The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 18. Sylvia’s Lovers

But the strictures passed upon passages of this biography gave much pain to its author, and for some years she published little of importance. Lady Ludlow, which was reprinted with several other tales in the pleasantly introduced collection Round the Sofa in after appearing in Household Words during the summer months of the previous year, cannot be reckoned among her best stories; though some of the characters, from the highbred châtelaine to the acute little poacher’s son, are admirably drawn, the machinery, for once, does not move easily. Mrs. Gaskell found herself and her wonderful power of narrative again in Sylvia’s Lovers (1863), a perfect story but for a certain lengthiness and excess of /??/ towards the close. The terrors of the press-gang, a remarkably lucid account of which, after the time-honoured manner of Scott, introduces the story, serves as a background to a domestic drama of extraordinary power, strengthened in its hold upon the mind by the graphic art that brings the grand “Monkshaven” seascape and the rough times of the great naval wars vividly before us. Sylvia’s Lovers can certainly not be called a political novel; but it is a historical novel in the broader sense in which The Heart of Midlothian may be thus described, and worthy to be named with that masterpiece as a tale of passion and anguish that goes straight to every human heart. “It was,’ Mrs. Gaskell said, “the saddest story I ever wrote”; and she poured into it all the infinite pity of which her loving nature was capable. The canvas of the story is full of figures, instinct with life and truth, including Kester, her single male example of a class always a favourite in British fiction, but never drawn with more affectionate humour than by Mrs. Gaskell, whom her own domestic servants adored.