Goodreads: Cousin Phillis
First serialized in Charles Dickens’ Household Worlds, this short novel tells the story of a young woman discovering love for the first time.
Cousin Phillis is a short novel in four parts describing a young woman’s coming-of-age through the eyes of her cousin Paul. Though it features Gaskell’s typical interest in the industrialization of the country, the coming of the railroad serves mostly as a vehicle to get the narrator and his friend into the countryside, where they meet the beautiful and intelligent Phillis. The focus remains on Paul’s observations of Phillis and her reaction to his handsome manager, Edward Holdsworth.
The choice of Paul Manning as narrator is perhaps the one flaw in the story. He remains sadly unconvincing as a man. We hear little of his work or of his own pursuits. Even his friendship with Holdsworth is briefly and broadly sketched. Most of his energy seems to be spent, not on the railroad or in finding a lover or in the things one typically expects a young man to do, but on thinking about Phillis’s habits. At first he is intimidated by her superior intelligence, beauty, and good sense. In the end, he is concerned about her love for Holdsworth. But does the average man really sit around pondering his cousin’s looks and words, worrying that she is falling in love?
Aside from this criticism, however, I found the story beautifully and simply drawn. It is a subtle work, much subtler than many of Gaskell’s stories. Progress is coming to the countryside, but no one makes a speech about it. We see naturally the excitement and enthusiasm of the men and woman as they welcome the advance of the railroad. We see implicitly what might be lost–the careful, humble, and pious life of the countryside replaced by the bustle and empty show of Holdsworth and the men of progress he represents. And the criticism of agricultural life so directly stated by Margaret in North and South is only quietly alluded to in the figure of Phillis Holman, whose superior intellect and education makes her somewhat unsuited to the sphere in which she moves. Men of intelligence are, of course, not wholly lacking in agricultural areas, and yet Gaskell makes it clear that the long hours required in the fields make education difficult to obtain. Only Holdsworth, a brilliant railroad man, manages to come across as Phillis’s equal in education and perceptiveness.
Cousin Phillis is a short story (indeed–it seems to cut off in the middle), but one that immediately captures the interest of the audience. The beauty and the rhythms of the countryside come alive through Gaskell’s pen and the warmhearted characters quickly earn reader sympathy. Readers just beginning to approach Gaskell will find that this is an easy and a delightful way into her works.