Tuesday, January 23, 2018

'Wives and Daughters' by Elizabeth Gaskell

Set in English society before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters centres on the story of youthful Molly Gibson, brought up from childhood by her father. When he remarries, a new step-sister enters Molly's quiet life – lovable, but worldly and troubling, Cynthia. The narrative traces the development of the two girls into womanhood within the gossiping and watchful society of Hollingford.

Wives and Daughters is far more than a nostalgic evocation of village life; it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society. 'No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority', writes Pam Morris in her introduction to this new edition, in which she explores the novel's main themes – the role of women, Darwinism and the concept of Englishness – and its literary and social context.

This is my choice for the 'Classic by a Woman' category of the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Wow, the events in the village of Hollingford have gripped my attention for the past few weeks, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It's essentially just the story of a blended family from the Victorian era. But what makes this one so special is that Elizabeth Gaskell gets us to spread our love evenly between so many different characters.

Molly Gibson is a sweet 17-year-old whose beloved father, the village doctor, has announced his shock engagement to a former governess with a daughter of her own. These four completely different people are forced to get to know each other by living under the same roof from the outset. Although Molly's world has been turned upside down, she resolves to curb her childhood temper and make no ripples.

But her stepmother, Hyacinth Clare Fitzpatrick Gibson, is all about impression management. Not only does she always get her own way, but she's creative and crafty enough to put the best spin on how she sets about it, aiming to be admired even more when she gets what she wants. Everything around her is calculated to show her off in the best light, including her family members. There's nothing in her life that's not done for show. How she would have enjoyed social media, had she lived in our era. Mrs Gibson is like a Facebook pro long before there ever was such a thing. She's really hilarious.

So we have a gorgeous young heroine who genuinely longs to put others' needs first, stuck with a micro-managing new authority figure, who only wants to put herself first. How will it all work out, without Molly either snapping or becoming a doormat? That's what we read to find out, because it would seem something has to give. Our girl really does have a mind of her own, and a lot to put up with. And if there's one thing she's inherited from her matter-of-fact father, it's her blunt honesty.

The plot thickens even more when Molly's step-sister Cynthia arrives. Cynthia has charisma! She knows how to use her beauty and communication skills to turn men's heads, but has the sort of character to make her abuse her power. After a sad and neglected childhood, she values being loved by others above loving people herself. In fact, Cynthia isn't even sure she knows how to love, calling herself a 'moral kangaroo.' Her convincing shows of esteem are really just attempts to win hearts for herself, and there's always a string of guys in her wake, thinking they're the only ones. So even though she sees through her mother's artifice, Cynthia is just as much of an actor in her own way.

Dr Gibson, the father, is a great character for displaying the wisdom of his times. During Molly's childhood, he never wanted her to be 'over-educated' because he didn't believe it was beneficial for a girl to know too much. It's written with the sense that he thinks she'll be spoiled with education, like over-whipped cream. An unflappable sort of guy himself, his occupation has helped him believe that excessive displays of emotion are detrimental to people's health. Since the most significant deaths in the novel happen to be highly-strung, finely-tuned sort of people, his observation seemed to be correct, at least in Gaskell's opinion :)

The Gibson family alone are complex enough to keep us reading, but nearby lives the Hamley family, another awesome foursome who all turn out to be heart-stealers too. There's the outspoken and bluff old squire, his refined invalid wife, and their two grown-up sons. Osborne is attractive, artistic and the pride of his parents, while his younger brother Roger comes across more stodgy, plodding, and often overlooked. While Osborne is into classical literature and poetry, Roger has a knack for science, maths and the world around him. If the term 'geek' had been coined then, that's what he would have been called.

The main romance is written with a light touch, and easy to get caught up in. The bird's-eye readers' view allows us to poke into everyone's secret thoughts, and reveals from the start that Molly and Roger are perfect for each other. They're still so very young, but both humble, principled, sensitive and kind. But that same vantage point shows that they don't consider the other to be their type.

Before she even meets the boys, Molly's all primed to fall for his handsome and brilliant older brother Osborne because of his sentimental poetry and his reputation. She is initially repelled by Roger's plain appearance and apparent awkwardness. Her gradual falling for him is all to do with his adorable character, but meanwhile is he immune from the charms of the fatal Cynthia? 

383206There's also a host of great minor characters, although the aristocratic Cumnor family would hate to hear themselves called 'minor.' They move around with all the pomp they think is entitled to them. And in the village live the two spinster Browning sisters, who are always up with any gossip and drop lots of cool lines, such as Miss Phoebe telling her sister, 'Oh, don't call them lies, it's such a strong, ugly word. Please call them tallydiddles.'

Finally, it'd be unfair not to mention the abrupt ending. Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart-attack with just one chapter left to write, which would have been the romantic culmination we'd all been waiting for! Although I'd been warned, my reaction when I got there was still, 'Nooooo!' Time is a strange thing when a sad event from 1866 becomes a fresh tragedy to me in 2018. But we've got to pick ourselves up and carry on :) Her editor wrapped up the book with some broad hints of where Gaskell had intended to take that final chapter. And since I love to imagine future scenes whenever I finish a book, I just get a chance to do it earlier than usual this time.

Since it's still January, this will be a good benchmark for the year. It's a perfect example of the sort of domestic Victorian drama I love. Elizabeth Gaskell balanced her pathos with some terrific humour. I've also watched the BBC TV series on Netflix, which I highly recommend for readers of the novel. It has really wonderful casting and authenticity, and sticks close to the book. (I have more about Wives and Daughters coming, so stay tuned.) After learning the sudden fate of the poor author, a quote from Molly sits strongly in my mind. 'Life is too short to be troubled much about anything.'



  1. I mean to reread this one this year. I am currently reading Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell.

    1. Hi Becky, Mary Barton is on my list to read soon, if I can. I believe it was Gaskell's first novel, while Wives and Daughters was, of course, her last. It'll be an interesting comparison.

  2. One of my favorites! Mary Barton is also good, and I strongly recommend North and South if you haven't read it already (also a good TV adaptation). I think I may have to reread W&D for my favorite classic for the challenge.

    1. Thanks Karen, it's such a beautiful book. I haven't read much Gaskell, since Cranford years ago, and it seems she's written a treasure trove. I really want to read more now, and the two you've mentioned are on my radar.

  3. Oh wow, this is a long one! I couldn't work out where I knew Elizabeth Gaskell from, and then I remembered she'd written a biography on Charlotte Brontë. Glad you enjoyed this one. :)

    1. She's a great author. I knew she'd written novels, but didn't realise how many she'd written, and now want to read more. And I read that bio of Charlotte Bronte light years ago, and probably due for a re-read :)