

Few young men could resist the lure of such a pretty admirer, and when her father, Daniel Robson, himself a former whaler, invites Kinraid to come and visit them, he takes up the invitation and impresses the girl with tales of sea adventures and smuggling. Besides, as he recovers, he regains his looks, with his waving dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and equally flashing white teeth. He is reputedly, besides, the ‘boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’ (poor whales; nobody, not even the humane author, seemed to think of them). He is generally a wholly fitting object for Sylvia’s girlish admiration.

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Meanwhile, she has another, largely silent but dogged admirer in her cousin Hepburn. He has a killjoy attitude to harmless fun, having been raised by puritanically devout people who disapprove of all festivity and high spirits, even in the young. Alice Rose, with whom he lives along with his fellow shopman William Coulson, was once a pretty, blooming girl who insisted on marrying the wicked whaler Jack Rose; she is now so embittered that she regards any worldly ambition as futile.

William Coulson’s late sister Annie was once courted by Kinraid back in Newcastle for a couple of years, but he broke off things when he saw another girl he preferred. Rumour has it that after that, he moved on from that girl in turn when he saw yet another he liked better. Annie Coulson subsequently died within six months, and Coulson puts it down to a broken heart.

Besides being solemn, Philip has an unprepossessing appearance with an indoor complexion and a long upper lip. He is wholly tame and seemingly lacking in masculinity in comparison to the dashing Kinraid. He has a blind spot about his obsessive infatuation with Sylvia; he cannot see that his plan to win the lively, ignorant, thoughtless girl through rising to become the owner of the drapers where he works, and through teaching her to read, is, to say the least, ill thought out.

It is worth pointing out here that Sylvia seems as infatuated at this point with adventures in the Greenland Seas as she does with the man Charley Kinraid himself. Hilary Schoer makes the astute point that Sylvia, as a girl with a restricted and largely domestic role, cannot aspire to such adventures herself. Though she dreams of these, she is compelled to sublimate by playing the female role and falling in love with the man who personifies those adventuers in her eyes.

Kinraid goes back to sea, but fifteen months later he attends a New Year’s party to which Hepburn escorts Sylvia, and on this visit, he courts her passionately – to the annoyance of both Hepburn and Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney, who regards herself as unofficially engaged to him. It is typical of Kinraid’s extrovert character that he finishes up the New Year festivities by dancing a hornpipe. This is in fact what Wiley Ben does at a festivity in Adam Bede, but while his performance is depicted as ludicrous, no doubt Kinraid’s is executed with style.
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Before he sails to Greenland, Kinraid comes to ask Sylvia to marry him with suitable directness and dash: ‘Ever since I saw yo’ in the corner of the kitchen, sitting crouching behind my uncle, I as good as swore I’d have yo’ for my wife, or never wed at all.’ She cannot believe her luck. When the next day, Hepburn turns up to tell her of Kinraid’s reputation as a ‘light o’ love’ and the story of Annie Coulson she dismisses it as a ‘back biting tale’.

The next day Heburn walks along the beach the seven miles to Hartlepool, it being the most direct route (It is an interesting comment on how used to walking people were in this era that Hepburn, who follows a despised and sedentary occupation, does this with ease). To his dismay, he sees Kinraid walking ahead of him on his way back to Newcastle. By a bitter irony (or a karmic test), Hepburn is the only witness when Kinraid is taken by a press gang.

He leaves a message with Hepburn for Sylvia. Outrageously, after hearing more talk of Kinraid’s past behaviour with women in a Newcastle pub, Hepburn decides against telling her the truth. He will not let Sylvia make her own mistakes. The community at Monkshaven, finding Kinraid’s hat washed up on the shore, assume he has somehow been drowned, and Hepburn remains silent. Whatever the reader might think of Charley Kinraid’s character, this an appalling piece of treachery.

At this point in the novel, from the point of view of Sylvia as protagonist, Hepburn largely takes over from the press gang as the antagonist, in that he is the chief block to her achieving her wishes.

While Sylvia mourns Kinraid and the happiness she is sure she would have shared with him, Hepburn – helped by dread, impersonal forces when the foolish Daniel Robson is hanged for leading a crowd to burn the press gang’s headquarters – continues to act to thwart the heroine’s natural inclinations. His aunt Bell Robson loses her mind under the strain. Sylvia and the labourer Kester struggle on to try and keep the farm going, but now the dispirited Sylvia gives up on the fight. Kester urges her, ‘Dunnot go and marry a man as thou’s noane taken wi’, and another, as is most like for t’b e dead, but who, mebbe, is alive, havin’ a pull on thy heart.’

