Monday, May 2, 2011

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

I first read this book around the same time as I read Cranford (see my review here), sometime during my early teenage years, but as little as I recalled that book, I seem to have had even less memory of Wives and Daughters. I have no explanation as to why Elizabeth Gaskell's books made such little impact on me at that time, especially as I have so enjoyed reading them now, but I owe a debt of gratitude to Katherine of Gaskell Blog for hosting the Gaskell Reading Challenge, thereby compelling me to revisit this author. This is my final review in completion of that challenge, but I have to assume that you will hear more from me about Gaskell down the road, as I have every intention of continuing to explore her works.

You know that feeling of desperate longing you get every time you reread Sanditon (if my presumption that you have read this last fragment of an Austen novel is incorrect, I highly suggest you act to rectify the matter immediately)? Well imagine how much worse that sensation would be if she had manage to write the vast majority of the story, only to die before completing the climax of the book. It would be like Pride and Prejudice suddenly ending right after Lady Catherine's confrontation with Elizabeth at Longbourn, or Persuasion stopping right when Anne receives Captain Wentworth's note.. Without giving too much away, I have to acknowledge that this was what reading Wives and Daughters was like. After following the life of our heroine, Molly Gibson, for more than six hundred pages, the book suddenly ends right before we reach the satisfaction of "happily ever after", due to the untimely death of Gaskell. I so little remembered the book that this took me totally by surprise, but regardless, because the course of the plot is rather transparent throughout, it was still a highly satisfying read. Normally, such an obvious storyline would be a detriment to a story, but because of Gaskell's excellent character development, the novel remains thoroughly compelling. Molly is a heroine who it is impossible not to like - unwaveringly consistent in her morality, unfailingly kind, and touchingly tender in her affections - but I actually think it is the less amiable characters that make the book work so well. Pam Morris, in the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of the novel, dwells at length on the attractions and multidimensional attributes of Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Molly's step-sister, presenting her as a feminist force, "If she is 'doomed' to be a heroine by the fact that she is a woman, Cynthia is represented as determined to remain in control of the fiction in which she stars." While this reading certainly adds a compelling dimension to any critique of the novel, it is her mother, Mrs. Gibson, who fascinated me most. Mrs. Gibson is in no way the wicked step-mother of fairytale, although Ms. Morris constructs her discussion of the novel within the context of a "fairytale subtext", but she is a consummate hypocrite and, as such, causes both Molly (to say nothing of her duped father) and Cynthia no little discomfort. My attraction to Mrs. Gibson lies greatly in her resemblance to several of Austen's characters, namely Isabella Thorpe and Mary Crawford. I was struck repeatedly by how her words and actions echoed those of these two notorious ladies. Her affinity with Isabella lies in her constant tendency to act in direct opposition to her words, while her similarity to Mary is more calculating and mercenary, particularly her readiness to capitalize on the potential death of an heir to an estate. Again, though I did find the plot rather transparent, I do not wish to divulge too much of the story for those who have not read it by delving deeply into this matter, but fans of Austen cannot help but perceive these correlations.

While we are on the subject of Austen's possible influence on Gaskell in this book, I must take a moment to point out the likenesses that exist between Molly, who I just described, to quote myself, as "impossible not to like", and that most derided of heroines, Fanny Price. Though Molly is not in the marginalized position that Fanny is, being the daughter of the house instead of a poor dependent, their characters are remarkably similar. This is particularly apparent in her constant tendency to scold herself ("'mean,' and 'envious of Cynthia,' and 'ill-natured,' and selfish,' were the terms she kept applying to herself; but it did no good, she was just as naughty at the last as at the first.") but it also comes through in her willingness to take what seems an uncharacteristically brave stance in the name of what she believes to be right, even in the face of immense pressure. Unlike the text of Mansfield Park, this external coercion comes not from a patriarchal figure (Mr. Gibson, though Ms. Morris might characterize him as chauvinistic, is totally enamored of his daughter), but from the gossips who inhabit the town of Hollingford, where the Gibson's live.

