The Unexpected Reading Group: Mary Linskill

In this second special post, we learn more about the Unexpected Reading Group. A student-led, widening participation initiative founded by PGR student, Val Derbyshire.

One of the authors we have discussed at the Unexpected Reading Group is Victorian novelist, Mary Linskill (1840-1891). She is generally called ‘The Whitby Novelist’. Whitby was the place of her birth, and she is remembered in few other places today.  Despite enjoying a measure of popularity during her own lifetime, Linskill’s works, and her own limited fame, had begun to fade even before she died. When she did die in 1891, her family were so impoverished they could not afford a gravestone to commemorate her. Her nameless grave had to wait eight years until public subscription raised the money required to place a stone there. The many periodicals she wrote for had largely forgotten her by the time of her death. The Athenaeum casually recorded her demise: ‘We forgot to mention last week the decease of Miss Mary Linskill, a novelist whose tales, though somewhat sombre in tone, achieved considerable popularity.’[1]

Later historians could not even agree as to where her body was interred. This is an author who has literally been lost from the canon of literature, hence her appearance amongst other less famous authors on the Unexpected Reading Group’s reading list.

Linskill wrote about what she knew best – and what she knew best was Whitby. She set most of her works in or around this picturesque little town and captured all elements of it – from the dialect, to the beautiful scenery and the ‘church stairs’ as she termed the famous 199 steps which lead up to the Abbey and the more modern church.

She also captured the traditional ways of life of North Yorkshire folk, including the whaling industry, which forms such a significant part of the town’s history.  One episode of her novel The Haven Under the Hill (1886) was even adapted to feature in an even more famous novel which has its roots in Whitby…

In The Haven under the Hill, in a tale related by the heroine, Dorigen’s godfather, he narrates ‘the tale o’ the wreck o’ the Narwhal[2], where when ‘t’gale sprang up’ the ‘mate’s words’ are ‘Hell or Hild’s Haven afore midnight, my lads!’ An’ he never reached Hild’s Haven.’[3] Linskill based this on a real event from Whitby’s history, as the captain of the stricken Esk, which sank just off the coast at Redcar near Whitby in 1826, also famously vowed to reach ‘Hell or Whitby tonight’[4].

Further, if this story sounds slightly familiar, even if not au fait with Whitby and its heritage, this will be because another famous Victorian author used something which is evocative of this legend in his own more celebrated novel. Bram Stoker, in Dracula, recreates his own newspaper report of the event, framed in ‘the cutting from the Dailygraph’[5] which is pasted into Mina Murray’s diary. In this, the reporter alleges that ‘one old salt’ watching the wrecking of the ship determines ‘she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell.’[6]

Mary Linskill’s novella, The Glover’s Daughter (1871) became the group’s favourite text over the entire year. Indeed, in my opinion, she is a wonderful writer who has been unjustly dismissed from the canon of Victorian literature. Her work is richly evocative of the North Yorkshire landscape which was her home, and although you can’t always rely on this author for a happy ending, reading her work is always a rewarding experience.

— Val Derbyshire


[1] ‘Literary Gossip’, Athenaeum, No. 3313 (25 April 1891), 537-38 (p. 538).

[2] Mary Linskill, The Haven Under the Hill (Whitby: Horne & Son, 1928), p. 44.

[3] Linskill, p. 44.

[4] As noted in Paul M. Chapman, Birth of a Legend: Count Dracula, Bram Stoker and Whitby (York: G. H. Smith & Son, 2007), p. 37.

[5] Bram Stoker, Dracula (London: Arrow Books, 1973), p. 81.

[6] Stoker, p. 83.

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