That is exactly what Sylvia does. She feels imprisoned in the house behind the shop in town. It is a dismal marriage for her; she is unable to forget Kinraid. She and Hepburn are unsuited.
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It is never made clear whether she is actually physically indifferent to him or whether she is actively repelled by him. As a respectable Victorian writer, Gaskell would have considered it wholly inappropriate to make this explicit, or even to dwell too much on it. Possibly because of this, it is possible to read too much into the fact that one of the chapters in the first volume is called ‘Attraction and Repulsion’ – the said ‘repulsion’ may reflect more on the behaviour of iron and magnets than anything.

This is the period of Hepburn’s greatest success in both his working life and his personal life. Still, he finds that marriage to the now quiet and docile Sylvia a disappointment; he misses the old lively one. He remains the antagonist as far as Sylvia’s goals are concerned, save for her having the baby Bella, which is an endless source of delight to her.

Then, of course, Charley Kinraid returns. He is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, having been promoted for his participation in Sir Sidney Smith’s adventures. While Sylvia and Kinraid’s indignation and disgust at Hepburn’s dishonesty are ferocious. Unfortunately, I have to say – slightly off topic – that part of the writing here is absurd in some places, if tragic in others.

For instance: ‘This is Kinraid come back again to wed me. He is alive; he has never been dead…’ Well, he wouldn’t exactly be likely to have been dead and then alive, would he? That doesn’t tend to happen in this world with ordinary mortals. Then there are Kinraid’s own speeches, which have a stereotypical, cardboard flavour about them: ‘Take that!…Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he paid an honest sailor.’

Anyway, although she refuses to leave with Kinraid, Sylvia swears an oath never to forgive Hepburn or to live with him as his wife again. Hepburn, overcome with shame, packs a few possessions and runs away to join the army. He has the idea that if he can return as a hero too, she might forgive him. Presumably, Sylvia does not give any thought to Kinraid’s certain role in raising press gangs now he is a naval officer himself, as she keeps her high opinion of him. At the Siege of Acre Hepburn comes across a wounded Kinraid (this man really is indestructable) and rescues him. However, shortly afterwards, he is horribly disfigured by an explosion. Unfitted for service and unrecognisable, he drifts home to live in a state of semi starvation.

Meanwhile, Sylvia has learnt some disturbing news. Within seven months of their dramatic parting, Kinraid has married someone else, a pretty, superficial heiress. Now Sylvia is humiliated, indignant against Kinraid, mortified that he has been able to forget her so quickly and replace her with someone else. She bitterly says, ‘I’m speaking like a woman,  like a woman as finds out she’s been cheated by men  as she trusted, and has no help for it.’  She tells Hester Rose, ‘Those as  one thinks t’most on, forgets one soonest.’ Sylvia may not be cerebral; but she clearly sees that both men, through their vastly differing temperements, have failed to keep faith with her.

I have often been puzzled by the depiction of Charley Kinraid.  He is almost always depicted externally, and he is not, in fact, in the novel very much, though he has such a catastrophic effect on the lives of the others. Graham Handley suggests that this element of mystery is a deliberate ploy on Elizabeth Gaskell’s part to make the character more intriguing, for when the reader is given access to his thoughts, they are not very interesting. Perhaps it is significant that when he thinks himself to be dying at the Seiege of Acre, he pities his ‘new made wife’ for losing him.

As Arthur Pollard remarks, ‘ It might be said that Kinraid is hardly individualised enough to carry the weigh the part he is given… On Kinraid’s return there seems to be a certain inadequacy in his response, a conventional theatrical quality…Finally, however, he shows that he really is just conventional. By marrying the superficial woman we hear about, he is shown to be superficial himself, as superficial as some people said he was and the reader has at times suspected.’

This is an astute approach of the author’s. Now, Sylvia experiences disillusionment with the man she has idolised for years. ‘I think I’ll niver call him Kinraid agin.’ If Hepburn has broken the first commandment in worshipping Sylvia, she has done the same with Kinraid.

At the end of the story Sylvia is reconciled with Hepburn, who has done some more heroics in rescuing their daughter from the waves.  To some extent, he has changed places with Kinraid in her eyes. Now, in an odd reversal of roles, he is the wounded, corpse like hero.  Previously, Hepburn formed a human barrier between Sylvia and the fulfilment of her dream – marriage to Charley Kinraid.  Now it seems to her that she has discovered her mistake about Kinraid’s shallowness too late. In a revulsion of feeling,  she sees her long infatuation with him as having served as a barrier to any chance of happiness with Hepburn, even though her cousin did marry her under false pretences. She even excuses Hepburn’s former treachery: ‘Thou thought he was faitthless and fickle, and so he were.’  Whatever the truth of that, she loses them both.

Overall, as some modern critics have argued, Sylvia cannot make a right choice between her eponymous lovers, as neither of them has shown himself worthy of her trust. Neither could be a satisfactory partner to her in the long run. Kinraid is handsome and dynamic but superficial and opportunistic. If Hepburn had behaved honourably, passed on his message, and Sylvia had duly married Kinraid on his return, she would certainly have been disillusioned fairly soon.  Hepburn is deeply devoted but plain looking and dismal  and  selfishly keeps Sylvia from making her own mistakes through his obsession with her. He can only be unselfishly loving at the end of his life.

