In Sylvia's Lovers we are carried back to the war-time at the end of the 18th century, and to Monkshaven, a town on the north-eastern coast. Sylvia, daughter of a little north country tenant farmer, is loved by two men, Charlie Kinraid, a Greenland whaler and Philip Hepburn, a prosperous, half Quakerish tradesman of Monkshaven, a trustworthy, but somewhat hard and self-absorbed man. Naturally she relies in trouble on the latter, but accepts the former, whose tales and physical beauty have caught her imagination. On the day she accepts him, Kinraid is carried off by a press-gang, and as he is borne away, wounded, tells his rival to bear to his betrothed assurances of unchanging affection. Philip, who knows that Kinraid has deceived his own partner's sister, does not deliver the message, and sanctions a report that Kinraid has been killed…
The British Quarterly Review, 1867 — Elizabeth Gaskell has the art of thoroughly clothing her conceptions in flesh and blood, of putting into their mouths articulate speech, individually appropriate, so that we are impressed by them, and moved as by the doings and sufferings of men and women whom we have actually known. As we read, they are not fictitious characters to us, but persons whose sentiments, motives, conduct, we feel inclined to analyse and discuss as if they had a literal bearing upon our own. Sylvia's sweet warm-heartedness and sympathy are beautifully brought out in the events that ensue on the arrival of the whaler Resolution, down upon whose newly returned men—husbands, fathers, sons, lovers—pounces the press-gang. These legalised kidnappers furnish the tragedy of the story, which needs all the bright pictures strewn along its pages to lighten and relieve the ever-deepening gloom of the back-ground.
Elizabeth Gaskell was born in the year 1811; and was brought up by her aunts residing at Knutsford, Cheshire. In 1832 she married the Reverend William Gaskell, minister of the Unitarian Chapel, Cross Street, Manchester. Her first novel was Mary Barton, a picture of Manchester life among the working classes, which appeared anonymously in 1848. The Moorland Cottage, a simple little Christmas book, followed in 1850. Two years later appeared the novel Ruth. Mrs. Gaskell published some sketches of life in a small country town, which were contributed to Household Words under the title of Cranford. In 1855, the novel North and South appeared, in which she returns to the manufacturing districts of Yorkshire. In 1857 she published a life of Charlotte Brontë and in 1863 her next novel Sylvia’s Lovers. Elizabeth Gaskell's death in 1865 was most sudden — she expired instantaneously, while conversing with her daughters, on her return from church. The novel Wives and Daughters was left incomplete by her sudden decease and was published posthumously in 1865.