19th Century Literature and Sir Gibbie

Ven ven at vvcrane.fsnet.co.uk
Mon Jul 30 23:25:26 EDT 2001

Hallie wrote
> More synchronicity - on my Open University conference people are just
> discussing what course to take next year, and the 19th C Novel is one of
> the most popular choices.  All of us seem to have read some of the biggies
> before off our own bat and are eager for a year of it.  It's odd to come
> from an enthusiastic discussion of the reading list to see Jacob doubting
> whether people read this stuff for fun much any more.

I can second Hallie's comment about OU people being an eclectic 
bunch, and more likely to come to learning for the love of it than 
obligation. Very few of the people I know have studied Eng Lit, and 
those with degrees tend to be techies, social workers or 
archaeologists, rather than strictly arts people (btw archaeology at 
Sheffield takes the subject about as far toward science as is 
possible). It's worth pointing out that a difference between the 
education system over here and the US means that obligatory Eng 
lit can be dropped at a much earlier age -- at my school it was 15 -- 
so at university level there are no bored engineers studying 

and I wrote
> >19C novelists I read include Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Geo
> >Macdonald, the Brontes: people I know read George Eliot, Jane
> >Austen and Mrs Gaskell.


> Ditto the first four (well, Charlotte Bronte, anyway), obviously 
> ditto Jane Austen. :)  Middlemarch is way up on my to-be-read list, 
> as are a bunch of Trollope's.  And nobody's mentioned Lorna Doone, 
> which I loved. 

Lovely book. I read my Mum's copy which had these gloriously 
romantic tinted film stills as illustrations. She'd seen the film first 
and bought the book.( And she left school at 15, with no 
qualifications. ). I tried another RD Blackmore and found it 

 And of course Alcott and the other children's 
> classics. 
I did like Alcott as a kid, on a recent rereading I was quite 
disappointed with LW, it seemed overful of pious tosh I'm afraid. It 
may be that I've read some of her Gothic potboilers since (the one 
in which they eat ginormous lumps of hashish and have a really 
bad time had me in stitches). And I don't see why Jo had to marry 

 BTW, in Edinburgh I found a Burnett book called _A Lost 
> Prince_  I'd never seen it before, has anyone else?

Yup, readable but forgetable imo.

  On Alcott, I 
> always liked _An Old-Fashioned Girl_ much better than _Little Women_.
> After learning a bit about Alcott, I want to reread LW and expect I might
> have quite a different reaction to it.
See above <g>

Me again
 >Finally has anyone else read MacDonald's Sir Gibbie? I've got an
> >old copy of the full text. It's a fascinating book.
> I have!  My grandfather gave it to me when I was young, and told me 
> not to give up until I'd read 50 pages, and then if I didn't like it, I
> could give up.  But I loved it by then. :)

And Georgia was asking about it. The good news -- you can read it 
at http://www.bookrags.com/books/sirgb -- the bad -- I'm going to 
tell you all about it anyway. No spoilers, but if you had rather not 
know anything about it at all 

                                       STOP HERE

Even as a kid I loved this book from the first page. I can't remember 
whether the library copy was abvridged, I got my own original text 
copy when I was 19 and I don't remember aby striking differences. 
However I think the library copy may have been anglicised.
You will have to put up with sentences like "Ou weel!" returned the 
mother "he's not like the lave of loons." (Oh well he's not like most 

The eponymous Gibbie (Gilbert) is a mute child who lives in a tiny 
garret, once part of a big house with his drunken, shoemaker, 
father, who may or may not be a real" sir", descended from the one 
time owners of the whole establishment. MacDonald pulls no 
punches either about drunkenness or poverty but neither does he 
ignore the goodness that may be found at their side. Gibbie has 
nothing but his freedom, and in all his rags and hunger he revels in 

"To the boy the great city was but a house of many rooms, all for 
his use, his sport, his life."

An important character is Mistress Croale, who sells Gibbie' s 
father the drink that is destroying his ability to care for himself or 
his son. The anti drink message is strong but it is Mistress Croale 
who provides the boy and his father their one good meal of the 
week, on Sunday, free of charge.  Her ups and downs are a kind of 
counterpoint to Gibbie's.

The novel has a Dickensian scope, which I cannot entirely explain 
without real spoilers. At one point Gibbie leaves the city, in an 
extended lyrical passage, he follows the river, onwards and 
upwards into the Highlands. One of my favourite bits.(This reminds 
me a bit of the way Sophie leaves Market Chipping and also of the 
way the river is part of the story in The Spellcoats).

This is a firmly grounded, but undoubtedly mystical book
dealing in practical morality while attempting to show us pure 
goodness. It does have something in common with the kaleyard 
novels -- the only one of those I tried to read, David Elginbrod, iirc 
is an account of a sceptics' struggle with God and extremely dour --
but has a good deal more story. Can't think of anything else to say 
except take Hallie's grandfather's advice and give it a try. 



magic, if present, can do almost anything

Diana Wynne Jones

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