I've finished Sylvia's Lovers and have been digesting a bit before posting my thoughts on it. To aid in the digestion, I read the sections in Jenny Uglow's Gaskell bio that deal with SL and the writing of it. The main thing I learned was what a tremendous job Gaskell did with the dialects of the various characters. This was pretty much lost on my American tin ear, but apparently she distinguished between classes and regions to a degree that would have made Henry Higgins proud.
Here's what Uglow says:
...Gaskell kept faith with the expression of the people. Speech, as William [Gaskell's husband] had insisted in his 'Lectures on Lancashire Dialect', has its own history and evolution, displaying regional, class and individual variants. Gaskell carefully gave Bell Robson Cumbrian forms to fit her origins. The manuscript reveals numerous alterations of word endings and technical details such as variations of the definite--the, th', t'...Such details, imperceptible to most of her readers, were in tune with her determination to gather the 'unimportant' chaff and dust of past lives.
I still have to read about press gangs, which is an appendix in the Penquin Classics version I have of the novel, but I think I can say that I liked the book well enough. I've heard that many critics think that Gaskell fell into melodrama in the final volume, and much as I like Gaskell, I can't say I disagree with this. The chapter in which Philip saves Kinraid stretches belief to the breaking point, and their last encounter pushes it over the edge. In reading the bio of Gaskell simultaneously with reading the works themselves shows that Gaskell was an impatient writer. In SL, unlike N&S, she wasn't writing serially, but life had intruded on her progress with the novel to such a degree that she was impatient to be done with it and so forced the ending in ways that require revision...but unless there were lawsuits, as in the case of her bio of Bronte, it seems that Gaskell rarely reworked what she produced.
In comparing Gaskell to Austen, Austen's novels, except Persuasion and perhaps Northanger Abbey, are polished, perfected, exquisite, whereas Gaskell's tend to be hurried. It's significant to me that Gaskell said that Cranford was the only of her novels that she ever reread once she had finished it.