Like "Cranford" and "Wives and Daughters", the novella "Cousin Phillis" is a variation on the themes that seemed to have preoccupied Elizabeth Gaskell: the changes wrought by mechanization and the different spheres in which men and women live and operate.
When the narrator, then 19, meets Phillis, her physical world is small, contained, and regular, predictably following the seasons as agricultural life does. Her intellectual life, however, is vast. She is comfortable with Latin and the principles of mechanics; she attempts to read Dante in Italian.
By contrast, the men around her are reshaping the world with their thought, their inventions, their ambition, and their work. Even the narrator, who admittedly lacks his father's inventive genius and Holdsworth's drive, is doing more than Phillis ever could simply by serving as Holdsworth's assistant.
With her flourishing intellectual curiosity and her growing sexual awareness, it's natural for Phillis to discard the pinafore that represents the restrictions placed on the Victorian woman-child and to desire a man whose tastes, abilities, and drive seem to parallel her own. The result is not surprising. As a woman, her opportunities are limited, while those of the man stretch across two continents and grow greater with each rail laid. It's clear who is destined to be disappointed.
As with the other novels, Gaskell captures a world within her own memory that in many ways had already ceased to exist. The narrator, older and married now, recalls in vivid detail an experience colored by the passage of time and by the changes that have transpired. The bogs, "all over with myrtle and soft moss," could not fail to be altered irrevocably by the railway line, nor could the Hope Farm, with its cozy "house place" and "the clock on the house-stairs perpetually clicking out the passage of the moments." Phillis's father learns that she cannot be kept in a pinafore and all that it represents, and the narrator "feared that she would never be what she had been before." No one is.
The narrator leaves us with enticing mysteries. What has prompted him to write about Phillis? What has happened? What does he want to accomplish by telling her story now? What is he trying to recapture? What happened to Phillis? What happened to the Hope Farm and its way of life that he so beautifully recalls and the tenor of which is so effectually altered by events?
Cousin Phillis is a tiny treasure - always evocative, never overwrought. We see Phillis and her natural evolution from child to woman with the narrator's wisdom of maturity and the clarifying, yet softening filters of time. The narrator and Gaskell leave Phillis trapped in time, changed, newly aware of the broadness of her desires and of the obstacles she faces, and determined to "go back to the peace of the old days" - a hope that is nearly impossible to achieve. There is no going back, as Phillis must surely know.