Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: Cousin Phillis
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1864


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.

4 stars


Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë


Goodreads: Agnes Grey
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1847


Feeling that her family treats her like a child, Agnes Grey determines to make her own way in the world by becoming a governess.  However, her idealistic vision of molding the characters of children is quickly shattered.  In her positions, she is often denied authority and thwarted in her efforts to teach her charges virtue.  Additionally, she finds herself increasingly isolated as her position raises her above the servants but keeps her inferior to the families for whom she works.  Still, Agnes quietly perseveres in doing right.


Anne Brontë tends to be overlooked when the works of her sisters are discussed.  In recent years, however, there have been attempts to revive her reputation, especially in reference to her work The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of a woman who leaves her alcoholic husband.  As critics begin to reexamine the feminist undertones of Anne’s works, undertones so far ahead of their time that even Charlotte refused to have Tenant republished, it seems fitting to return to Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey.

In many ways, Agnes Grey seems a quiet and unassuming novel–and yet it made audiences uncomfortable in its own day.  The titular character begins work as a governess in two different wealthy households.  In the first, she is prevented from punishing the children and so cannot prevent their misbehavior.  In the second, she is instructed never to cross the wills of her charges, leading the eldest to become a shameless flirt  who delights in hurting men to cater to her vanity and the second to curse and run about in the stables with the male servants.  Rendered ineffective by the directions of her morally decadent social superiors, Anne becomes increasingly unhappy and struggles to remain patient, humble, and cheerful.

The novel does not only critique the morals of the wealthy families but also examines the unfeeling treatment of women who occupy a nebulous space in society.  As a governess, Agnes can neither become friends with the servants nor enter into intimate conversation with her families or their guests.  She becomes all but invisible and  mute, her small pleasures denied to her by those who have her at their mercy and her attempts to instill virtue in her charges silenced.  At night, she has only dreams of a certain upright Mr. Weston to console her–but Agnes can scarcely believe he would ever glance her way.

There is an undeniable sense that Anne Brontë writes of her own experiences in these pages, making the isolation, the heartbreak, and the impotency all feel keenly personal.  Well might her contemporaries have felt shamed, for she does not hold back in describing the callous carelessness of the upper classes in their pursuit of their own pleasures and vanities.  Women and social inferiors are simply casualties of the whims of their “betters.”  Brontë ‘s perceptiveness, her deft characterization, and her fearless social commentary all make Agnes Grey a remarkable read–one that should not be overshadowed by her sisters’ works.

5 stars

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: Mary Barton
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1848


Set in Manchester, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel tells the story of Mary Barton, a working-class girl who dreams of marrying rich and thus raising up her father.  Meanwhile, tensions between the factory masters and their men are running high as work slows and families begin to starve.


Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, anticipates North and South with its depiction of life for working-class Victorians in a factory town.  The division between the rich and the poor as well as the relationship between masters and their men drives the story.  Though its title focuses on Mary, who works as a dressmaker and dreams of marrying a factory owner’s son, the book itself centers around the actions of Mary’s father, driven to desperate measures in an effort to reconcile the social injustices he can no longer understand.

As the book traces Mary’s growth from child to young woman, it deftly illustrates the way in which poverty destroys families.  The women are alternately lead to moral ruin in an attempt to chase a better life, or sadly resigned to watching their children starve and their husbands waste away.  The men, meanwhile, become depressed or restless, according to their natures, as they struggle to accept that they can no longer provide for their families.  Even accepting wages from their wives or children seems to mock them with their failure.  Eventually some of them find an outlet in joining the union.

Gaskell’s novels are intriguing in that they tend to advocate for a middle road when it comes to social reform.  Though she sympathizes with the working class and argues that the masters should recognize that their interests are intertwined with those of their men, she does not fail to censure the unions.  When violence erupts or when the unions refuse to give aid to non-members, she suggests that they are no better than the masters who look the other way when times are hard.  Her ultimate solution is tied up in Christianity: the idea that men should want to help each other, out of their own good nature, simply because it is the right thing to do.

Lest the story become too heavy, however, Gaskell lightens it with a dash of romance.  The romance, of course, offers its own social and moral commentary, intertwined as it is with the events of the novel.  But that does not make it any the less interesting or moving.  As is not unusual in her works, Gaskell offers us a pretty but giddy heroine who does not initially recognize the value of the faithful man who woos her.  Her road to understanding that a man’s true worth does not lie in looks or riches is long and hard, but makes her love all the more precious.

