Lucinda Elliot

More on Antagonists: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ and the Eponymous Lovers as Antagonists.

SL old cover

Following on from my recent post about antagonists, it is interesting how that role is often played by an inhuman character, and can even be an impersonal force. Sometimes, the identity of the antagonist can even appear to shift from one character to another: one formerly not perceived as an antagonist can become one as regards the protagonist’s aims and goals.

How far this is deliberate obviously varies. In older novels the antagonist, of course, was largely seen as ‘the villain’ and was as often as not fairly obvious, like Count Dracula. Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian times.

Perhaps this is because there weren’t exactly a lot of ‘how to’ books on writing going about in Victorian timesThese days, all writers are far more aware of the mechanics of plot, character development, the necessity of a strong antagonist, and so on.

The shifting role of who is the antagonist is particularly intriguing in one of my favourite classic Victorian stories, Elizabeth Gakelll’s Sylvia’s Lovers. How far this is intentional I find it hard to assess: perhaps the author did it unconsciously.

In the beginning, the antagonist comes across clearly as an impersonal force, the use and abuse of the press gang to recruit sailors by force to fight in the French Revolutionary Wars. In depicting how this changes, I can’t make this point without detailing the plot at various points as I discuss the antagonist aspect. I hope regular readers who have read other articles about this favourite novel of mine will bear with me.

In the second chapter we see a press gang taking the crew of a whaler as it returns from Greenland. A riot breaks out amongst the townsfolk of Monkshaven (Whitby), then a busy whaling port. The passionate, untamed and pretty teenage Sylvia Robson reacts with violent longing to join in the riot. Her shopman cousin Philip Hepburn, who is anything but her idea of a man, regards that as ridiculous in a young girl. His own view is that ‘it’s the law and you can’t do anything about it’.

It was not legal for the press gang to impress whalemen, who were supposedly protected by law from their encroachments. Least of all was it legal to impress them as they returned for six months’ away in the Greenland Seas. In practice these regulations were ignored: any Naval captain was expected to make up his crew with few scruples and much expediency.

For instance, In the Hornblower series, Horatio Hornblower as an naval lieutenant and then as a captain knows, and quietly endorses, the press gang working for his ship taking ‘country bumpkins’ who have obviously never been near the sea in their lives. Its remit is limited to ‘seagoing men’ and I believe, ‘vagabonds’, but this bending of the rules is seen as an unfortunate necessity: without flouting the regulations a captain could not get enough of a crew to leave port. This is a fact to be taken into account when we come to the later career of the gallant rebel, Sylvia’s love object Charley Kinraid.

What can be termed ‘the inciting incident’ of the story, which sets off Sylvia’s infatuation for the Specksioneer Kinraid , is caused by his showy heroic defiance of the gang who come to impress the crew of The Good Fortune.

This tale is recounted to the impressionable Sylvia and her family by the tailor Donkin when he visits their farm. He recounts how Kinraid stood over the hatches, armed with a whaling knife and two pistols, and declares: ‘He has two good pistols, and summat besides, and he don’t care for his life, being a bachelor, but all below are married men, you see, and he’ll put an end to the first two chaps who come near the hatches…’

Stirring heroism, indeed. He does just that with the first two who approach, and for my own part I had to feel for those men, unscrupulous or not, when they were ordinary sailors themselves, and under orders to obey or face hanging for mutiny.

In fact, there is another single man in the crew below, Kinraid’s friend Darley. He does however, have a bedridden sister, though alsi a father living and working for the Vicar, so perhaps that is the reason he is seen as having dependants.

The gang shoot down Kinraid and kick him aside for dead, and fire into the hold, killing Darley, and taking off the others.

Sylvia is agog to hear if Kinraid will survive his wounds. In fact, He is lucky that he was ‘kicked aside for dead’, as if he hadn’t been asssumed to have been killed, he would have been tried for mutiny. She goes to enquire after him of his cousins, the Corneys, and at the same time, arranges to go to Darley’s funeral with Molly Corney. Here, she meets Kinraid, whom two sailor friends have carried up the famous steps to the church. Although he looks like a living corpse, she is still very taken with him, ‘Full of shy admiration of the nearest approach to a hero that she had ever seen.’

Few young men could resist the lure of such a pretty admirer, and when her father, Daniel Robson, himself a former whaler, invites Kinraid to come and visit them, he takes up the invitation and impresses the girl with tales of sea adventures and smuggling. Besides, as he recovers, he regains his looks, with his waving dark hair, flashing dark eyes, and equally flashing white teeth. He is reputedly, besides, the ‘boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’ (poor whales; nobody, not even the humane author, seemed to think of them). He is generally a wholly fitting object for Sylvia’s girlish admiration.


