Lucinda Elliot

Plasticity,Recycled Characters and Beloved Brothers: Part One: Elizabeth Gaskell

SL old cover

In an earlier post, I discussed how Elizabeth Gaskell used a particular character type – suely largely based on her lost and beloved brother – the charming, brave, dashing and handsome sailor, three times, in slightly different variations.

She used this character type possibly four times, if I count the returned sailor ‘Poor Peter’ in  ‘Cranford’ ( I have yet to read that).

This reuse of a character type, is in fact, is contrary to the cliam which WA Craik makes of the author n her 1970 work ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the English Provincial Novel’, that this author never  revisits character types or situations. This is so untrue, that I was startled by it. It seems to show a startling lack of perception on the part of that biographer.

Having read some biographies of Elizbeth Gaskell, I am always struck by the fact that she never properly got over the disappearance of this brother, John,  who went unaccountably missing during a voyage to India (possiby onland: it is unclear).  He was in fact, fairly dissatisfied with life as a sailor immediately before he vanished, and his normally lively spirits were subdued, to the point, it seems, where he reported that he was nicknamed  by his shipmates ‘The silent man’.

I have sometimes wondered if th efamily knew more about the disappearance of John, and concealed it because it contained an element of social disgrace. Still,  here, I am spectulating without any solid basis for my suspicion, and merely because a  lie, or anyway, an obfustification,  plays a great part of the plot of several of the author’s novels;  further, it is connected with this character and his fate in at least two of them,  ‘North and South’ and  ‘Sylvia’s Lovers.’

The first incarnation of this character type, Will Wilson in ‘Mary Barton’ is guilesss and uncomplicated. He possesses the dark ringlets that Gaskell always gives to this Jolly Sailor Boy  type, has the liking to tell a good tall tale she always attributes to sailors besides, is upright and honourable and as his foster mother and aunt Alice says, ‘steady’.

Here, the character is essentially unevolved. Will has very little between his ears. He is, however, unfailing decisive and upright in his dealings. This is never more obvious as when, on hearing that he will be able to save Jem by acting as witness in his murder trial, he leaves his ship to join Mary, who has hired a boat to  pursue his ship up the Mersey to where it joins the Irish Sea.

He falls in love with Mary’s rather dull and prudish friend Margaret – who is suffering from a blindness brought on through early onset cataract – after hearing her sing, as her voice is spectacular.

At the end of the novel, the prim Margaret – whom we must hope as a wife and mother finds time to sing, as it is her one fascinating characteristic -and Will Wilson emigrate to the US, along with Jem Wilson and Mary. Margaret has had her sight restored by a successful operation (it is interesitng that cataract operations could be performed successfully so early) and all ends happily for the couple.

He is next used in her 1853  novel North and South. Here, Frederick Hale is wholly beguiling, possessed of startling good looks and  wide set, deep blue eyes besides the inevitable dark ringlets. He loves to tell a story, adores his fiance and newly discovered sister, risks his life to visit his family and his dying mother (he’s wanted on a charge of mutiny] and has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous.

He has to live as an exile as he has parcipitated in a mutiny against an abusive captain.  Justice might be on his side, but the law is on that of the captain, and he is – in a realistic piece of plotting – never able to clear his name in England. Still, he does marry an heiress abroad, and has his own happy ending.

He is, in fact, the polar opposite of the male lead, the grim faced, emotionally repressed John Thornton.

This Honest Sailor character type next incarnation is a bit of a deterioration. In fact, intriguingly, I was put in mind by the anecdotes about the psychic projections, the thought forms, made by the Tibetian monks of old. They warned  Alexandra David-Neale that ‘the children of our mind’ can escape the control of the creator, and gradually become tainted with unpleasant qualities. If Frederick Hale is the apex of this character type,  Charley Kinraid, ‘The boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland seas’ may have superficial charm, but morally and in terms of emotional depths, he is certainy a deterioration.

He is  ringletted, handsome, charming, dashing and brave, but emotionally superficial and something of an opportunist.  I have written elsewhere about his evolution from rebellious Specksiioner who opposes the press gang to the point of killing off two of its members without a qualm, to Royal Navy Captain who must call on the press gang to muster his crew.

It is part of his indistructable nature (this man is made of Teflon) that he survives two serious woundings, being taken by th press gang, some years’ imprisonment in France and various battles, to be vigorous and cheeful in the company of his superficial, sheltered wife at the end.

He has an unattractive history of betraying woman. According to his rival Hepburn’s work colleague in the haberdasher’s shop, the Quaker William Coulson,  these include his sister Annie (though our age would not credit Coulson’s claim that she died of a broken heart) and at least two others after her. There is also Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Courney , who is convinced that she is engaged to him at the same time as Sylvia (I always found it remarkable that this bathetic situation wasn’t treated with more humour, but I suppose the author thought that it would detract from the tragic tone of the novel).  None of this is exactly proved, but Coulson is after all a Quaker, who regards lying as a deadly sin.

