I’ve been immersed in 19th century language so much lately, it’s beginning to be a joke in my family. Between telling my mom she’d better “have the plumber in to see about” something to asking her if she’d do quite well without me while I went to sit with my grandmother. (In my head I called it my grandmother’s rooms, though it’s just the dining area off the kitchen where anyone might go.) I’m pretty sure I’m sunk.
I’m entranced by the turn of a phrase that helps to conceal a thought so that it sounds so much more polite than it was meant.
But for all this artifice and subterfuge (I promise I’m trying to stop!), Elizabeth Gaskell uses the language of her day to create very real people responding the way very real people would in the same situations.
Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last novel, published in 1866. One biography calls it her most mature novel, which I think is interesting since it contains so much less social controversy than novels like North and South. But for all that, the complex family relationships and real life situations give the story a strength I don’t know of from many writers.
The story follows the coming of age of Molly Gibson, a doctor’s daughter, in the little town of Hollingford. We get to sit in on all her trials and triumphs from her father’s remarrying a respectable, if not very sensible, woman to keep Molly “safe” from young men, to her winning over everyone, rich or poor, in her acquaintance, to her trying to get her new stepsister out of scrapes.
The finest irony is that Molly would never have gone near scandal with a young man herself, being open, simple, and honest, but is obliged to keep secrets and get her name mixed up with scandal trying to save her stepsister from a problem the girl created. I couldn’t help but laugh at this since Molly would never have met her stepsister if her father hadn’t married to keep his daughter out of trouble.
There is a complex balance of family relationships in the novel between Molly, her irritating stepmother, her sweet but worldly stepsister, and her plainspoken Scotch father. This is counterbalanced by the complex issues of the nearby Hamley family, from whom the main conflicts of the tale arise, both in tragedy and, at last, in love.
I was so caught up in this story, which is totally charming and a bit rambling, that I totally forgot ’til I got to the end what I had read before, that Gaskell died in 1865 of a sudden heart attack before writing the novel’s final chapter.
You should know how much self restraint it took to keep from groaning out loud when I got to this part because my aunt was asleep on the couch at the time!
I could just picture the perfect ending to the little love story that was starting to blossom
But from the publishers notes at the end of the story, Gaskell had spilled the beans about how she wanted it to end, and thus inspired I’m probably going to be doing some fan fiction my own blog pretty soon!
But back to the story. One theme that stuck out to me from the novel is the theme of grace. When Cynthia, Molly’s stepsister, is implicated in a scandal for jilting a young man she was pressed into engaging herself to, she insists that if Molly tells her father about the situation, she wants a chance to leave first because she can’t bear to live in a house where someone doesn’t think well of her. For the same reason, once the rumors begin to be known in town, she indicates she’d rather move to Russia as a governess than have her neighbors dislike her (extreme much?). Her lack of grace for herself is very powerful, and keeps her in turmoil for much of the novel.
Likewise, Squire Hamley refuses to forgive his son for unaccountable debts that Osbourne won’t confess the reason for. This unforgiveness brings untold regret when Osbourne dies suddenly and the Squire learns that his hard heartedness prevented his son from telling him that he’d married secretly. He gains the ability to look on this with grace but not before it is too late.
In both these situations, Molly’s gracious and loving personality makes her an instrument of forgiveness, and though religion is not a main discussion topic in the novel, she certainly shows Christian forgiveness.
For Osbourne, when Molly hears about his money mistakes, she stays confident in her belief that he hasn’t done anything wrong, and helps the Squire accept Osbourne’s secret wife when he learns of her.
In Cynthia’s case, Molly never holds her stepsister at fault for the engagement, but continues to love her. She does everything she can to help Cynthia, even at the risk of her own reputation. Her self sacrifice comes to the rescue for Cynthia.
I think the thing that most draws me to this story is how real the people are. Gaskell has this gift for bringing them completely to life. From the jealous father who is not ready to let his little Molly see young men, to the angry father who waits too long to forgive his son, to the flighty Cynthia who is always accidentally leading men on.
In normal books and movies, the father would always make up with his son on the son’s sickbed and either resolve it just before the boy died, or nurse him back to health. But here, the Squire has to deal with consequences that often happen in real life, those of regret that it’s too late to take back.
As for Cynthia, the publisher’s notes at the end of the novel turn into literary criticism in the form of calling her one of the most complex characters Gaskell had written. The writer didn’t go into detail but I think he said this because while she’s the wicked stepsister who almost steals the love interest, she isn’t really wicked, but flighty and unreliable. The affection between her and Molly is quite real. This was hard to read at first because I kept wanting to be angry with Cynthia, but you can’t stay angry with her. She’s no villain. It’s a reminder to look closely at the people we know, especially the ones we consider enemies. Books and movies tempt us to treat them on a black and white basis of good and evil but Wives and Daughters reminds us to think of them as humans with complex emotions, feelings, virtues and failings all rolled up into one.
One side note that interested me was the way science came into the story. This was in the age where scientific exploration was beginning to be more widespread and the people who engaged in it were respected in society even if they had no fortune or background of their own. There are natural suspicions that come along with that, such as all the ladies of the town being afraid of the railroad. And then there’s the apathy from others, since women were not encouraged to be a part of this world. And yet for all that, you can sense some excitement about the new world of discovery bubbling underneath the surface all the time.
Altogether, as long as you can prepare yourself for a bit of an abrupt ending, please enjoy Wives and Daughters. It’s very much worth your time.
Bethany lives in Tennessee with two cats, a tea obsession, and lots of books. A lover of the written work, Bethany blogs about fiction, food, faith and life at faroffsong.wordpress.com. Bethany is an aspiring fiction writer as well and is currently working on her first novel, a high fantasy inspired by heroes such as George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.