Germinal: Émile Zola’s Masterpiece


Germinal is Émile Zola’s masterpiece, and I am fairly typical in thinking (and I have only read it in translation) that it contains his most brilliant writing, with exceptionally evocative passages of lyrical strength, and brilliant word pictures. It depicts a miner’s strike – with unsparing realism and remarkable sympathy.

When  my daughter asked me to recommend some of the most strongly written books that I had read, this was one.

I wrote in my last post that Zola had a fear of the untrammelled power of the working people. In this novel, however, his sympathies are entirely with them.  With unsparing honesty, he depicts the starvation, despair, and resulting violence that follows from the miners’ attempts to gain a living wage.

Zola was always meticulous in carrying out research. For this novel he went to northern France in 1884, where he witnessed a miners’ strike in Anzin, while at Denain he went underground to view working conditions. He always defended his depiction as realistic, aganinst the attacks by indignant critics, who accused him of exaggerating the horrors of the pit workers’ conditions for dramatic effect.

Incredibly, the novel was written in only eight months. The title, incidentally, is taken from the eighth month of the revolutionary calendar, and is meant to evoke an image of germination, of budding new growth, and of hope for the future. This is, in fact, the note on which the book ends. For all the distressing scenes that are depicted, the story ends in the spring, on a note of regeneration.

Over to Wickipedia for an excellent concise summary of the plot: –

The novel’s central character is Étienne Lantier, previously seen in L’Assommoir (1877), and originally to have been the central character in Zola’s “murder on the trains” thriller La Bête humaine (1890) before the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Germinal persuaded him otherwise. The young migrant worker arrives at the forbidding coal mining town of Montsou in the bleak area of the far north of France to earn a living as a miner. Sacked from his previous job on the railways for assaulting a superior, Étienne befriends the veteran miner Maheu, who finds him somewhere to stay and gets him a job pushing the carts down the pit.

Étienne is portrayed as a hard-working idealist but also a naïve youth; Zola’s genetic theories come into play as Étienne is presumed to have inherited his Macquart ancestors’ traits of hotheaded impulsiveness and an addictive personality capable of exploding into rage under the influence of drink or strong passions. Zola keeps his theorizing in the background and Étienne’s motivations are much more natural as a result. He embraces socialist principles, reading large amounts of working class movement literature and fraternizing with Souvarine, a Russian anarchist and political émigré who has also come to Montsou to seek a living in the pits. Étienne’s simplistic understanding of socialist politics and their rousing effect on him are very reminiscent of the rebel Silvère in the first novel in the cycle, La Fortune des Rougon (1871).

While this is going on, Étienne also falls for Maheu’s daughter Catherine, also employed pushing carts in the mines, and he is drawn into the relationship between her and her brutish lover Chaval, a prototype for the character of Buteau in Zola’s later novel La Terre (1887). The complex tangle of the miners’ lives is played out against a backdrop of severe poverty and oppression, as their working and living conditions continue to worsen throughout the novel; eventually, pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike and Étienne, now a respected member of the community and recognized as a political idealist, becomes the leader of the movement. While the anarchist Souvarine preaches violent action, the miners and their families hold back, their poverty becoming ever more disastrous, until they are sparked into a ferocious riot, the violence of which is described in explicit terms by Zola, as well as providing some of the novelist’s best and most evocative crowd scenes. The rioters are eventually confronted by police and the army that repress the revolt in a violent and unforgettable episode. Disillusioned, the miners go back to work, blaming Étienne for the failure of the strike; then, Souvarine sabotages the entrance shaft of one of the Montsou pits, trapping Étienne, Catherine and Chaval at the bottom. The ensuing drama and the long wait for rescue are among some of Zola’s best scenes, and the novel draws to a dramatic close. Étienne is eventually rescued and fired but he goes on to live in Paris with Pluchart.

MV5BNzdiYjhjOGMtNjQ1Zi00NGViLThlN2UtOTllYjk3NDY2MTAzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzk4OTI2MjM@._V1_There are many vivid characters in this novel, and perhaps the one who overshadows them all is inanimate: Le Voreux, the dread consumer of huaman flesh, the pit  in which the local miners and cart pushers labour for their lives.