North and South may be Gaskell’s most celebrated work.  But I admit that I enjoyed Mary Barton more.  Mary and Jem are admittedly less compelling than Margaret and Mr. Thornton.  But the social commentary does not the form of lengthy speeches and debates.  That made the  novel flow more smoothly for me and enabled me to read with much more interest.

4 stars

YA/Classic Match-Up (2)

Closing the pages of a favorite book is always a sad moment.  But sometimes the story can live on in other covers.  Below we list some YA books that can keep the magic of your favorite classics alive.

If you Like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Read Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl

Seventeen-year-old Althea’s ancestor built his dream house, a castle, on the cliffs of Yorkshire. Time and the weather, however, have weakened the structure and penniless Althea and her mother can do little to save their home. Convinced that the only solution to their problem lies in her marrying well, Althea determines the win the heart–and the wealth–of the newly arrived Lord Boring. Lord Boring’s friend Mr. Frederick, however, has a terrible habit of ruining all her plans.

If You Like wuthering heights by Emily Bronte

Read The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente

Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have spent countless hours imagining stories in the room at the top of the stairs.  Then suddenly they find themselves in a magical world where the Duke of Wellington still fights Bonaparte.  Even stranger, the world seems to be the one they themselves have created and it is populated with their toys.  At first they imagine they can stay there forever.  But when Branwell and Anne are kidnapped, the siblings realize that this world may be out of their control.  This is technically an upper-middle grade, but one that YA fans are sure to enjoy.

If You Like Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Read Olivia Twisted by Vivi Barnes

Sixteen-year-old Olivia dreams of escaping from the foster homes where she has never really felt she belonged.  Then the mysterious Z suggests a way.  She can use her hacking skills to make all the money she wants.  But has Olivia gotten in too deep?

If You Like The Scarlet PImpernel by Baroness Orczy

Read The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows

Ten years ago, Wilhemina Korte, princess of Aecor, watched her parents die at the hands of the Indigo Kingdom.  She and the other noble children were taken to the capital of their conquerors.  But they escaped and now they live as spies, determined to do whatever it takes to return home.  Even if they do, however, the wraith, a toxic mist born of magic, is slowly wiping entire lands off the map.  Wil wants to become queen.  But can she protect her people from the Indigo Kingdom and the wraith?

If You Like Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Read This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

Fifteen-year-old Victor Frankenstein loves his twin brother Konrad dearly.  So when Konrad falls ill, he is willing to do anything to save him, even if that means delving into alchemy.  To achieve the Elixir of Life, he will go on a dark quest.  And his thirst for knowledge may never be satiated again.

Ten Books That Blew Me Away in 2017

The Glass Town Game by Catherynne Valente

Valente’s prose is always magical.  It feels knowing and wise, and it brings out  secret fears, hopes, and dreams.  It makes life feel a little wonderful and a little dangerous.  And it brings to life worlds readers have never seen before.  The Glass Town Game introduces just such a world, one where a man can be made of books and suitcases can come to life.  And it’s all based on the juvenalia of the Bronte siblings.

The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

This is one of two novels Montgomery wrote for adults.  As a result, it feels a little more sad and knowing than some of her other works.  Twenty-nine-year-old Valancy Stirling has to find a way to break free from her repressive relatives and live her last year with joy–before she succumbs to a fatal heart defect.

The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messener

Messner writes all her books with keen empathy.  This one tells the story of a boy and his mom who briefly lose their apartment and must live in a homeless shelter.  Messenger’s stories helps teachers see that the students who come unprepared are not always “trouble,” but sometimes dealing with difficult situations.

Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

This is a fresh new fantasy series that seems to be inspired by role-playing games.  The protagonist must collect magical objects and assemble a team in order to stop the evil book eaters.

Cousin Phyllis by Elizabeth Gaskell

A short novel about a young woman’s first time falling in love.   It is a simple story, but a beautiful one.  A nice introduction for readers new to Gaskell.

Slider by Pete Hautman

Hautman’s original story focuses on a boy who wants to get into competitive, even though his family does not always understand his dream.  It also beautifully depicts the ways in which sibling relationships can be simultaneously complicated and wonderful.

Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery

A moving look at the Candadian homefront during WWI, this book focuses on Anne Blythe’s youngest daughter as she learns to stop worrying about frivolous things and giving of herself to others.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson always builds incredibly complex and magical worlds.  The Reckoners trilogy introduces readers to a fun world where superheroes are actually supervillains who must be stopped by ordinary individuals.

