Sylvia's Lovers

By Elizabeth Gaskell; Andrew Sanders | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Sylvia's Lovers was inspired by a holiday visit to Whitby paid by Elizabeth Gaskell and her two daughters in November 1859. She spent only a fortnight in the town, and, despite the fact that she went out walking every day, she later explained the fact that there were minor topographical slips in the novel by recalling that 'it was such cloudy November weather that I might very easily be ignorant of the points of the compass if I did not look at a map'. Nevertheless, Whitby, its recent history, and its extraordinary setting, stirred her into writing her profoundest and saddest novel. We know from the preface to Mary Barton of 1848 that a story 'the period of which was more than a century ago, and the place on the borders of Yorkshire' had been contemplated before the novelist had embarked on her 'tale of Manchester life', but this Yorkshire story was abandoned and it would not seem to have contributed significantly to a mature masterpiece of the quality of Sylvia's Lovers. Whitby, or as it becomes in the novel, Monkshaven, is situated far from the 'borders' of Yorkshire and both the constant interaction of sea and land and the Napoleonic period in which it is set suggest a completely fresh idea. Almost certainly that idea had grown both out of a long-fostered fascination with the sea and out of a new and extended acquaintance with Yorkshire as a result of the researches involved in the composition of The Life of Charlotte Brontë between 1855 and 1857. The differences between land- locked Haworth and Whitby, and between the Brontë parsonage and the Robsons' farm at Haytersbank, are so striking as to discourage too easy a connection between the two.

The kind of investigation pursued at Haworth must, however, have added to Mrs Gaskell's pleasure and discrimination in discovering and recording anecdote, details of domestic life, and conversation marked by regional sounds and words. It would seem likely that one particular source of information

-vii-

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