Published in the collection Round the Sofa and Other Tales (1859), “The Half Brothers” is, as its title suggests, about two brothers, and it recalls those Old Testament brothers divided by enmity: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. However, this story of brothers is one of faithful love, a tale that embodies Christian self-sacrifice and forgiveness as it portrays one brother as a savior. As in many of Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories, the mother’s love is redemptive, while the father’s harshness is fatal, a sin for which he ultimately repents.
Gaskell’s tale is told in the first person by the younger brother about his half-brother Gregory. The narrator, who never gives his name, has been the petted child of his mother’s second marriage to a wealthy farmer, William Preston. His older brother Gregory is the son of his mother’s first marriage, when she was only 17, to a young farmer who died of consumption three years after the marriage. Gregory is the only surviving child of this union, born after his father’s death and just a week after his older sister died of scarlet fever. The mother’s grief at the double loss of husband and daughter is so intense that she is “just stunned with this last blow.” She is unable to cry until Gregory is born, when she weeps “day and night, day and night.” Gregory is then everything to her, and “she seemed after that to think of nothing but her new little baby.”
The story issues from this mother’s intense love for her children, a love that triumphs over the cold harshness of her second husband. William Preston is jealous of his pretty wife’s passionate love for Gregory when she clearly does not love him, although “a more dutiful wife, I have heard him himself say, could never have been.” The farmer “wanted her to love him more, and perhaps that was all well and good; but he wanted her to love her child less, and that was an evil wish.” Eventually, Preston viciously “cursed and swore” at Gregory, and his tirade brings on the early birth of Gregory’s half-brother. After this, the narrator tells us that his Aunt Fanny declared that her sister “Helen did not wish to live, and so just let herself die away without trying to take hold on life.” Before Helen dies, she enjoins Gregory to love his baby brother.
Gregory grows up neglected and scorned. He is “lumpish and loutish, awkward and ungainly, marring whatever he meddled in, and many a hard word and sharp scolding did he get from the people about the farm. . . . I am ashamed—my heart is sore to think how I fell into the fashion of the family, and slighted my poor orphan step-brother.” But Gregory, who is termed “sulky” and “stupid” even by his Aunt Fanny, is praised by Adam the shepherd, who “said he had never seen a lad like him.” Adam, named for the father of mankind, is the first good father Gregory has known, and the boy flourishes as a shepherd under his loving tutelage.
Adam’s faith in Gregory is justified when Gregory rescues his younger brother, who is desperately lost at night in a snowstorm on the fells. Gregory appears like the Good Shepherd himself, “wrapped in his maud,” and he and his collie Lassie—who has also been abused by Mr. Preston—together save Gregory’s young brother. Gregory gives his cloak to his brother, and he himself freezes to death, his last words to his brother a remembrance of their mother’s deathbed wish that they love each other.
The narrator’s father is utterly transformed by Gregory’s sacrifice. He cries for the first time in the story, painful, “unwonted” tears that connect his grieving for Gregory to his wife’s mourning for her dead little girl. Gregory’s “still, cold face” links him to the narrator’s previous description of his dead half-sister’s “pretty, pale, dead face,” the beloved, imagined faces their narrating brother recalls. Preston’s final tribute to the courageous boy he scorned is twofold. His last words are “God forgive me my hardness of heart towards the fatherless child!” and after his death his family finds instructions that he is to be buried at the foot of Gregory’s grave. The final act of repentance, though, is the narrator’s. His words serve as testament to the power of the Word. In recording Gregory’s act of brotherly love, the narrator pays homage both to him and to their mother, whose love engendered such self-sacrifice.
Elizabeth Gaskell. Round the Sofa. London: Sampson, Law, 1859.