Thus, arguably, both male leads can be said also to play the part of antagonists regarding Sylvia’s happiness; Hepburn through his imprisoning devotion, Kinraid through being a false idol.

I was flattered that someone had made a meme out of my ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ summary on social media. The problem is, that I can’t enlarge the copy I took of it enough to maake it legible, so I will quote it instead:

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds dissilusionment. Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ by Elizabeth Gaskell: An Excellent Classic Ghost Story for Christmas

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A ghost story is always particularly enjoyable at Christmas.

Last Christmas, I recommended ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen, a comically grotesque ghost story.

A few weeks ago, I recommended a modern one – Mari Biella’s modern ghost story, the stirring  ‘Dark Moon Fell’ as excellent reading in the run up for Christmas.

Here is one of my favourite classic ghost stories,  a decidedly spine chilling one, which I first read many years ago when I was about twelve. It is called ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’  and  was the first story I read by Elizabeth Gaskell’.

This story, which is to be found in various anthologies of classic ghost stories, was written for the Christmas edition of Charles Dickens’ ‘Household Words’ in 1852.

The tale is recounted in the first person by, naturally, the said ‘Old Nurse’ and is about a chilling experience she shared with their mother, ‘Miss Rosamond’ then a small child newly orphaned. Hester has been working for Rosamond’s  mother, who was the grand-daughter of Lord Furnivall in Northumberland, who had married a curate and lived with him in his Westmorland parsonage.

On the sudden death of Rosamond’s young parents, Rosamolnd is sent with Hester to live with a maternal relative, the great-aunt of the current Lord Furnivall, at  Furnivall Manor House at the foot of the Cumberland Fells.

The house is a rambling  isolated mansion and Miss Furnivall and her companion Mrs. Stark are very old and melancholy. Altogether, the surroundings fill both the young nurse and her charge with awe:

‘At one end of the hall was a great fireplace, as large as the sides of houses in my country, with massy andirons and dogs to hold the wood, and by it were heavy old fashioned sofas. At the opposite end of the hall, to the left as you went in – on the western side – was an organ built into the wall, and so large that it filled up the best part of that end…’

However, the two old servants, James and Dorothy are friendly. They, and a maid to do the rough work, make up the staff. The aged Miss Furnivall and Mrs Stark soon become very fond of Rosamond.

The east wing of the house is shut up, but Rosamond takes Hester exploring all over the north and west parts of the house,. Here they find many fascinating things, though the windows are darkened by the sweeping boughs of the trees and the ivy growing up the sides of the building.

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They come on portraits of Miss Grace Furnivall as she had been in her youth, and another young women resembling her, whom Dorothy says was her sister.

There is a sinister atmosphere about the house.  Now the winter sets in, and after dark, Hester she often hears peals of someone playing the organ in the hall. The other staff insist that it must be the wind; but Bessy, the kitchen maid, tells Hester that: ‘Folks do say that it was the old lord playing on the organ in the hall just as he used to do when he was alive.’

When Hester peeps into the organ, she sees that it has fallen into ruin inside, though it still looks impressive from the outside.

‘That winter was very cold. In the middle of October the frosts began, and lasted many, many weeks. I remember one day at dinner, Miss Furnival lifted up her sad, heavy eyes,and said to Mrs. Stark, ‘I am afraid we shall have a terrible winter,’ in a strange kind of meaning way. But Mrs. Stark pretended not to hear, and talked very loud of something else…’

One day Rosamond goes missing after dark, and after searching all over the house, Hester thinks to  look outside, and sees her footprints in the snow going across the court and out onto the Fells. Hester follows them and comes upon Rosamond being carried by an old shepherd, who had found her under a holly tree:  ‘In the terrible sleep which is frost begotten’.

When back at the hall they revive her.  She tells them that she saw a little girl out in the snow, beckoning for her to come out. Hester only saw one set of footprints, and rebukes her charge for making up stories. Rosamond weeps and says that she is telling the truth; that the little girl took her by the hand – and hers was very cold – and led her up to the holly trees on the Fell, and there was,  ‘A lady, weeping and crying; but when she saw me, she hushed her weeping, and smiled very proud and grand, and took me on her knee, and began to lull me to sleep…’

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Furnivall Hall is indeed haunted, and these ghosts scheme to lure little  Rosamond away with them.  At last, Dorothy tells Hester the tragic old story behind these visitations. Hester swears to stay in the sinister house and protect her charge…

I recommend this story as a brilliant example of the traditional type of ghost story, with an isolated haunted house. Set on the snowy deserted Northumberland Fells, it makes an excellent spine chilling read for Christmas.

