Cousin Phyllis is one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s later works and one in which she returns to the rural Cheshire of her youth. Cousin Phyllis was first published by George Smith in his Cornhill Magazine in four monthly parts from November 1863 to February 1864. Part two included an illustration by George du Maurier that has since become iconic. The entire novella is narrated by Paul Manning, who, as a mature man, is recollecting his days at Hope Farm and his acquaintance with Phyllis and Holdsworth. He describes a rural idyll in which the heroine, Phyllis Holman, discovers romantic love for the first time in her life. As an only child growing up in an isolated farming community she has been overprotected by her devoted parents, who fail to observe her developing sexuality. Railway construction in Cheshire brings two young railway workers into regular contact with Phyllis, her parents, and Hope Farm, where they live and work. Phyllis’s father, Mr. Holman, is a Nonconformist minister (i.e., not a member of the Church of England or Roman Catholic Church), as well as a farmer. The young men are Mr. Holdsworth, an engineer, and Paul Manning, who is both Holdsworth’s assistant and Phyllis’s cousin. Although the railway itself does not affect the farm, the presence of the young men, especially Holdsworth, disturbs the Edenic quality of this rural environment. Phyllis, who is 17 when the story begins, experiences an emotional and sexual awakening that she tries to conceal from her parents.
This tale does not have a happy ending. Holdsworth, the young man who has captured Phyllis’s heart, takes a position at very short notice in Canada. Because of the suddenness of his departure he is unable to declare his feelings to Phyllis, but he confides in Paul. Seeing Phyllis so sad after Holdsworth’s departure, Paul tells his cousin that Holdsworth loves her and hopes to marry her on his return. As time passes, however, Holdsworth’s letters to Paul include references to a new friend: a French-Canadian girl named Lucille Ventadour. Before returning to England Holdsworth sends news that he has married Lucille. Learning of Holdsworth’s marriage so disturbs Phyllis that she becomes critically ill with brain fever. Her admission to her parents that she loved Holdsworth compels Mr. and Mrs. Holman to acknowledge their daughter’s progress from childhood to young adulthood. Phyllis recovers from her physical illness, but the story ends on a note of uncertainty regarding her future life. Alternative endings were considered by the author but discarded.
The novella is regarded by many scholars as Gaskell’s finest work and the culmination of her shorter fiction. It charts Phyllis’s emotional journey, the exchange of innocence for experience, which proves to be painful for her and for those who truly care about her. The story is often praised for its accuracy of description, but details here do more than describe appearances: They signify a character’s inner life. Major signifiers are Phyllis’s pinafore, which she is wearing in Gerald du Maurier’s illustration and which denotes her early innocence, and her recurring blushes, which indicate her subsequent emotional turmoil. This emphasis on human feeling, together with a fusion of religion and nature, is one of the reasons that Cousin Phyllis has attracted much critical attention.
Elizabeth Gaskell. Cranford and Cousin Phyllis. London: Penguin, 1979.