Perhaps the most  horrific scene – and one of the most grotesque in all of Zola’s novels, which include a great deal in the way of horror and of the grotesque – is depicted in the scene where the rioting and starving locals attack the local grocer’s shop. The grocer falls to his death trying to escape via the roof, and the women, whom he has sexually abused in exchange for credit, enact a terrible revenge on his corpse: –

‘And then, with her old, withered hands, La Brúlé parted his naked thighs and seized hold of his now defunct manhood. She grabbed the whole thing in one hand and pulled, her bony spine tense with the effort, her long arms cracking. When the flabby skin refused to give, she had to pull even harder, but finally it came away, a lump of bleeding, hairy flesh, which she proceeded to brandish in triumph…’

By contrast, one of the most moving – indeed, near transcedent – moments in the novel is  when the cynical engineer Paul Négrel, the nephew of the owner of the mine, who is quite happy to deceive his uncle by carrying on an affair with his aunt by marriage,  who has been the bitter enemy of the militant Étienne, comes together with him in huamnity. After the collapse of the pit, he labours tirelessly and devotedly, night and day to ensure that Étienne, Chaval and Catherine are rescued from their underground prison.

When at last he is rewarded by finding them: –

‘These two men who despised each other, the rebellious worker and the sceptical boss, threw their arms around each other and sobbed their hearts out, both of them shaken to the very core of their humanity. ..’

As I said in my last post, while readers generally may not be attracted to reading the twenty novels in the series of Les Rougon-Macquart  , to neglect reading Germinal is to miss out on a true work of genius.

I have to say that I found Étienne’s love interest Catherine, insipid. While it might be argued that this was after all typical of a Victorian novel, and that her background is such that it is impossible for her to have developed much independence of thought or as an older daughter who had both to work in the pit and to labour in the house, had the leisure even to have much individuality, she still comes across as dull compared to Zola’s other female characters from humble and hard working bacgrounds, ie, the heroine of La Terre.  

This does seem to me a weakness in the structure of the novel. I certainly take the point that Cahterine is intended to be a victim, seduced by Chaval before her delayed puberty has come about. But Étienne’s  fascination with her is unconvincing, and so the desperate hatred between himself and Chaval is too.

Compared to all the admirable features in this book, though, this, and a certain tendency at times, ever present in Zola, to overdramaticise, are hardly very important. Catherine, with her passive surrender to abuse from a man she does not really love in Chaval, is not a female lead that a modern female reader can find appealling., however truly pathetic she might find her.  But in such characters as Catherine’s own mother and  the independent minded Mochette,  there is a good deal of feminine indpendence depicted throughout the story.

Zola was rightly proud of  his achievement.  It caused a senasation on its appearance and remains widely read to this day, having inspired several films, and being regarded as one of the most signicicant of all French novels.




Some More Ramblings About Protagonists and Antagonists

clarissaContinuing with my ramblings on the whole issue of protagonists and antagonists and point of view, there is the question of how much of an antagonist’s viewpoint should be revealed to the reader. How much sympathy for him or her can be engaged , before it becomes counter-productive, and the antagonist in fact becomes too much of a threat to the empathy with the ‘main character, the one the reader is supposed to be rooting for’. My apologies that I don’t remember the website on which I found that quote, and so can’t duly acknowledge it with a link.

On a personal note, someone recently pointed out that I seem to have a natural sympathy for the bad guy, and I thought this unfortunately true; it probably accounts for why I would always like to be given more of the inner workings of the antagonist’s mind in novels. It also accounts for why I’m so often disappointed in these characters as ‘not fully realised ’. It often seems to me that in classic novels especially, they are intriguing but finally disappointing, and could have stronger motivation, and greater depths and complexity.

But perhaps here I am wrong, and the authors knew exactly what they were doing in not revealing too much of the antagonist’s point of view and particular motivations. After all, too empathic an antagonist can detract from sympathy with the protagonist.

I also read somewhere recently words to the affect that ‘the best favour you can do the protagonist is to have a strong antagonist’ (again, I’ve forgotten the name of the link to the website; oh dear; this looks like singular absent mindedness) .

That is true; but it is obviously a question of balance. For instance, with regard to one of the greatest plays of all time, I always found the character of Edmund in ‘King Lear’ fascinating; why is he so scheming and eager to do evil? How much is his treatment of Edgar motivated by jealousy and resentment at being ‘a bastard’ and so debarred from his father’s inheritance, and how much by what might be called ‘inherent badness? Or rather, giving in to the bead side of his nature, the evil streak that we all have?

Of course, the motivation and fascination of Edmund – who ends up being either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of all three of Lear’s daughters and of King Lear himself, and of the mutilation of his own father – has been discussed at great length. Does he overhear the Duke of Gloucester when he makes purile jokes to the Duke of Kent about Edmund’s mother and the circumstances of his conception? Does he hear the Duke of Gloucester when he says that Edmund will be sent abroad again? This is largely a question of stage direction, and what original directions Shakespeare made which would no doubt clear the matter up have been lost.

