I’ve slowly — by which I mean, over several decades — been reading all of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell (known in her lifetime as Mrs. Gaskell), whenever I happen upon one. I was handed probably her best-known novel, Cranford, by a knowing vintage book dealer when I was seventeen, and have searched out her others ever since.
This one is another Victorian delight, a pastoral reflection of country life at the dawn of the steam age that sees young Paul Manning, sent out into the wilds of a bucolic idyll by his bosses at the railroad, and forced to pay a visit on his aunt, who lives nearby.
Said aunt is married to a vicar, and is possessed of a lovely daughter — the eponymous Phillis, and I have literally read that name as “Phyllis” every time until just now, because my brain wants it to be that way — and while the ungainly Paul is not immune to her beauty, he soon settles into a familial relationship with her, acceptable to even modern readers. (Cousins get married all the time in books of this vintage, of course… and it’s never not squicky.) Meanwhile, both Paul and Phillis find themselves deeply admiring Paul’s personable boss…
Lyrical and lovely and sentimental and sad, with occasional leavening by some pointed humour, especially in the dialogue, this is the story of a particular time and place that perhaps never was, but that will live forever in these pages. Bucolic and timeless, the lifestyle this book captures is about to change dramatically, altered inexorably by the tide of progress that is about to spread throughout the land, and world. It’s like reading a book set just before the internet, or before smart phones, but one that sees the change coming and begins to envisage just what the world will be like at the same time the next year (or the next week, in the case of smart phones).
Which accounts for my sense of melancholy just now. These days, we’re constantly on the brink of a Brave New World. And, like the residents of this sleepy little hamlet, I’m never quite ready when it comes.
TBR DAY 149: Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell
GENRE: Classics, General Fiction
TIME ON THE TBR: 5 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Op shop.