Review of Rhoda Broughton’s ‘The Game and the Candle’: A Romantic Novel With An Unhappy For Now Ending

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These days, it is a firm convention of romantic novels that there must be a happy ending – otherwise, it confounds reader expectations.

While some writers and readers hold out that a ‘happy for now’ is sufficient – ie, it is left up to the reader to decide whether the new found happiness between hero and heroine can last for long  – that is generally about as much of a challenge to the requisite ‘HEA’ as you will come by in a romantic novel: anyway, one that is written for the market.

Interesting, is that back in the nineteenth century this was not so. Many of the stories which in all other respects were clearly the precursors of the modern romantic novel, did not have happy endings at all.

Sometimes, this was possibly a moral requirement: there had been adultery, say, and in order to satisfy the moral requirements of the genre in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the guilty pair must be punished.

This lack of a conventional happy ending was what particularly intrigued me about a novel I read a few weeks ago by the late Victorian novelist Rhoda Broughton. It made me want to sample some more by this writer, now virtually forgotten.

This author, who wrote light fiction generally for escapist purposes, could be said often to have written romances. But this one that I read, while in style and theme so like a romantic novel, has an end which borders on the grim.

True, nobody dies in the story, except two older people in bad health, whose deaths are necessary for the plot, and neither are characters the reader has come to know. Still, the story ends with bitter disillusionment for the heroine, who has sacrificed a fortune and the close friendship of a true lover for the superficial attractions of the male lead. As for the male lead, he clearly considers himself heartbroken  – though equally clearly, there will be a rush of women eager to console him.

This was called, ‘The Game and the Candle’.  Here it is described by Wickipedia:

The Game and the Candle (1899) is like Jane Austen‘s Persuasion (1818) rewritten. Only this time the heroine has married for rational reasons and is freed in the beginning for her true love, which reason forbade her to marry years before. Her dying husband’s last will forces her to decide between love and fortune. However, a renewed encounter with her former lover forces her to see it was actually a good thing she had not married him. His love turns to be too shallow for her happiness. The novel is one of a mature and wise woman who has seen the world.

The story begins with the protagonist’s Jane’s husband, Henry Etheridge, who, in his late fifties, is thirty years older than she is, on his deathbed. He tries to exact a promise from her that she will not after his death marry the man with whom he overheard her exchanging love vows five years ago.

After that, Jane told this man, the fair, althletic,handsome,  lively young Jack Miles, that they must part. Her husband says:

‘It is because I wish you well that I am going to make a request to you… When you replace me—my stipulation is that it is not by the—person of whom you took leave five years ago beside the fountain in the circular garden.’

If she does not make this promise, he will disinherit her.

She refuses to make it, though asking for her husband’s forgiveness for being unable to.

Jane’s friend through all these years has been her husband’s intellectual secretary, Willy Clarendon,who is also a distant cousin of her own.  She hardly regards him as a man at all, but there are sufficient hints that he is in love with her.

He is given five hundred pounds through a legacy. He also suggests that Jane, now badly off by the standards in which she has been living since her marriage, must spend the period of her deep mourning – then a year – living near his sisters in Richmond, Surrey ( now virtually part of London; then a leafy village).

The house is described as very small, and she sees herself as relatively poor. Still, as she has two drawing rooms, has no  need to work, and can afford a couple of servants – it won’t strike many modern readers that she suffers from a dismal standard of living. However, as she has been used to living in a stately home, it is something of a come down. Anyway, she is happy to have sacrificed wealth for true love.

They are both well aware that after that time, Jane will be in contact once again with the young man who exiled himself in California after their  mutual love declaration.

Meanwhile, Jane cannot pretend to be overcome with grief at her loss:

Clarendon says: –  “ Would it be possible—just for the present —just while you are out of doors, and liable to ill-natured comments, to—to—look a little less – ‘

‘Radiant’ suggests she, with great distinctness of utterance, though face and neck are in a blaze. ‘ Thank you for the hint. I will try.”’

Another person who lives nearby is – fortuitously for Jane – Lady Barnes, who guessed that she and Jack Miles were in love during that fatal visit to her marital home years back. She – another co-incidence convenient for Jane – has recently met him in California, and was very impressed by both his looks and his melancholy air:

‘He is filled out and bronzed. Oh, but bronzed! so much so that his hair is lighter than his face. I do not know how you feel, but that to me always gives such a superbly manly look…I do not know what his plans were—he did not know himself, poor fellow ! He said he was at a loose end. He repeated the expression several times—at a loose end.” 

The phrase is not a romantic one, but such a pregnancy of sentiment is thrown into it as dyes in painful blushes the younger woman…She had no more doubted her love’s faithfulness than her own—faithful, though parted far as the pine from the palm…’

Jane has a romantic disposition, which has been starved in her loveless marriage. Now she must wait for this seemingly interminable year to be over, so that she can be reunited with Miles.

