A Minor Work from Gaskell

Cover of Cousin Phillis showing a young Victorian woman working by a window

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Cousin Phillis is a late novella by Elizabeth Gaskell in which a young man, Paul Manning, recounts meeting his cousin and her family and becoming involved in their rural farm life.

Like Cranford, Cousin Phillis depicts the effects of industrialization, and also like that novel, involves a coming railway line. Paul is a clerk for an engineer building a branch line from Eltham to Hornby. Paul’s mother has a second cousin in a nearby village who is married to a minister with a thriving farm, and his father encourages Paul to introduce himself to the family. Paul finds Cousin Phillis to be tall, beautiful, and very well-read, but while Paul is clearly stricken by her and Paul’s father encourages him to court her, Paul wants a wife who is not smarter or taller than he. After some time, Mr. Holdsworth, Paul’s worldly managing engineer, becomes ill and goes to the farm to recover, where he and Phillis fall for each other.

Gaskell is one of my favorite authors, but although this is a late work, it feels more like a minor effort. The Wikipedia entry, if it is to be believed, says that a fifth and sixth part were planned, so Gaskell may have intended to write a fuller, more interesting novel, but most of what happens here is predictable and foreshadowed from the start. As it stands, it’s a simple, straightforward, and somewhat ridiculous story to the modern eye. For example, Phillis’s father, a very perceptive minister in most regards, seems to have no clue about what is going on in his daughter’s head even though Paul sees it quite clearly. And a major plot point hinges on a life-threatening “brain fever,” whatever that is.

As always, Gaskell tells a vivid story and writes with thoughtful empathy–no author of her time was better at understanding their characters, in my opinion. Some of the characters, like the perceptive maid Betty, are wonderfully drawn. But while Cousin Phillis is an enjoyable read, Gaskell’s horror stories are more fun, and Wives and Daughters and North and South have much more complexity and insight. This slight novel isn’t a great introduction to what this wonderful author is capable of.