Sylvia’s Lovers, unpopular withWhitby folk – but a very good read

First published in Countryman's Diary

MANY of us will be watching Cranford, which is the BBC television adaptation of three of Mrs Gaskell's novels. Cranford, set in Cheshire, is perhaps her finest and best known work and the others which have been skilfully woven into the current five-part TV drama are Mr Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow.

It was Cranford, published in 1853, that established Elizabeth Gaskell as a major novelist, and she was praised by a host of other authors including Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin, Henry James and Charlotte Bronte. In fact, she became a close friend of Charlotte Bronte and wrote her biography in 1857.

It is perhaps curious that she is probably better known as Mrs Gaskell than by her name of Elizabeth Gaskell. I've always known her as Mrs Gaskell and sitting on my shelves is an ancient copy of Sylvia's Lovers, the author being listed as Mrs Gaskell with no hint of her Christian name. A list of her other titles also refers to her as Mrs Gaskell.

I first knew of her works because of her association with Whitby.

One of her best known books is set in the town, which she has called Monkshaven. Some readers suggest her description of Whitby is so good that an artist once painted realistic scenes without visiting the place.

The novel is Sylvia's Lovers. It has never received an overwhelming welcome by the modern public because some of them, without reading it, assume it is along the bawdy lines of Lady Chatterley's Lover, published much later in 1928.

However, Sylvia's Lovers is based on real events in 18th century Whitby. The fictional story involves press gangs during which the heroine's father is tried at York Assizes, and then executed for his part in local riots. There are remarkable similarities with the true events.

To carry out her research, Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) went to Whitby in 1859 with two of her daughters and stayed at No.1, Abbey Terrace, a house on the West Cliff. Today, a plaque commemorates that visit. The house was one of many built by the railway magnate, George Hudson, during his development of the West Cliff area of the town.

With Sylvia's Lovers, Mrs Gaskell did not win many fans in Whitby.

She based the story on real events and people in the town, although she did change the date. The real events occurred in 1793 but she dated her account 1796. It was in 1793 that terrible press-gang riots broke out in Whitby.

The rioters burned down a Government building, and a Whitby man, William Atkinson, was later hanged at York for encouraging sailors to resist the press-gang.

Memories of those real events lingered in Whitby for a long time afterwards, and some local people, including relatives of those involved, thought Mrs Gaskell was unnecessarily reviving a sad period of local history in her novel.

I do not know how Mrs Gaskell came across this story in the first instance, but it compelled her to visit Whitby for her research. However, I have to be honest and say I would never have identified Mrs Gaskell's Monkshaven with Whitby, even though she does point out that the real story took place more than sixty years prior to her visit.

Some years ago, an elderly gentleman of my acquaintance was having trouble with local yobs entering his garden through a gap between a garage and his hedge. We solved the problem by finding a part-grown holly tree and transplanting it into that space. It provided a most useful barrier while looking good.

With its spiky dark green foliage, the holly is one of our most recognisable trees, with several varieties growing both in the wild and in cultivated places like parks and gardens. Some have smooth leaves and others bear variegated foliage, but despite its variations, the holly is native to this country. It has the ability to flourish in most soils, finding use as a hedge in some places because it can be trimmed.

If left to its own devices, a holly can grow up to 65 feet high (20m), producing green bark in its younger days. This turns grey as the tree matures.

The pale, almost white timber is very heavy and solid, ideal for wood carving and other forms of decorative woodwork but few hollies now seem to be harvested for their wood; probably they seldom attain the height or girth that provides useful amounts of timber.

Many of us know, the holly as the bearer of delightful red berries that are so much in demand over the Christmas season. Although the berries mature in the autumn, they can remain on the trees well into the winter and provide an excellent source of food for many wild birds.

It is said that holly trees are plentiful because of an old superstition that said it was unlucky to cut them down. Because the tree is evergreen, it was considered by the Druids and pagans to be the symbol of eternal life, and this is probably why we take sprigs indoors at Christmas.

In some areas, holly is thought to bring good fortune and to ward off evil with people planting it outside their homes for that reason.

Nonetheless, it has become the emblem of Christmas, an essentially religious festival, with many of us sporting red berries around the house during the festive period.

Some older people tend to keep one sprig of holly throughout the year, in the belief that it protects the house against lightning.

One favourite piece of speculation involving holly is that a rich crop of berries heralds a hard winter, this being nature's way of feeding the birds. I know of no scientific proof that this is true but I love to see a holly tree smothered in those rich red berries against a background of snow.

Tomorrow is the feast day of St Lucy, said in Sweden to be the wife of Father Christmas.

Celebration of her feast day in Sweden opens the Christmas season in that country, and she is often depicted as wearing a crown of lighted candles on her head, which produced a halo of light.

I believe she was far too young to be the wife of Father Christmas - besides, he was a priest (St Nicholas) and so could not marry!

As a young girl, Lucy was martyred by the Emperor Diocletian because she took food to the Christian prisoners in the catacombs of Rome. To leave her hands free to carry the food, she wore the candles on her head, and so the legend of Lucy and light began. Her name has always been associated with light, and she is the patron saint of glaziers.

One of the surviving customs on her feast day in Sweden is for a young daughter of a household to rise at 3am or 4am on St Lucy's feast day. She must dress in a long white dress which reaches the ground and wrap a red sash around her waist. She also wears a wreath of greenery around her head, into which is placed lighted candles. She then serves the rest of the family in bed with coffee and ginger snaps.

I believe that Swedish associations in America carry out this custom, but use electronically-lit candles in the girl's crown. I am sure that will now be the case in all countries where the health-and-safety regulations apply!

In some areas of Sweden, I am told that a girl dressed as St Lucy in white robes, leads long processions through the streets, the symbolism being to spread light and happiness to those about the commence their Christmas shopping. I am sure they need it! However, in this guise, St Lucy also visits hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages and other places as a means of bringing joy to the residents.

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