She leads a lonely life in Richmond. She seems to have no family, and has no real confidante in her difficult situation. Lady Barnes is sympathetic, but self centred, her life revolving about her badly beloved, spoilt dogs. Typical is the behaviour of

‘… a very nice, but not very well-conducted English terrier, who, having stood before her looking significantly up in her face for some moments, now, annoyed at her inability to take a hint, stands up on his hind-legs and begins to scratch at her sombre lap with as much vigour as if he had mistaken it for a rabbit-hole.  ‘ I am afraid that Jock means you have taken his chair,’ says his mistress regretfully. ‘ Would you mind changing to this one? It is quite as comfortable, only he does not fancy it…’

Lady Barnes, however, is in correspondence with Miles, and makes it clear to Jane that she will let him know of her surroundings. Interfering and given to thinking of herself as a romantic, too, she is all for forwarding the cause of love.

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Descriptions of the self indulgent demands of Lady Barnes are typical of  the delightful vein of comedy which runs through this story. At its best it is worthy of Jane Austen.

So is the depiction of Willy Clarendon’s sisters, who have, through years of trying to ‘keep up appearances’, turned into almost professional spongers. They are forever obtaining theatre tickets, presents of cast off clothing, house plants, anything that they can wheedle out of people.

The younger and prettier one, Mabella, is particularly shameless about this. She looks on every male acquaintance as a potential source of funds.

Clarendon himself is tormented by Jane’s dismissive attitude towards the very idea of him as her admirer. For some time, refuses to let her work alone with him on his academic projects, on the grounds that it would cause gossip. Jane remarks that this is ridiculous.  He writhes in humiliation, but she cannot see it.  Finally, he agreed to let her help him with his research.

The months drag on. Spring comes, and  one day, the housemaid announces an unknown visitor:

He who once, in the white light of the Circular Garden, crowded all the agony of his desire and farewell into one mad storm of forbidden kisses, is now raining kisses as mad, but with the glad contrary of farewell in them, upon eyes, and lips, and hair. For an instant or two she is as mad as he, lost in reckless rapture…’

Jane, who is about to receive a visit from her late husband’s sister, who has been estranged from her since his death and her refusal to explain why she was cut from the will, has a delicious short meeting with him, learning that he is staying with Lady Barnes. She then sends him away, though with difficulty, just before her sister-in-law arrives.

Miss Etheridge wants Jane to go back  to living at the hall. Jane cannot accept, and she leaves, bitterly offended.

Meanwhile, the Clarendon sisters agree that Jack Miles as Lady Barnes’ guest will be useful:

‘He gives one the idea of being just the sort of man who would be good for any number of opera-boxes and theatre-tickets,’ for they have heard that he has come into a lot of money lately.

This news disappoints Jane, who feels that if her lover is in a position to give her a life of luxury, her great sacrifice of a fortune for his sake has been rendered ineffectual.

Clarendon, when he hears that Jack Miles has called on her without invitation, bursts out that was ‘the action of a bounder’. Jane is outraged.

He looks at her with despair in his heart; looks right into the irreconcilable wrath of her blue eyes, staring enormous out of a linen-white face. But his ships are in flames behind him, and there is nothing for it but a desperate onward marchThe next thing of which he is conscious is that he is in the roadway, though whether ejected through the window, kicked downstairs, or by the simple process of putting one  foot before another till he gets there, he could never tell.’

Some months later, just as her year of mourning is up, Jane sees Clarendon walking on the common, and is shocked by how thin and haggard he looks.

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However, she soon overcomes her guilty feelings about that. She is to be Lady Barnes’ guest  in the Western Isles of Scotland, and reunited with Jack Miles:

The moment that they reach the shelter of the wood he takes her in his arms, and for the rest of that wonderful morning scarcely lets her go out of them again. Up the firneedle-strewn path, with a hundred blissful stops for new and ever new caresses, they slowly climb, till from the colonnade of larch-stems they step out upon the rocky brow of the hill, and look down upon the sea.’

Jane idealises him and wants to hear all about how he has spent his time over the last six years. He is rather vague about this: he has wandered about, earned the gratitude of an older woman for a small favour, and unexpectedly inherited a fortune from her.

When she asks him if during that time he has ever thought, or said, a word of love to any other woman, he says that he refuses to answer such senseless questions, and kisses her into silence.

Jack Miles is dashingly amorous in his courtship of the glamorous widow. At dinners, he shamelessly neglects the other guests:

He has put his elbow on the table, ruthlessly turning his shoulder upon his other neighbour, and is shading his eyes with his hand, so as partly to hide the fury of admiration in them, while he tells her how distractingly beautiful she is, that he should like never to see her dressed in another gown than the one she is now wearing, etc.