Meanwhile, she has another, largely silent but dogged admirer in her cousin Hepburn. He has a killjoy attitude to harmless fun, having been raised by puritanically devout people who disapprove of all festivity and high spirits, even in the young. Alice Rose, with whom he lives along with his fellow shopman William Coulson, was once a pretty, blooming girl who insisted on marrying the wicked whaler Jack Rose; she is now so embittered that she regards any worldly ambition as futile.

William Coulson’s late sister Annie was once courted by Kinraid back in Newcastle for a couple of years, but he broke off things when he saw another girl he preferred. Rumour has it that after that, he moved on from that girl in turn when he saw yet another he liked better. Annie Coulson subsequently died within six months, and Coulson puts it down to a broken heart.

Besides being solemn, Philip has an unprepossessing appearance with an indoor complexion and a long upper lip. He is wholly tame and seemingly lacking in masculinity in comparison to the dashing Kinraid. He has a blind spot about his obsessive infatuation with Sylvia; he cannot see that his plan to win the lively, ignorant, thoughtless girl through rising to become the owner of the drapers where he works, and through teaching her to read, is, to say the least, ill thought out.

It is worth pointing out here that Sylvia seems as infatuated at this point with adventures in the Greenland Seas as she does with the man Charley Kinraid himself. Hilary Schoer makes the astute point that Sylvia, as a girl with a restricted and largely domestic role, cannot aspire to such adventures herself. Though she dreams of these, she is compelled to sublimate by playing the female role and falling in love with the man who personifies those adventuers in her eyes.

Kinraid goes back to sea, but fifteen months later he attends a New Year’s party to which Hepburn escorts Sylvia, and on this visit, he courts her passionately – to the annoyance of both Hepburn and Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney, who regards herself as unofficially engaged to him. It is typical of Kinraid’s extrovert character that he finishes up the New Year festivities by dancing a hornpipe. This is in fact what Wiley Ben does at a festivity in Adam Bede, but while his performance is depicted as ludicrous, no doubt Kinraid’s is executed with style.

Before he sails to Greenland, Kinraid comes to ask Sylvia to marry him with suitable directness and dash: ‘Ever since I saw yo’ in the corner of the kitchen, sitting crouching behind my uncle, I as good as swore I’d have yo’ for my wife, or never wed at all.’ She cannot believe her luck. When the next day, Hepburn turns up to tell her of Kinraid’s reputation as a ‘light o’ love’ and the story of Annie Coulson she dismisses it as a ‘back biting tale’.

The next day Heburn walks along the beach the seven miles to Hartlepool, it being the most direct route (It is an interesting comment on how used to walking people were in this era that Hepburn, who follows a despised and sedentary occupation, does this with ease). To his dismay, he sees Kinraid walking ahead of him on his way back to Newcastle. By a bitter irony (or a karmic test), Hepburn is the only witness when Kinraid is taken by a press gang.

He leaves a message with Hepburn for Sylvia. Outrageously, after hearing more talk of Kinraid’s past behaviour with women in a Newcastle pub, Hepburn decides against telling her the truth. He will not let Sylvia make her own mistakes. The community at Monkshaven, finding Kinraid’s hat washed up on the shore, assume he has somehow been drowned, and Hepburn remains silent. Whatever the reader might think of Charley Kinraid’s character, this an appalling piece of treachery.

At this point in the novel, from the point of view of Sylvia as protagonist, Hepburn largely takes over from the press gang as the antagonist, in that he is the chief block to her achieving her wishes.

While Sylvia mourns Kinraid and the happiness she is sure she would have shared with him, Hepburn – helped by dread, impersonal forces when the foolish Daniel Robson is hanged for leading a crowd to burn the press gang’s headquarters – continues to act to thwart the heroine’s natural inclinations. His aunt Bell Robson loses her mind under the strain. Sylvia and the labourer Kester struggle on to try and keep the farm going, but now the dispirited Sylvia gives up on the fight. Kester urges her, ‘Dunnot go and marry a man as thou’s noane taken wi’, and another, as is most like for t’b e dead, but who, mebbe, is alive, havin’ a pull on thy heart.’

That is exactly what Sylvia does. She feels imprisoned in the house behind the shop in town. It is a dismal marriage for her; she is unable to forget Kinraid. She and Hepburn are unsuited.

It is never made clear whether she is actually physically indifferent to him or whether she is actively repelled by him. As a respectable Victorian writer, Gaskell would have considered it wholly inappropriate to make this explicit, or even to dwell too much on it. Possibly because of this, it is possible to read too much into the fact that one of the chapters in the first volume is called ‘Attraction and Repulsion’ – the said ‘repulsion’ may reflect more on the behaviour of iron and magnets than anything.

This is the period of Hepburn’s greatest success in both his working life and his personal life. Still, he finds that marriage to the now quiet and docile Sylvia a disappointment; he misses the old lively one. He remains the antagonist as far as Sylvia’s goals are concerned, save for her having the baby Bella, which is an endless source of delight to her.

