Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cousin Phillis - Geeks and Freaks...the other side of Sylvia

I started Elizabeth Gaskell's Cousin Phillis (Victorian Collection) last night. Structurally and in length, it seems to be really more of a novella than a novel. It is divided into parts, four of them, instead of chapters, and it's only just under 100 pages in the Penquin edition I have, so this promises to be a quick, but interesting read.

It is quite different from what I was expecting. Phillis and her father are nerds, rural, Victorian style, but nerds none the less. They read Virgil for fun, they get up between 3 and 4 in the morning so that they can have plenty of time to work, they are fascinated by the narrator's father, who is a self-taught engineer/inventor and a kindred spirit to Phillis and father, who also happens to be an Independent minister in his spare time (i.e., on the weekends). She's a golden beauty to boot, and a model seventeen-year-old.

Actually, Phillis is the flip of Sylvia from Gaskell's Sylvia's Lovers, the novel that precedes this chronologically. Sylvia, also a rural beauty and an only child, couldn't care less about learning and has a male cousin who worships her. Interestingly, Gaskell is taking roughly the same story in a much different direction. The male cousin, in this case he's the narrator, knows that Phillis is completely out of his league and is quite comfortable acknowledging that she is goddess material and he would really rather be friends with goddesses than married to them.

There are many things I'm enjoying in this work--another run at the Sylvia story, the information about the building of the railroad line (the narrator is a clerk for the chief engineer responsible for building a spur of the railroad in the neighborhood where Phillis and her family live), and the very positive portrayal of the geeks/nerds who thirst for knowledge, appreciate engineering and mechanics, and follow their passions.

I have spent most of my life reading Victorian/Edwardian/Regency novels so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that my world view is aligned with the "Progress is Good" and "Technology will Make the World a Better Place" mantras that characterize 19th century thought. There's an irony, of course, in that I am also tremendously nostalgic for unsuburbanized landscapes and lifestyles and totally buy into the Romantic view of nature as nurturer.

I'm hopeful that the narrator's engineer boss, whom he idolizes, and Phillis will hit it off. They seem made for each other. An engineer God and a Latin-reading milkmaid Goddess. I really love Gaskell!


  1. Very interesting! I've read a few Gaskell novels, but not this one and not Sylvia's Lovers, but they sound very good, and I look forward to getting to them!

  2. I'm always interested in what people think of the lesser known Gaskell's--let me know if/when you tackle them. Thanks for stopping by.