But even when the villainies of a antagonist can’t be to some extent explained if not excused through this sort of ambiguity, Shakespeare’s antagonists are still fascinating. For instance, there is Laertes, fond son of that interfering and pompous Polonious, and fond brother of his sister Ophelia. I had to sympathize with him; Hamlet has unintentionally brought about the deaths of both, and Laeertes’ smouldering hatred is fully understandable; Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia’s funeral, where he accuses Laetrtes of ‘whining’ and stridently insists, ‘I loved Ophelia’ is enough to provoke a frenzy of violent vengefulness in any fond brother.

The infinitely less gifted but still innovative pioneer novelist Samuel Richardson found himself in unforeseen difficulties in his portrayal of his arch villain, Robert Lovelace in ‘Clarissa’.images

There is no doubt that the moral (if unconsciously hypocritical) Richardson intended Lovelace to be a complete villain and incorrigibly bad. He is a misogynist, scheming and underhand almost beyond belief and to the point of sabotaging his own self interest and finally, a rapist.

However, Lovelace is presented through his letters as so lively, playful and witty, that it is hard not to enjoy him and his appalling immorality up untitl the point when Clarissa’s sufferings become so severe, his duplicity so pointless and relentless, that the reader is finally disgusted even before the rape.

Here he is, for instance, unkindly singling out another household’s servant for ridicule to beguile the weary hour: –

‘O Lord: said the pollard headed dog, struggling to get his head loose from under my arm, while my other hand was muzzling about his cursed chaps, as I would take his teeth out. ..’

Lovelace’s prose is always racy and vivid; it is impossible not to laugh at his awful antics.

His behaviour, of course, is self defeating; this does make for a weakness in his motivation. After all, as the proud heir of an aristocratic family, he needs an heir. If he constitutionally despises all women, and is motivated by an evil urge to prove that all women are lascivious and fair game, why does he think he can prove it by raping Clarissa when all his attempts at seduction have failed? That is surely an admission of defeat.

In fact, Lovelace admits as much at the end, so the unfortunate Clarissa experiences a moral triumph beyond the grave as he dies in horrible agonies from the wounds inflicted by Captain Morden in the duel she sought so hard to prevent: ‘Blessed …Let this expiate.’Clarissa and Lovelace

From a practical point of view, Lovelace would have done far better to have married Clarissa after he had tricked her into literally running away with him, and made her life a misery from then with rakish ways and constant unfaithfulness; that seems to me an altogether more satisfactory conclusion to the story than Richardson’ s long drawn out  melodrama.

However, this is to wander from the point, which is that in depicting so charming and high-spirited an arch-villain as Lovelace, Richardson encountered unforeseen difficulties. As the volumes were produced, too many of his readers became too fond of Lovelace and insisted on seeing him as treated too harshly by both the author and his virtuous, but unfortunately stiff and humourless heroine, and suggested that the best thing all round would have been for Lovelace to marry Clarissa after the rape, thus ‘making amends’.

Of course, that was the conventional wisdom of the eighteenth century, disgusting as it seems to us, and in having his heroine reject him, Richardson was making a moral stand (as Gaskell was later to do in ‘Ruth) against this view that a rapist  or even a mean seducer in marrying his victim somehow put matters right.

Because of the charm of Lovelace’s presentation, many critics and readers ever since have adopted an over sympathetic view towards this arch-villain, and this stimulated Richardson to write indignant  prefaces and additions refuting such claims. Yet, however, much Richardson may have told his audience how his novel should be read, many persisted, as he saw it, in wilfully misunderstanding his intention.

And here, as I’ve said before, we come to a problem; as authors we can do our best to portray a character in such a way as to evoke a particular response. But when that book is published, it is finally up the reader to decide. They may find our antagonists altogether more intriguing than our protagonists, and the more human, complex and beguiling we make our antagonists, the greater the danger of that.

In my next post, I’m going back to one of my favourite novels to explore some problems when writing a novel where the antagonist, through sheer force of presentation, takes over from the hero as a protagonist and a main focus of interest – yes, it’s Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lover’s’ so you have been warned.

