Reflections on ‘Cousin Phillis’ by James Bainbridge

JamesGo Higher students typically bring surprising and thought-provoking reflections to class. This week’s Literature module was no exception:  our discussion of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Cousin Phillis prompted  personal observations and some real insight.  Written in 1864, the story describes the life of Phillis Holman through the eyes of her cousin, Paul Manning.
Phillis is the daughter of a church minister, but whilst her prospects in life might be limited, she has educated herself widely through reading, an activity that first intimidates her cousin Paul who has just arrived at the house and met Phillis for the first time:

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Seymour Joseph Guy, ‘Summer Issue’ (1861)

There were baskets of white work about, and a small shelf of books hung against the wall, books used for reading, and not for propping up a beau-pot of flowers. I took down one or two of those books once when I was left alone in the house-place on the first evening—Virgil, Caesar, a Greek grammar—oh, dear! ah, me! and Phillis Holman’s name in each of them! I shut them up, and put them back in their places, and walked as far away from the bookshelf as I could. Yes, and I gave my cousin Phillis a wide berth, although she was sitting at her work quietly enough […]

Elizabeth Gaskell, ‘Cousin Phillis’ in Cousin Phillis and Other Stories, ed. Heather Glen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) pp. 170-171.

Paul’s reaction in giving his cousin ‘a wide birth’ once he knows of her reading habits, indicates a lot of Victorian feeling about women’s education; he is reassured by feminine pursuit of her ‘sitting at her work’ – embroidery – ‘quietly enough’ but the thought that she might be reading Classical literature is a terrifying and dangerous prospect. Paul considers the pursuit of education to be a traditionally male occupation, ‘You see she’s so clever she’s more like a man than a woman’ he reflects at one point. (p. 185)

‘The novel reinforces the ideas of “separate spheres” for men and women during the Victorian era,’ explains Gemma, one of the Go Higher students currently studying Gaskell’s book, ‘Phillis is intelligent, literate and has a keen awareness for learning, but she is mostly surrounded by male characters. She fully understands the mechanics of the new technology being brought in to modernize the farm, but whilst her father encourages her to participate, her gender means she must follow the domestic role of home-maker, like her mother.’

Resonances with today?

Prescribed roles thought ‘natural’ for women in the nineteenth century – and the attempts women made to challenge these without losing their ‘femininity’ – are something that many of the students have been learning about in the History module on Go Higher. Such ideas that a woman’s role is in the home, might seem somewhat outdated, but another student, Helen, suggests that novel actually reflects her own route into Higher Education through Go Higher:

I really feel for Phillis and can identify quite a bit with her. Whilst the men in the book can leave home and go off into the wide world to learn new things and become apprentices, poor Phillis is stuck at home and anything she learns, outside of her eventual role as wife and mother, is at her father’s indulgence. Even then it consists only of what he deems appropriate to her status as a woman. In any case her education is viewed as irrelevant, as Mr Manning states “she’d forget [her Latin and Greek] if she’d a houseful of children”.

This echoes my own experience in some ways. My own parents’ view was that further education was a waste of my time and a luxury we could not afford. It seems a rather old fashioned attitude given that was less than thirty years ago and Gaskell’s novel was more than a hundred years old by then. Perhaps things haven’t moved on quite as much as we are led to believe. It wasn’t until I had been a wife and mother that my opportunity for university education became a possibility. Like Phillis, it has given me a sense of liberation and self-fulfilment with the added bonus that I can go on to use what I learn in the wider world.

Gaskell would no doubt be heartened by Helen’s story (through Go Higher she has been offered a place at the University of Liverpool to study Archaeology and Egyptology next year), but in the novel Phillis is offered no such opportunities. ‘Phillis’s intellect and thirst for knowledge sets her apart from other women around her’ explains Dee, who has enjoyed reading Gaskell’s work, ‘in the society she lives in, it has led to her having higher expectations of what she would desire in a mate, that almost brought about her complete destruction.’

In many ways, Gaskell is highlighting this injustice in nineteenth century England; Phillis clearly has the ability to learn, but learning sets Phillis apart from those around her and the world she lives in presents barriers to her acting on the knowledge she has acquired. ‘Maybe it would be more hopeful if Gaskell had used her alternative ending to the novel,’ suggests Dee, ‘in that ending, Phillis adopts children and spearheads the new irrigation system on the farm.’ Even so, the novel has prompted excellent class discussion so far; ‘I’ve really enjoyed it,’ says Gemma finally, ‘it was not as I expected at all.’

James Bainbridge teaches English Literature on Go Higher

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