‘Shall I come down in it to breakfast to-morrow ?’ she asks, with what she means to be a sobering little laugh of derision, but which shares too much of the quiver in his own voice to serve its purpose. He goes off into fresh extravagances…

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Jane’s disillusionment Miles comes gradually. She finds out that he tells coarse (and one may assume, sexist) jokes with his fellow male guests after the ladies have withdrawn. One of her guests says:-

‘Do you hear them laughing?  How I wish they would let us share the joke! Of course, it is another of Mr. Miles’s stories. Whenever I ask Jim what they have been laughing at, he always says, ‘’Oh, one of Miles’s,’and invariably adds that it is quite impossible to repeat it.’

You are always rather frightened when I begin to question you,’ says Jane, examining the cleared countenance before her with less passion and more keenness in her eyes than her lover quite relishes. ‘ I believe you have some dark spot in your past that you are afraid of my putting my finger upon. No—do not be angry ; it is only a stupid joke.’

Jack Miles sulks, saying it is no joke to imply that he is a blackguard. They soon make up this tiff, but Jane begins to discover that they are far from soul mates.

Another guest teases him about coming back late with Jane, as he had done in London with Mabella Clarendon. Jane would regard it as absurd to allow herself to be jealous over this, but she also learns that:

‘There are limitations to the endowment of that personality which her unknowing idolatry had vaguely gifted with every mental as well as physical grace. If theirs is to be that ideal union which she had pictured, it must be by the suppression of one half of her own nature. Mr. Miles never voluntarily opens a book, and the artless dismay written on his countenance when her full heart leads her to illustrate their own bliss by some quoted line from the poets teaches her not to repeat the attempt.’

Then total disillusionment comes. She surprises the man she is to marry in six  weeks with Mabella Clarendon in his arms. He is comforting her with kisses over her latest financial troubles.

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Jane leaves for Richmond, telling Lady Barnes that she has had bad news and forbidding her to tell Jack Miles or anyone.  On her journey Jane broods on all that she has sacrificed for Jack Miles.

‘She that forty-eight hours ago was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, possesses nothing in this or any other world. She had never had but one thing, having sold or tossed away all else to buy it; and now it is gone…

Her husband, old and crabbed indeed, but who had loved her in his way, and treated her with forbearance and even generosity, and into whose deathbed she had put a sting far sharper than death itself; the desolate old sister-in-law, upon whose broken heart she had flung back her magnanimous offers of help and difficult kindness; the self-less, devoted friend whom she had insulted and alienated; the good name in whose tarnish she had insanely rejoiced, as bringing one more offering to her god’s piled altar ; the position which would have given her weight and authority among her fellows; the riches that would have been a potent engine for the good of others.’

Now Jane despises herself for having worshipped a false god:

For the first time she sees her deity as he is ; the commonplace good fellow, with his cheap jests, his limited intelligence, his promiscuous tendernesses…Has her love, then, when stripped of its fine clothes, been nothing but sensuality? that love which she had clad in such imperial purple, and titled with such high names, the love that had dethroned heaven’s King and overshadowed earth’s brotherhood.’

This is where the novel parts company with the romance genre, where the obligatory happy or happy-for-now ending inevitably rules out such grim ethical and metaphysical quagmires. Romantic love in the romance genre is generally shown to be worthwhile. In ‘The Game and The Candle’ for Jane, it frankly is not. This book, then, both for seriousness of purpose and anti romantic theme, is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’

Jane in this story and both Philip Hepburn Sylvia herself in ‘Syvlia’s Lovers’ make the mistake of worshipping a fallible human being, Philip with Sylvia, and Sylvia herself with the dashing shameless opportunist Charley Kinraid.

On reaching home, poor Jane spends an hour lying on the floor in pure self abnegation. She rises from it changed. Jack Miles follows her, of course. He duly turns up:

‘ It is clear that he has come straight from the train—travel-stained, with his bright short curls ruffled, pale under his tan, yet in the dishevelled sincerity of his agitation handsomer than ever. Yes, her eyes at least had not deceived her —the shell is what she had thought it.’

He assures her he only felt sorry for Mabella over her bills:  ‘I have never loved, never : shall love, any woman in the world but you. You believe that I love you?’

She responds: ‘I never loved you. I loved someone that was masquerading in your shape.’

The author tells us that he goes quite quickly, though his tears fall on her hand as he takes it to kiss it. She watches him walk off down the street, saying to herself:

I bought you very dear—very dear ; and now I have thrown you away.’ He is out of sight, and she turns from the window, murmuring to herself: ‘ As a dream when one awaketh.’

Oh dear! That is a stark ending. We are not even told if she makes it up with, and even comes to encourage the attentions of,  that formerly despised true lover Willy Clarendon.

