The third Hesperus review this week (and don’t forget my competition draw) is from the pen of Elizabeth Gaskell – I can proudly state that I was one of those smug people who’d read Cranford before the Dames Eileen and Judi received their scripts. That’s not all, I had Wives and Daughters under my belt, as well as a couple of short story collections. No matter that I got Wives and Daughters confused with Sons and Lovers on occasion (titles only, you understand) and had avoided all the grim-oop-North novels, I think I could count myself a Gaskell aficiando. Or at least admirer.
So I swooped on Cousin Phillis like a swallow, er, swooping somewhere. If not simply for the author, also for the beautiful cover, and the fact that Jenny Uglow (a Gaskell biographer) wrote the Foreword.
Paul Manning is the first person narrator, who goes off into the countryside to make the acquaintance of distant relatives – Mr. and Mrs. Holman, and their young daughter Phillis. Their simple kindness wins over both Paul and the reader – Gaskell’s portrait of uncomplex country folk with hearts of gold has none of the absurdity of Dickens, nor a hint of patronisation, but comes across as both genuine and touching. When Manning’s sophisticated and admired colleague, Holdsworth, makes a lengthy visit, the trails of quiet passion and potential romance become far from simple, and leave a subtle and subdued heartache for more than one.
Cousin Phillis is a gentle tragedy without a baddie, a perfectly structured depiction of friendship, family, honesty and romance which is all the more moving for its verisimilitude. It is the sort of situation Gaskell would often frame in her short stories, though never so toucingly. Another Cranford this is not, neither in scope nor tone, but I can only agree with Uglow when she calls it a ‘perfect miniature nestling among the great Victorian three-volume novels’. Yesterday we saw that the Russians could do concise – who knew the Victorians could too? At this rate we’ll find a short sentence by Henry James.