The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien ed. by Humprhrey Carpenter

Reading a book of letters might seem dull, but Tolkien’s provide lively insight into his life, his work, and his philosophy.  It’s full of musings on the characters of LotR, Tolkien’s insights into the morality of his created world, and fun facts you probably didn’t know!

Keeper of the Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

This is the start of a fun fantasy adventure that will probably actually appeal to fans of Harry Potter.  It has a complex magical world, plenty of mystery and danger, and a cast sure to win your heart.


North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: North and South
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1854


When her father decides he can no longer in good conscience serve the church, Margaret finds herself uprooted to the northern industrial town of Milton.  However, her heart lies in the South and she cannot abide men who reek of trade.  Her pride causes her to clash with Mr. Thornton, who heads a factory and does not share her opinions on the proper relationship between hired hands and their masters.


After reading Sylvia’s Lovers, I looked forward to reading more of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work and especially North and South, regarded as one of her finest novels.  However, though I have seen the book praised as an industrial Pride and Prejudice and a sweeping commentary on the industry of the nineteenth century, I find myself a little disappointed by the book I read.  I adore nineteenth-century novels and do not mind long books or old-fashioned prose or slow plots.  But I still found myself bored at length by North and South.

If I had to guess, I would hazard that 400 pages of this book are debates about the proper relationship of hired men and their employers, the role of the government, and the ways in which the economies of the North and the South either help or hurt people.  The final 100 pages finally show us some action–a bunch of remarkably sudden deaths, losses of fortune, and gains of fortune, all to make sure the story wraps neatly up.  I think the debates could have been interesting–had they been cut short.  And I think the ideas could have been interesting, if they were not all staged as debates between the characters.  I wanted to see them integrated naturally into the text and the conversations, not have them scheduled in as weekly sparring matches between the characters.

I think I did enjoy North and South.  At least, I read it very quickly.  But my quick reading was in part because I wanted to see what happened to the characters, not because I was engrossed by the debating contests.  I wish the story had been a little more streamlined and that it felt a little more natural.  Then I would have enjoyed all of it, not just the “good” parts.

4 stars

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: Wives and Daughters
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1864-1866


Molly Gibson lives a comfortable live with her father until the day he remarries.  Dr. Gibson had hoped for a sensible woman of integrity to watch over his daughter as she grows.  His new wife, however, proves to be of questionable character, as does her daughter Cynthia, who flirts dreadfully and seems to harboring secrets.


Elizabeth Gaskell once again brings a small town to life, showing that a limited cast of characters engaged in everyday activities can prove just as absorbing as any fantasy quest.  Wives and Daughters focuses on the contrast between two young women–Molly Gibson and her stepsister Cynthia Kirkpatrick–as they grow up and discover love.  Their hopes and fears may be centered around seemingly ordinary things–a visit from a friend, the prospect of a ball–but Gaskell reminds us that such things take on extreme importance to the young.  In the process, she makes her readers sympathetic onlookers.

Wives and Daughters is true Gaskell.  As is common in her works, the beautiful and charming woman initially ensnares our worthy hero, who is far too susceptible to looks over character.  Meanwhile, the quiet and good-hearted beauty goes unnoticed.  However, rather than censure the men for being so easily lead astray, Gaskell seems to save her barbs for the women.  The flirt, though depicted as sympathetic, is still roundly criticized for her actions, which not only hurt the men but also drag down other women.  The moral of  the story is clear: virtue is to be valued over charm and is indeed a charming attribute for women in its own right.  Live for others, Gaskell reminds her readers.  Virtue is its own reward.

Still, the book does not feel didactic, possibly because Gaskell seems to believe so earnestly in her own message.  The little lessons are naturally entwined in the story and readers can see for themselves the contrast in character between Molly and Cynthia and between Molly and her stepmother.  Molly comes across as a sweet young thing, not saccharine or unrealistic.  Readers will want to cheer for her and hope that she ends up happy.

My one complaint lies with the ending of the novel, which feels a little like a betrayal.  When I read hundreds of pages of a story that is tending in one direction, I fully expect that story to go where it has been heading–not somewhere else.  My understanding is, however, that Gaskell died before the work was finished and that Frederick Greenwood wrote the ending.  So I suppose her and not Gaskell must be blamed.

Overall, Wives and Daughters is an engrossing and a satisfying story.  North and South and Cranford may be Gaskell’s most well-known works.  But, so far, this one is my favorite.

4 stars