Elizabeth Gaskell  also recycled another type at least twice – the Hardworking, Unornamental Stoic Hero type. This type deteriorated too between the early and later variation.

This character  doesn’t have ringlets – they’d get in the way of his Work Ethic and might even attract The Wrong Sort of Woman – but he does have a boundless capacity for devotion. He is steady and some. In fact, he can be so steady he comes to resemble a rock pinning the heroine down with his insistent love – but she does comes to see his worth.

His first incarnation is John Thornton in ‘North and South’. It is a mark of GAskell’s gift as a writer that she managed to make me feel for this character, for the man stands for everything I despise.

Until towards the end he’s a devoted upholder of merciless, unregulated capitalism, he is a ‘tireless champion of the overdog’ (no, that isn’t mine; I lifted it from a nineteen fifties film starring Arthur Askey – of all people.; he believes in Hard Work.
Hmm. We all know the old saw – all work and no play… You’d need a microscope to discover his sense of humour.

He seems totally arrogant and unbending, even in his unrequited love – but – after Margaret Hale has rejected his proposal quite as scornfully as Elizabeth Bennet does Mr Darcy, we see his vulnterablity: ‘When he had gone, she thought she had seen the gleam of unshed tears in his eyes; and that turned her proud dislike into something different and kinder, though, if nearly as painful – self reproach for having caused such mortification to anyone.’

That did make me feel for him.

He does have moral standards – he’s a great believer in honour and he is brave enough – but there is something inhumane about them, as his love object Margaret Hale is well aware. There is something puritanical about him.

We realise that his tragic background  has made him unfeeling towards his fellow men and women. His entrepreneur father failed in business and killed himself, leaving his family destitute and his mother consequently embittered and emotionally frozen, though she worships her son to an alarming degree. We come to  feel compassion for him; during the course of the story, he comes to recognise the humanity of his ‘hands’, the need for human values in business as well as private life and his obligation to safeguard the welfare of his workforce.

He also learns humility when his business nearly goes bankrupt, and we leave him and Margaret Hale in tender reconciliation.

I did like that…

Philip Hepburn in ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is the second version of this mutating character, and I have to say that I didn’t like him at all. Puritanical, self righteous, cautious (except in his headlong almost masochistic passion for Sylvia) he really needs to write to a problem page about his attitude to life.

Fun? Never heard of it; interests? what are those? His interests in life are Hard Work and planning to marry Sylvia Robson.

His betrayal of Kinraid and Sylvia, when he fails to pass on the press ganged Kinraid’s message for her, is dismal. It is true that Gaskell makes all the excuses for him she can. – He has just found out yet more rumours about Kinraid’s womanising through the cheerful gossip of his fellow sailors in a Newcastle pub. He has found out, too, that Kinraid’s cousin Bessy Corney thinks that she is engaged to Kinraid at the same time that he has been pressing his suit on Sylvia – but the sheer self-serving treachery of his action or inaction –  it is still bad enough.

When discovered and rejected by Sylvia, Hepburn, full of repentance goes off to become a hero in the hope of impressing Sylvia and winning back her love.

It is an irony of the text that he does in fact become the very hero that Sylvia has wanted all along to worship, only to be so disfigured in an explosion that he becomes unrecognisable and fears that she will be disgusted by him.

Their death bed understanding slightly reconciled me to him. I could see an interesting turn of the wheel of fortune in the text.

In the beginning of the story, when Sylvia first meets Kinraid, she is so impressed by his brave act in getting almost shot dead while defying a press gang that she doesn’t mind that he looks like an animated corpse, ‘gaunt and haggard’. In fact, she becomes infatuated with him even before he gets his looks back, and is eager to speak to a man she regards as a wounded hero when he attends his friend Darley’s funeral.

In the end, Hepburn is disfigured and dying, but still, in having rescued his hated enemy Kinraid at the Seige of Acre and their daughter Bella from an opportune tidal wave – he is the hero it is part of Sylvia’s psyche to need to worship.  and he new found love for him is sincere enough in its own way.

This use of basic types, transforming their psyche (not as if that was a thing envisaged in Gaskell’s era) with a tweak here, a trait there, is very intriguing.

This recycling of a character type is, of course, only a more obvious example of what all authors do to some exent. If we add a physical feature here, add a quality there, drop one there, we have a totally new individual, and one whose experiences must necessarily be different. That is one of the fascinating aspects of writing.

Elizabeth Gasekll was only one of many who gave a characer several incarnations. Perhaps,  thoughs she was unusual in being so bound up with giving the happy ending that real life denied to a beloved lost brother, whose fate was almost certainly tragic.

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