The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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August 3, 2011

'A sharp surprise upon the sweet'

Elizabeth Gaskell's short (100-page) novel Cousin Phillis, published as a magazine serial in 1863-1864, reminded me of Cranford, but without the humor and hope of the earlier book. It's very sweet, and quiet, and low-keyed, and sad, and it's easy to see why her biographer was struck by how a busy, energetic woman, driven in so many directions in her daily life, could write a story like this one.               

In Cousin Phillis, the narrator is Paul Manning, who has just taken up his first job as a clerk to the engineer overseeing the building of a railway line between two country towns (another Cranfordian element). (It's not especially important here, either, but we find out later that he's looking back on these events many years later, as Mary Smith is in Cranford). As the book opens, he unpacks the hamper of food his mother has packed for him {'there was the fine savour of knowing that I might eat of these delicacies when I liked, at my sole will, not dependent on the pleasure of any one else, however indulgent'} and stows things away in his new lodgings {'that room was all corners, and everything was placed in a corner, the fire-place, the window, the cupboard; I myself seemed to be the only thing in the middle, and there was hardly room for me'}. Paul is young (I think he's 18) and unsophisticated; he is impressed with his new boss, Mr. Holdsworth, and appreciates the older man's friendship.

When he fills up his weekly letter to his parents by describing a trip to the 'pretty village' of Heathbridge, his mother asks him to call on her second cousin, whom she remembers living there. Paul objects (as any grown son would!) but obeys. When he calls on the cousin at Hope Farm, he also meets her husband, who is the interesting mix of farmer and minister, and their daughter, who is a year or two younger than he is.

I see her now -- Cousin Phillis. The westering sun shone full upon her, and made a slanting stream of light into the room within. She was dressed in dark blue cotton of some kind:  up to her throat, down to her wrists, with a little frill of the same wherever it touched her white skin. And such a white skin as it was! (I have never seen the like. She had light hair, nearer yellow than any other colour. She looked me steadily in the face with large, quiet eyes, wondering, but untroubled by the sight of a stranger. I thought it odd so old, so full-grown as she was, she should wear a pinafore over her gown.
Phillis is quiet, her emotions and her passions there but tamped down, sheltered but intellectually curious. There are no romantic feelings, on either side {'I'd rather be taller and more learned than my wife, when I have one'}, but Phillis and Paul fall into a little bit of competitive banter, then a brother-and-sisterly fondness for each other.

Things change when the Holmans invite Mr. Holdsworth to stay at Hope Form to help him recover from an illness.  Holdsworth is a 'delightful' and 'upright' fellow, with 'a want of seriousness in his talk at times,' he is well-traveled, with 'Italian looks' and interesting stories to tell.  He talks about books with Mr. Holman, charms Mrs. Holman, and secretly writes out a translation of the 'hard, obsolete words' that Phillis struggles with as she reads Dante. Phillis literally makes herself ill over him, running outside in a storm to retrieve his surveying equipment.

Before he leaves, suddenly, to take up a new post in Canada, Holdsworth tells Paul that he loves Phillis and hopes to return for her. Seeing her drawn and tired from her illness, Paul tells her what Holdsworth had said, and she begins to recover, until they receive letters and visiting cards announcing Holdsworth's marriage.

The rest of the story focuses on Mr. Holman's anger and shock over the secret romance and the threatened loss of his child's childhood {'Phillis! Did we not make you happy here? Have we not loved you enough?'}, Phillis' dangerous relapse, and an ending that only means that things will never change. 

Along the way, there is sweetness, and humor, and respect for good country people, and and beautifully-described summer days and harvests. There's melodramatic tension, but it's so understated. I've enjoyed EG's Cranfordian writing more The Moorland Cottage or North and South, but when I finished Cousin Phillis, all I could do was sigh, close the cover, be glad that I had a chance to read it, and start looking around for something lively to read next. :) 

{image found here}

1 comment:

Karen K. said...

I just finished North and South and absolutely loved it (I'm looking forward to the DVD which is supposed to be wonderful). I'll have to add Cousin Phillis to the to-read list. I've loved everything by Elizabeth Gaskell so far, thanks for mentioning this one. And I love the illustration you posted.

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