Then, of course, Charley Kinraid returns. He is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, having been promoted for his participation in Sir Sidney Smith’s adventures. While Sylvia and Kinraid’s indignation and disgust at Hepburn’s dishonesty are ferocious. Unfortunately, I have to say – slightly off topic – that part of the writing here is absurd in some places, if tragic in others.

For instance: ‘This is Kinraid come back again to wed me. He is alive; he has never been dead…’ Well, he wouldn’t exactly be likely to have been dead and then alive, would he? That doesn’t tend to happen in this world with ordinary mortals. Then there are Kinraid’s own speeches, which have a stereotypical, cardboard flavour about them: ‘Take that!…Leave that damned fellow to repent the trick he paid an honest sailor.’

Anyway, although she refuses to leave with Kinraid, Sylvia swears an oath never to forgive Hepburn or to live with him as his wife again. Hepburn, overcome with shame, packs a few possessions and runs away to join the army. He has the idea that if he can return as a hero too, she might forgive him. Presumably, Sylvia does not give any thought to Kinraid’s certain role in raising press gangs now he is a naval officer himself, as she keeps her high opinion of him. At the Siege of Acre Hepburn comes across a wounded Kinraid (this man really is indestructable) and rescues him. However, shortly afterwards, he is horribly disfigured by an explosion. Unfitted for service and unrecognisable, he drifts home to live in a state of semi starvation.

Meanwhile, Sylvia has learnt some disturbing news. Within seven months of their dramatic parting, Kinraid has married someone else, a pretty, superficial heiress. Now Sylvia is humiliated, indignant against Kinraid, mortified that he has been able to forget her so quickly and replace her with someone else. She bitterly says, ‘I’m speaking like a woman,  like a woman as finds out she’s been cheated by men  as she trusted, and has no help for it.’  She tells Hester Rose, ‘Those as  one thinks t’most on, forgets one soonest.’ Sylvia may not be cerebral; but she clearly sees that both men, through their vastly differing temperements, have failed to keep faith with her.

I have often been puzzled by the depiction of Charley Kinraid.  He is almost always depicted externally, and he is not, in fact, in the novel very much, though he has such a catastrophic effect on the lives of the others. Graham Handley suggests that this element of mystery is a deliberate ploy on Elizabeth Gaskell’s part to make the character more intriguing, for when the reader is given access to his thoughts, they are not very interesting. Perhaps it is significant that when he thinks himself to be dying at the Seiege of Acre, he pities his ‘new made wife’ for losing him.

As Arthur Pollard remarks, ‘ It might be said that Kinraid is hardly individualised enough to carry the weigh the part he is given… On Kinraid’s return there seems to be a certain inadequacy in his response, a conventional theatrical quality…Finally, however, he shows that he really is just conventional. By marrying the superficial woman we hear about, he is shown to be superficial himself, as superficial as some people said he was and the reader has at times suspected.’

This is an astute approach of the author’s. Now, Sylvia experiences disillusionment with the man she has idolised for years. ‘I think I’ll niver call him Kinraid agin.’ If Hepburn has broken the first commandment in worshipping Sylvia, she has done the same with Kinraid.

At the end of the story Sylvia is reconciled with Hepburn, who has done some more heroics in rescuing their daughter from the waves.  To some extent, he has changed places with Kinraid in her eyes. Now, in an odd reversal of roles, he is the wounded, corpse like hero.  Previously, Hepburn formed a human barrier between Sylvia and the fulfilment of her dream – marriage to Charley Kinraid.  Now it seems to her that she has discovered her mistake about Kinraid’s shallowness too late. In a revulsion of feeling,  she sees her long infatuation with him as having served as a barrier to any chance of happiness with Hepburn, even though her cousin did marry her under false pretences. She even excuses Hepburn’s former treachery: ‘Thou thought he was faitthless and fickle, and so he were.’  Whatever the truth of that, she loses them both.

Overall, as some modern critics have argued, Sylvia cannot make a right choice between her eponymous lovers, as neither of them has shown himself worthy of her trust. Neither could be a satisfactory partner to her in the long run. Kinraid is handsome and dynamic but superficial and opportunistic. If Hepburn had behaved honourably, passed on his message, and Sylvia had duly married Kinraid on his return, she would certainly have been disillusioned fairly soon.  Hepburn is deeply devoted but plain looking and dismal  and  selfishly keeps Sylvia from making her own mistakes through his obsession with her. He can only be unselfishly loving at the end of his life.

Thus, arguably, both male leads can be said also to play the part of antagonists regarding Sylvia’s happiness; Hepburn through his imprisoning devotion, Kinraid through being a false idol.

I was flattered that someone had made a meme out of my ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ summary on social media. The problem is, that I can’t enlarge the copy I took of it enough to maake it legible, so I will quote it instead:

‘Philip Hepburn worships Sylvia Robson, and finds dishonour; Sylvia Robson worships Charley Kinraid, and finds dissilusionment. Charley Kinraid worships himself, and finds a wife who agrees with him and a career in the Royal Navy.’

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