Maybe I am cycnical, but it seems to me, that as Jane will almost certainly never fall in love in such a way again, she might as well marry Jack Miles, and enjoy him as an attractive, entertaining and charming but flawed life companion. True, she no longer worships him so absurdly and poetically, but that is hardly a bad thing. As she cannot undo the damage that she has done to others (assuming that she still cannot return Wllly Clarendon”s feelings), she might as well enjoy the prize for which she has sacrificed so much.  After all, he there is no evidence that he has done more than kiss and flirt with Mabella Clarendon. To break things off over some kissing and flirting seems an extreme reaction.

Of course, the author  might, in a roundabout way acceptable to a respectable female Victorian readership, be implying that Jack Miles actually lived as a gigilo with the older woman who left him a fortune.

Still, I suppose that as an orthodox nineteenth century Christina, Rhoda Broughton was thinking, just as Elizabeth Gaskell did, that in making a false idol out of a human being, Jane, like Philip and Sylvia, has broken the first commandment, and must suffer penance accordingly.

As I said, I must read some more of this author and see what I make of her other books.

Plasticity,Recycled Characters and Beloved Brothers: Part One: Elizabeth Gaskell

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In an earlier post, I discussed how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – suely largely based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

She used this character type possibly four times, if I count the returned sailor ‘Poor Peter’ in  ‘Cranford’ ( I have yet to read that).

This reuse of a character type, is in fact, is contrary to the cliam which WA Craik makes of the author n her 1970 work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel’, that this author never  revisits character types or situations. This is so untrue, that I was startled by it. It seems to show a startling lack of perception on the part of that biographer.

Having read some biographies of Elizbeth Gaskell, I am always struck by the fact that she never properly got over the disappearance of this brother, John,  who went unaccountably missing during a voyage to India (possiby onland: it is unclear).  He was in fact, fairly dissatisfied with life as a sailor immediately before he vanished, and his normally lively spirits were subdued, to the point, it seems, where he reported that he was nicknamed  by his shipmates ‘The silent man’.

I have sometimes wondered if th efamily knew more about the disappearance of John, and concealed it because it contained an element of social disgrace. Still,  here, I am spectulating without any solid basis for my suspicion, and merely because a  lie, or anyway, an obfustification,  plays a great part of the plot of several of the author’s novels;  further, it is connected with this character and his fate in at least two of them,  ‘North and South’ and  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’

The first incarnation of this character type, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is guilesss and uncomplicated. He possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this Jolly Sailor Boy  type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always attributes to sailors besides, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother and aunt Alice says, ‘steady’.

Here, the character is essentially unevolved. Will has very little between his ears. He is, however, unfailing decisive and upright in his dealings. This is never more obvious as when, on hearing that he will be able to save Jem by acting as witness in his murder trial, he leaves his ship to join Mary, who has hired a boat to  pursue his ship up the Mersey to where it joins the Irish Sea.

He falls in love with Mary’s rather dull and prudish friend Margaret – who is suffering from a blindness brought on through early onset cataract – after hearing her sing, as her voice is spectacular.

At the end of the novel, the prim Margaret – whom we must hope as a wife and mother finds time to sing, as it is her one fascinating characteristic -and Will Wilson emigrate to the US, along with Jem Wilson and Mary. Margaret has had her sight restored by a successful operation (it is interesitng that cataract operations could be performed successfully so early) and all ends happily for the couple.

He is next used in her 1853  novel North and South. Here, Frederick Hale is wholly beguiling, possessed of startling good looks and  wide set, deep blue eyes besides the inevitable dark ringlets. He loves to tell a story, adores his fiance and newly discovered sister, risks his life to visit his family and his dying mother (he’s wanted on a charge of mutiny] and has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

He has to live as an exile as he has parcipitated in a mutiny against an abusive captain.  Justice might be on his side, but the law is on that of the captain, and he is – in a realistic piece of plotting – never able to clear his name in England. Still, he does marry an heiress abroad, and has his own happy ending.

He is, in fact, the polar opposite of the male lead, the grim faced, emotionally repressed John Thornton.

This Honest Sailor character type next incarnation is a bit of a deterioration. In fact, intriguingly, I was put in mind by the anecdotes about the psychic projections, the thought forms, made by the Tibetian monks of old. They warned  Alexandra David-Neale that ‘the children of our mind’ can escape the control of the creator, and gradually become tainted with unpleasant qualities. If Frederick Hale is the apex of this character type,  Charley Kinraid, ‘The boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland seas’ may have superficial charm, but morally and in terms of emotional depths, he is certainy a deterioration.

He is  ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.  I have written elsewhere about his evolution from rebellious Specksiioner who opposes the press gang to the point of killing off two of its members without a qualm, to Royal Navy Captain who must call on the press gang to muster his crew.

It is part of his indistructable nature (this man is made of Teflon) that he survives two serious woundings, being taken by th press gang, some years’ imprisonment in France and various battles, to be vigorous and cheeful in the company of his superficial, sheltered wife at the end.

