Presentation Details

The Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities

Searching for a Secure Base: Separation and Loss in Gaskell's Cousin Phillis

Daniel Brass.

Concepts from Freudian and some other schools of psychoanalysis are central to current critical discourse, however other important developments in psychoanalytic theory have not been so widely adopted in literary studies. This paper explores the twentieth century analyst John Bowlby's understanding of childhood development, particularly the importance of the relationship between a child and its mother, and relates it to Elizabeth Gaskell's short novel, Cousin Phillis, in which the title character's separation from her parents is rapid and destructive.

The contrast between the narrator's smooth departure from the family home into employment and Phillis Holman's ongoing role as a child in the family home indicates that the seventeen year old woman, despite her intellectual accomplishment, has scarcely developed emotionally or socially since infancy. Her only significant relationships are with her parents, despite her age, and she is, in different ways, distant from both her mother and her father. Phillis' covert and fumbling love affair is eventually brought to light and produces a catastrophic rift in her family as her parents, particular her father, realise that she is no longer a child.

I propose that Bowlby's theory provides a way to interpret the family relationships in the novel and, in particular, to investigate Phillis Holman's psychology. I will also draw on some elements of nineteenth-century psychology and family structure to illustrate the point.


Daniel Brass  (Australia)
Postgraduate student
Department of English
University of Sydney

I am a postgraduate student at the University of Sydney, writing a thesis on the garden in Victorian literature. My thesis will use the garden as a central motif to explore some of the concerns of Victorian society, particularly science and industrialism. In mid-2004 I will spend two months on a research trip in England and Europe.

  • Victorian literature
  • Psychology
  • John Bowlby
  • Attachment theory
Person as Subject
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth Bowlby, John

(30 min. Conference Paper, English)