The Vexed Issue of Protagonists and Main Characters

T2C._Carton_the_the_young_seamstress_before_going_to_the_guillotine_(John_McLenan).jpegI’ve been reading a bit about protagonists recently.
I have to say, that while I should have learnt a lot, in some ways I’m none the wiser. Lets start with the ‘Wickipedia’ definition:

The protagonist (from πρωταγωνιστής (protagonistes), meaning “player of the first part, chief actor”) or main character is a novel or drama’s central or primary personal figure, who comes into conflict with an opposing major character or force (called the antagonist).[ The reader is intended to mostly identify with the protagonist…
The terms protagonist and main character are variously explained and depending on the source, may denote different concepts. In fiction, the story of the protagonist can be told from the perspective of a different character (who may also but not necessarily, be the narraotor). An example would be a narrator who relates the fate of several protagonists – perhaps as prominent figures recalled in a biographical perspective.
Sometimes, antagonists and protagonists may overlap, depending on what their ultimate objectives are considered to be. Often, the protagonist in a narrative is also the same person as the focal character though the two terms are distinct. Excitement and intrigue alone is what the audience feels toward a focal character, while a sense of empathy about the character’s objectives and emotions is what the audience feels toward the protagonist. Although the protagonist is often referred to as the “good guy”, it is entirely possible for a story’s protagonist to be the clear villain, or antihero, of the piece.
The principal opponent of the protagonist is a character known as the antagonist, who represents or creates obstacles that the protagonist must overcome. As with protagonists, there may be more than one antagonist in a story. The antagonist may be the story’s hero; for example, where the protagonist is a criminal, the antagonist could be a law enforcement agent that tries to capture him.
Sometimes, a work will offer a particular character as the protagonist, only to dispose of that character unexpectedly, as a dramatic device. Such a character is called a false protagonist. Marion in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pscyho 1960) is a famous example.
When the work contains subplots, these may have different protagonists from the main plot. In some novels, the protagonists may be impossible to identify, because multiple plots in the novel do not permit clear identification of one as the main plot, such as in…Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace depicting fifteen major characters involved in or affected by a war.

I may be particularly obtuse, but all this didn’t seem to gell with the punchy advice given on an interesting blog Advanced Fiction Writing by ‘America’s Mad Professor of Fiction Writing’.
A follower asks:
Can your novel have more than one protagonist? If so, can they be enemies? Is doing that a no-no, a may-be, or a why-not?

Randy sez: You can do anything you want in a novel. However, you can’t make a publisher buy your book and you can’t make readers care. Those pesky publishers will buy what they think the public will buy. And the public will only buy books they like.
Here’s the thing: Readers want to know who to root for. When you give them two people to root for, you cut the emotional impact in half.
This is a case where 1 + 1 = 1/2.
When you give your reader two people to root for, and they’re enemies, then things are even worse. Now your reader is confused. Is it good that the bomb blew up Reginald’s helicopter, or is it bad? Is it bad that Reginald wasn’t in it, or is it good?
This is a case where 1 – 1 = 0.
It’s like trying to drive with your foot jammed down hard on both the gas and the brakes.
If you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, you want to root for one character or at least one group of characters who are all on the same side. Treat your reader like you want to be treated. Choose one protagonist. Choose one antagonist. Make them duke it out. Make them keep duking until there’s a clear winner.
The alternative is to have no readers and get no publishing contracts.

Oh, dear. Doesn’t sound good. We’d better avoid that at all costs. Certainly, this is about as succinct as could be, and seems to bear out what I’ve heard on the grapevine, that there is a trend towards readers, following the influence of fairly simple YA plots, not wanting the ‘big picture’ and multiple POV’s of classic novels, where sometimes exactly who was the protagonist wasn’t at all clear.

For instance, on these, I’m sure I don’t know who is the protagonist of Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Is it Dr Manette? He, a slightly unbalanced middle aged man, is hardly the ideal type of hero, whatever his moral qualities of magnanimity and courage. Neither does he act very decisively in the main part of the story.But is the colourless Charles Darnay – who as one critic comments, only comes to life when he’s on trial and in danger of being executed – the protagonist? Again, it’s hard to believe that Dickens intended the protagonist to be the drunken, debauched and hopeless Sidney Carton (why he is so hopeless is never made clear to the reader). As we may be sure it is not the female lead, Lucie Manette, who is if anything even more insipid than Charles Darnay, we are left with a puzzle.

Hamlet is an obvious protagonist, and one who has multiple antagonists, including the weaknesses in his own personality. I admit that I seem to be unusual in finding him decidedly unsympathetic; perhaps it’s partly because the play was one of the set texts at ‘A’ level, but for a Shakespeare geek I never have been able to appreciate this great work properly through my resentment of Hamlet’s foul treatment of Ophelia, followed by his hysterical behaviour at her graveside. On the whole, my sympathies were for some reason with the treacherous Laertes.

