Part II of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis finds three men discussing the relative merits of Phillis and especially her education. Particularly they concentrate upon how her education may affect her suitability as a wife. In some ways Paul might be considered to be the novel’s main protagonist; he is a young apprentice engineer and as such currently gaining for himself a very practical education. When Paul’s father tells him that he believes Phillis would make an ideal wife, he is abashed: “I was growing as red as fire; I did not know what to say, and yet I wanted to say something;” (p. 185)
This line gives us a crucial insight into Paul’s character. Although he has all of the trappings of young adulthood, Paul is naïve and inexperienced, especially in terms of adult loving relationships. He quickly cites different reasons why Phillis and he would make an unsuitable pairing. She is “taller”, “older” and between them there is familial affection “I like her as much as I could like a sister; and she likes me as if I were her brother – her younger brother.” (p. 185)
Paul is in the formative stages of his adult education, and it is upon the basis of education that he finds a firmer footing to reject his father’s proposal from:
“You see she’s so clever – she’s more like a man than a woman – she knows Latin and Greek… But she knows many a thing besides, and is wise as well as learned; she has been so much with her father. She would never think much of me, and I should like my wife to think a deal of her husband. (pp, 185-6)
Paul’s little and well-meant diatribe against Phillis smacks of school boy insecurities. He comes across as a second year apprentice admitting his own inferiority to Phillis, who he acknowledges as having graduated from many of the faculties of the school of life.
This scenario is remarkable when considered from a Victorian perspective. Here we have a young town-dwelling man, actively engaged in science and engineering. Paul is almost a metaphor for the industrial revolution, and he is admitting his inferiority to a rural, provincial farmer’s daughter. Phillis when viewed under this light becomes almost deified. She is a reliquary of “wisdom”. Her wisdom comes from her closeness to the land and her femininity; she seems to have an innate understanding of fertility and continuance. She is almost a metaphor for the old agrarian way of life. And yet she is “learned” because she has been “so much with her father”. She, by Paul’s definition, is his superior; she innately knows much, but, and this is a crucial but, she has learnt. She has learned the secrets of modernity and perhaps masculinity, and yet she remains seemingly inviolable in her environment. If Paul represents the irresistible forces of industrial change, Phillis represents an adaptive and immovable object of tradition.
I, like Paul, left home at an early age to work on the railways. The first paragraph of Cousin Phillis had me hooked, as it came across as a memoir of my early life. Whilst for Paul the railways represented a physical expression of the industrial age, for me they represented the destruction of the social pact established between the workers and the government in post-war 1950’s Britain. They (the government) were privatising mass transit and I for want of better employment enabled them by replacing British Rail employees on an ad hoc agency-based contract.