Monday, March 27, 2017

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

My cousin Phillis was like a rose that had come to full bloom on the sunny side of a lonely house, sheltered from storms. I have read in some book of poetry,—

A maid whom there were none to praise, And very few to love.

And somehow those lines always reminded me of Phillis; yet they were not true of her either. I never heard her praised; and out of her own household there were very few to love her; but though no one spoke out their approbation, she always did right in her parents' eyes out of her natural simple goodness and wisdom. 

I was happy to find this novella on audiobook available for digital download at my library. I thought I'd read nearly everything by Elizabeth Gaskell but apparently not! Published in 1864, this is one of Gaskell's lesser-known works and I think that's a shame, because I really enjoyed it.

The book's narrator, Paul Manning, is nineteen and working on the railways as an apprentice engineer. While on an assignment in Cheshire, he learns that he has cousins from his mother's side living nearby, and begins to visit them: the Reverend Holman, a pleasant clergyman-farmer; his devoted wife, and their daughter, Phillis, who is sixteen but is tall, pretty, and intelligent. They all become very fond of each other and are his surrogate home-away-from-home, spending weekends and holidays with the Holmans when it's too far to visit his own family back in Birmingham. 

Reverend Holman works hard as both a farmer and minister, and has a constant curiosity about the world that he's passed on to his daughter. Phillis is tall and beautiful, well out of Paul's league, but he loves her as his own sister. Eventually, Paul brings his best friend and railway supervisor, Edward Holdsworth, to meet the Holmans. Holdsworth is handsome, educated, and well-traveled, and as expected, a sort of love triangle ensues and there is heartbreak. 

This is a lovely, bittersweet novel, and Gaskell expertly describes life on the Holman farm which sounds absolutely idyllic, though it must have been isolating for a bright girl like Phillis. Gaskell also creates really well-defined characters that felt incredibly real, and several times I found myself yelling out loud at them. I also really liked that young Paul was the narrator -- I think she did a great job creating his voice.

My one quibble with the novella was the ending, which I found rather abrupt. Gaskell went into so much detail with the rest of the story that I was surprised how quickly it ended. I did a little research and according to Wikipedia, the novel was first published as a series in four parts and there were two more parts originally planned. I can't find any other sources to back this up but that would explain why it felt unfinished. It's also the work published just before Wives & Daughters, my favorite among her novels, and I think the writing style is quite similar compared to her earlier works which I find a bit harder to read. It's another side to her works which I really liked having read most of her major novels. 


  1. I read Cousin Phillis quite awhile ago, 2009, and so had to go back and reread my posts on it. In the last one ( I did talk about what Gaskell's biographer, Jenny Uglow, had to say about the abrupt ending. Gaskell did sketch out a longer ending that has more resolution, even thought the serialization in Cornhill didn't accomodate it. The mystery is why she left it as is instead of completing it for later publication. My conclusion was that her personality was such that she rushed from project to project and so never took the time to complete the ending as planned after she couldn't do what she wanted for Cornhill.

    I really enjoyed this story too, and now feel that I should reread it!

    1. Thank you! I've read your post and I like that ending better. I also read the previous post and I like your point about the Phillis/Rev. Holman relationship with Molly/Dr. Gibson from Wives & Daughters -- great parallel.

      Also, why in the heck did give Edward the last name Holdsworth when the other family is named Holman? WHY? It's just confusing, especially on audio. Is there some deeper meaning, i.e., Edward is worth holding? The Reverend is a whole man?

    2. You know, I wonder if the Holdwsorth/Holman is simply a symptom of Gaskell being rushed--I think if she hadn't been working under a serial schedule, she probably would've edited it. My theory, anyway. Glad you enjoyed the posts. It's fun to reread posts from years ago--I don't do it much, but it's nice to know I can.


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