Fans of Cranford will enjoy the comfort to be derived from the society of Hollingford, which is uncannily like that of Cranford, right down to the prominent presence of two spinster ladies, the Miss Brownings, who were the daughters of the late rector, the elder of which acts as the stern moral authority of the town while her younger sister, Phoebe, forms its tender core. Just like gossip and rumor can cause irrational (and rather humorous) chaos in Cranford society, those same forces display their more sinister effects in Hollingford when Molly becomes the wrongful target of their venom. However, this incident provides an opportunity in the book to not only display Molly's worth, but also develops those feminist themes Ms. Morris so dwells upon in her intro, displaying the hypocrisies of a society that turns its head towards male misdemeanors while simultaneously, as Mr. Gibson puts it, putting "evil constructions...upon the actions ever so slightly beyond the bounds of maidenly propriety", yet another way in which the books reminds me of both Mansfield Park and Northnager Abbey.

The subtitle of this novel is An Every-Day Story, and while Ms. Morris goes a long way to dispute the accuracy of this label, relating it not only to fairytale and feminism, but also to Darwinism (quite convincingly, I should add), I think it is the familiar qualities of the book, as I have been emphasizing, as well as its resulting predictability, that made it so compelling to me. The novel provides an uncanny sense of coziness that only such thoroughly ordinary territory can provide. Though tensions arise along the way, I had a constant sense of confidence that this book would end well. Perhaps that is why the absence of those final chapters was such an abrasive shock to me. All the assumed givens of the story - the small English village, the maneuvers and motivations of the surrounding landed families, the archetypal characters - created this lovely complacence in me, and I happily lolled along until reaching the abrupt end. Any great writer's death is always a double tragedy, not only depriving their loved ones but also their public, leaving a longing for what might have been. I end this post wishing Mrs. Gaskell had just a few more months, perhaps even weeks would have sufficed, in order to complete this magnificent novel.      


  1. What a fabulous, insightful review of one of my favorite novels. I appreciated your comparison of Mrs. Gibson to Mary Crawford and Isabella Thorpe--I find Mrs. Gibson (Hyacinth) to be one of the most maddening characters I've ever counted, but her pyschology is fascinating.

    I also like the comparison of Molly with Fanny Price--I also felt the plot echoed Mansfield Park to a large degree, and was surprised that Cynthia became friends with Molly. I don't see Cynthia as a proto-feminist, however. Her dependence on a man for validation precludes that imo.

    Excellent review.

  2. Thanks Jane! I actually have issues with many feminist critiques, which I feel are frequently imposed upon a text, rather than being organically derived from it (I also think there is a lot of pressure on female critics to do this, especially when it comes to female Victorian novelists), but I continue to read them anyway. I did not see Cynthia in a feminist light either as I read the novel (I read intros after finishing books, so as not to taint my own perspectives), but I thought Pam Morris made a very interesting case, particularly regarding Cynthia's tendency to toy with men. If you ever get a chance to read the essay, I think you would find it compelling, but all ideological critiques, not just feminist ones, need to be regarding as having an agenda, and therefore should be approached with skepticism.

  3. Alexa,

    I'm so glad that this time round you enjoyed Gaskell's work and that the challenge encouraged you to try her again.

    I love how you've compared the tragedy of W&D being unfinished as to having Persuasion or P&P so. Like JaneGS, W&D is my favorite.

    Gaskell's knack for developing character is what makes me love her writing. Mrs. Gibson is an intriguing character. I never thought of comparing her with Mary Crawford nor Isabella Thrope but there is a resemblance. But I did think of MP often while reading it.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting review.

    Best Wishes!

  4. Hi Katherine! Thank you for convincing me to give Gaskell a second try! I have very much enjoyed the challenge, and just wish I had more time to keep on reading right now. Perhaps when things settle down (when that will be, I have not the slightest notion), I will be able to follow along with another of your delightful group reads.