He has an unattractive history of betraying woman. According to his rival Hepburn’s work colleague in the haberdasher’s shop, the Quaker William Coulson,  these include his sister Annie (though our age would not credit Coulson’s claim that she died of a broken heart) and at least two others after her. There is also Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Courney , who is convinced that she is engaged to him at the same time as Sylvia (I always found it remarkable that this bathetic situation wasn’t treated with more humour, but I suppose the author thought that it would detract from the tragic tone of the novel).  None of this is exactly proved, but Coulson is after all a Quaker, who regards lying as a deadly sin.

Elizabeth Gaskell  also recycled another type at least twice – the Hardworking, Unornamental Stoic Hero type. This type deteriorated too between the early and later variation.

This character  doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might even attract The Wrong Sort of Woman – but he does have a boundless capacity for devotion. He is steady and some. In fact, he can be so steady he comes to resemble a rock pinning the heroine down with his insistent love – but she does comes to see his worth.

His first incarnation is John Thornton in ‘North and South’. It is a mark of GAskell’s gift as a writer that she managed to make me feel for this character, for the man stands for everything I despise.

Until towards the end he’s a devoted upholder of merciless, unregulated capitalism, he is a ‘tireless champion of the overdog’ (no, that isn’t mine; I lifted it from a nineteen fifties film starring Arthur Askey – of all people.; he believes in Hard Work.
Hmm. We all know the old saw – all work and no play… You’d need a microscope to discover his sense of humour.

He seems totally arrogant and unbending, even in his unrequited love – but – after Margaret Hale has rejected his proposal quite as scornfully as Elizabeth Bennet does Mr Darcy, we see his vulnterablity: ‘When he had gone, she thought she had seen the gleam of unshed tears in his eyes; and that turned her proud dislike into something different and kinder, though, if nearly as painful – self reproach for having caused such mortification to anyone.’

That did make me feel for him.

He does have moral standards – he’s a great believer in honour and he is brave enough – but there is something inhumane about them, as his love object Margaret Hale is well aware. There is something puritanical about him.

We realise that his tragic background  has made him unfeeling towards his fellow men and women. His entrepreneur father failed in business and killed himself, leaving his family destitute and his mother consequently embittered and emotionally frozen, though she worships her son to an alarming degree. We come to  feel compassion for him; during the course of the story, he comes to recognise the humanity of his ‘hands’, the need for human values in business as well as private life and his obligation to safeguard the welfare of his workforce.

He also learns humility when his business nearly goes bankrupt, and we leave him and Margaret Hale in tender reconciliation.

I did like that…

Philip Hepburn in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is the second version of this mutating character, and I have to say that I didn’t like him at all. Puritanical, self righteous, cautious (except in his headlong almost masochistic passion for Sylvia) he really needs to write to a problem page about his attitude to life.

Fun? Never heard of it; interests? what are those? His interests in life are Hard Work and planning to marry Sylvia Robson.

His betrayal of Kinraid and Sylvia, when he fails to pass on the press ganged Kinraid’s message for her, is dismal. It is true that Gaskell makes all the excuses for him she can. – He has just found out yet more rumours about Kinraid’s womanising through the cheerful gossip of his fellow sailors in a Newcastle pub. He has found out, too, that Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney thinks that she is engaged to Kinraid at the same time that he has been pressing his suit on Sylvia – but the sheer self-serving treachery of his action or inaction –  it is still bad enough.

When discovered and rejected by Sylvia, Hepburn, full of repentance goes off to become a hero in the hope of impressing Sylvia and winning back her love.

It is an irony of the text that he does in fact become the very hero that Sylvia has wanted all along to worship, only to be so disfigured in an explosion that he becomes unrecognisable and fears that she will be disgusted by him.

Their death bed understanding slightly reconciled me to him. I could see an interesting turn of the wheel of fortune in the text.

In the beginning of the story, when Sylvia first meets Kinraid, she is so impressed by his brave act in getting almost shot dead while defying a press gang that she doesn’t mind that he looks like an animated corpse, ‘gaunt and haggard’. In fact, she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back, and is eager to speak to a man she regards as a wounded hero when he attends his friend Darley’s funeral.

In the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, in having rescued his hated enemy Kinraid at the Seige of Acre and their daughter Bella from an opportune tidal wave – he is the hero it is part of Sylvia’s psyche to need to worship.  and he new found love for him is sincere enough in its own way.

This use of basic types, transforming their psyche (not as if that was a thing envisaged in Gaskell’s era) with a tweak here, a trait there, is very intriguing.

This recycling of a character type is, of course, only a more obvious example of what all authors do to some exent. If we add a physical feature here, add a quality there, drop one there, we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.

Elizabeth Gasekll was only one of many who gave a characer several incarnations. Perhaps,  thoughs she was unusual in being so bound up with giving the happy ending that real life denied to a beloved lost brother, whose fate was almost certainly tragic.