There is the whole question of the fact that a protagonist does not have to be admirable, though surely this main character has to generate interest if not sympathy, or nobody would bother continuing with the story.
For instance, another website comments on a disgusting protagonist, Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita (as I’ve never been able to bring myself to read this, I have to rely on a quote from a site of literary criticism here): –

Humbert Humbert is an example of a truly despicable protagonist, as well as an unreliable narrator. The middle-aged literature professor tells the story of his obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, with whom he becomes sexually involved after the death of her mother. Knowing that he will be judged harshly for his actions, Humbert Humbert appeals to the empathy of his readers, though Nabakov makes no such attempt to portray him as a likeable character. He is a relatively unusual protagonist for whom the audience has almost no sympathy.

I seem to be floundering into deeper and murkier waters here; hopefully, few people would be likely to wish to write such a novel from the point of view of the abuser these days, and would also hopefully have great difficulty getting it accepted by publishers or allowed on self publishing sites if they did; but that is quoted to show how varying are the views about what constitutes the protagonist of a novel…

Yuk, all this is so convoluted, and for once, I can’t quote James N Frey for the simple reason that my notes on his excellent works on writing novels don’t have any reference to creating protagonists; I must have mislaid that bit…

Finally (sorry, everyone for a blog post as long and indecisive as one of Hamlets soliloquies, and less philosophically intriguing) I liked this advice on this website: –
The protagonist can also be called the hero or main character, but these terms are imprecise, and for some stories, plainly false. The protagonist of Macbeth, for example, is clearly not a hero. Nick Carraway is the main character of The Great Gatsby but he is not the protagonist.My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:
The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.
The protagonist centers the story. She defines the plot and moves it forward. Her fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy.
You may not know who your protagonist is until you are halfway through writing your novel. You may think your protagonist is one character, only to find out your villain is actually your protagonist. You do not need to know who your protagonist is before you begin writing, but as you look at your work in progress, ask “Whose future is most important to this story, to the other characters in this story? Whose future is most important to me?” If you can answer these questions, you have found your protagonist.
How to Characterize a Protagonist
How do you make a protagonist more interesting? How do you bring depth to the protagonist’s personality?
The best way to characterize the protagonist is through an antagonist. An antagonist, or villain, is not necessarily evil or “the bad guy.” Instead, the antagonist is the protagonist’s opposite, their shadow or mirror.
The human mind loves to compare. It especially loves to compare people, and by characterizing your antagonist, you naturally create a comparison that characterizes your protagonist.
Here’s a trick:…The stronger you make the antagonist, the better your protagonist will look when he wins. The more you increase the values of your antagonist, the more interesting your protagonist becomes.
Is There Only One Protagonist?
While there is usually only one protagonist in a story, this isn’t always true. In romantic comedies and “buddy stories,” there can be two protagonists. For example, in Romeo and Juliet it is the fate of both characters, not just one of them, that matters to the story. Same with Lethal Weapon and The Odd Couple.
I love stories with multiple viewpoint characters… which have multiple characters who could be protagonists, but while the stories begin with several possible protagonists, by the end, the author has led you to just one or two.
The Most Important Requirement for the Protagonist
This is the single most important element of your protagonist, and thus one of the most important of your novel as a whole. If your protagonist fails to do this, your story will fail. Seriously.
Your protagonist must choose.
A character who does not choose her own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of her choice, is not a protagonist. She is, at best, a background character.
Donald Miller says story is, “A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” If your character does not want something enough to choose to go through conflict to get it, your reader will walk away disappointed.
Your protagonist may reject the choice at first. She may debate back and forth between which option to choose. She may spend a hundred pages waffling. This can actually be a good thing. Choice is hard! However, she must choose.
Readers will bear with a protagonist who isn’t very likable. They will endure selfishness, pride, and even cowardice in a character. However, readers will not endure a protagonist who does not decide.

I think that’s enough for me on this, at lest for today, and I haven’t even explored the concept of the anti-hero(ine), the false protagonist, the issue of multiple points of view and all the rest of it.
(Exit, burbling of definitions and literary theory…)

Plasticity and Recycled Characters – Part Two

Blush. My PC just published an empty post, and I didn’t ask it to. For once, that IT blunder wasn’t my fault. Well, I said IT doesn’t like me…

In part one I was discussing how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

Mark One, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is very sweet, possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always gives to this sailor type too, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother says, ‘steady’, but is essentially very simple and has very little between his ears.

Mark Two, Frederick Hale, is altogether delightful, possessed of startling good looks and the 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.

Mark Three is a bit of a deterioration’; Charley Kinraid is ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.

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

He doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might 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.

Type One 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:
‘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 – 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 – has made him what he is; we 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 Mark Two 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 and 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 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 – she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back; in the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, he is the hero it is part of her 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 and as I said before,must be what all authors do. Add a quality here, drop one there, and we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.