Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cousin Phillis - Tragedy Averted

If you haven't read Gaskell's Cousin Phillis yet, be forewarned that this post contains spoilers. However, if you're like me, you might enjoy the book more knowing that none of the major characters dies. In fact, offhand, I can't think of a single death in the novella, which must make this unique among Gaskell's works!

Not that there isn't a life-threatening illness and plenty of opportunities for Gaskell to wrench hearts again, but this time she merely settled for merely putting the reader through the wringer waiting for the axe to fall.

I'm being flip, but I think that Cousin Phillis does mark a maturing style on Gaskell's part that culminates in Wives and Daughters. Speaking of Wives and Daughters, Ebenezer Holman, Phillis's father, foreshadows Dr. Gibson in his relationship with his daughter. They are close, they are alike in interests and temperament, and he panics when he realizes that his daughter is no longer a little girl but a marriageable woman.

I also enjoyed contrasting Cousin Phillis with Sylvia's Lovers. As I mentioned in the previous post on this work, she's telling the same basic story twice but exploring different ways in which the relationships and the character of the young woman can change and grow and evolve.
Unlike Sylvia's Lovers, I love the way this story closes. Betty, the family's kitchen servant, tells Paul, the narrator, about the speech she delivered to Phillis, who was taking too long to recover from the fever that set in after her heart was broken by the faithlessness of her erstwhile lover:

'Now, Phillis!' said she, coming up to the sofa; 'we ha' done a'we can for you, and th' doctors has done a' they can for you, and I think the Lord has done a' He can for you, and more than you deserve, too, if you don't do something for yourself. If I were you, I'd rise up and snuff the moon, sooner than break your father's and your mother's hearts wi' watching and waiting till it pleases you to fight your Own way back to cheerfulness. There, I never favoured long preachings, and I've said my say.'

We all should have a Betty in our lives to tell us to fight our own way back to cheerfulness and not to break the hearts of those who love us with our melancholy. It's worth saying that Phillis takes Betty's words to heart and takes charge of her own fight and rallies. You go, girl!

In a nutshell, here is what Gaskell is saying in Cousin Phillis: we can't control what others do--if a lover leaves before he even proposes, if he marries someone else instead of returning home to us--but we can control how we respond to it.

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