Sylvia’s Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: Sylvia’s Lovers
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 1863


Life in Monkshaven is not particularly exciting, except when the impressment gangs come through.  Otherwise, Sylvia lives a calm life on her parents farm.  Her cousin Philip loves her dearly, but she gives her heart instead to the sailor Charlie Kinraid.  But Philip fears Charlie may be false.


Sylvia’s Lovers is a quiet tale, a tragedy played out on a small scale.  Though it may not feature the noble characters that typically people tragedies, it contains all the drama and pathos that might conceivably fit into the life of a person, even the type of person history tends to forget.  From the families torn apart by the impressment gangs to the domestic strain of a married couple who realize their marriage may have been a mistake, Sylvia’s Lovers marches solemnly onward to a conclusion readers feel cannot possibly be pretty.

Sylvia herself is a somewhat petulant and flighty thing, a girl accustomed to following her own whims rather than thinking of the comfort of others (aside from her parents, whom she loves dearly).   She regularly overlooks the positive qualities of those whom she dislikes or finds dull and she tends to think primarily about her own feelings while remaining quite unconscious that others might have interior lives of their own.  Gaskell tells us that, even so, Sylvia exerts a charm and fascination over men.  One can only assume it is her beauty and her pretty little airs.  But, since readers do not get to see these, we are left only with her character, which is, sad to say, not particularly impressive.  It is therefore a marvel that Gaskell can convince readers to care about Sylvia’s story at all.

But care we do, for the inexorable pull of fate lays over the story and readers feel from the start that nothing good will come for Sylvia in the end.  Gaskell gives us a little moral here, for, it seems Syliva might have been happy had she learned to love and forgive others, had she appreciated the good in men and been able to recognize the bad.  But, alas, Sylvia thinks only in terms of her own passions and is at first reluctant to turn to God, then later discouraged from trying to turn to Him by those who claim to know His will.  Perhaps she’ll find Him eventually, but, of course, always too late, too late.  Sylvia’s tragedy may be reckoned as heartbreaking as those of kings.

4 stars

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