romance and realism: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

I love Elizabeth Gaskell’s writing. One of my all time favourites is North and South, and the BBC dramatisation of it is superb. A great favourite when I was much younger is Cranford; I still return to this one, a lovely, gentle satire of a village inhabited mostly by women, nearly all single — “Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple come to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears…”. To find out why, read the book, an early feminist novel.

But to the book in hand.

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The only reason I haven’t given it five stars is that it is unfinished, and the last chapter, written by Frederick Greenwood, her editor, sketches the ending according to what he knew of her intentions. In the dramatisation, an alternative ending is given, more satisfying, perhaps more wish fulfilling, a neat tying of the knot between the heroine and her lover, but not what the author intended. So I ended the book with an unfinished feeling, wishing that Gaskell had lived  to put the last touches to this vivid tale of middle class life in a Midlands town, ‘”an everyday story”, as the subtitle puts it. Everyday for those times, when a lady didn’t work, and her status was determined by her husband’s or father’s profession or rank, her breeding, her manners, her looks, and how many servants did the every day chores and oiled the wheels of everyday life.

For plot, the main theme is the ambiguous position of a middle aged doctor, a widow, bringing up his daughter Molly; he has managed successfully so far, and both father and daughter are very happy in their menage a deux, but when Molly enters her teens, and the young apprentice doctor in his household develops a crush on her, Mr Gibson becomes aware that he needs a wife, to bring his daughter to adulthood in a respectable way and protect her from the seductive arts of young men. For Molly is beautiful, with curly dark hair, grey eyes, and a charming gravity, intelligence and truthfulness, free of coquettish vanity. So Mr Gibson, by a circuitous route, chooses a widow, Hyacinth, charming, pretty, vivacious, and shallow. She is not an evil stepmother, but she is narcissistic, superficial and pretentious, and Mr Gibson soon realises that he has made a poor choice. But appearances are kept up. Molly, equally clear-sighted as her father, sees through her stepmother too, and longs for the days when it was just the two of them, in perfect sympathy, when her father’s favourite lunch of bread and cheese on a working day wasn’t forbidden as vulgar, when he could wear his slippers in the drawing room every evening he stayed quietly at home, when she could ride her pony along the lanes with him… when life was simple and homely and not complicated by keeping up appearances. The old, instinctive, father-daughter bond, later theorised by Freud as innately incestuous, is disrupted by the father’s marriage, and has to become covert and constrained, much to Molly’s grief. Freud would have had a party with this plot.

To complicate things and triangulate them even further, Hyacinth has a daughter the same age as Molly, whom she has kept at arm’s length, at boarding school, of whom she is both proud and jealous, and who comes to live in the new blended family. Cynthia is more beautiful than Molly, but less grounded in her character; her difficult childhood and lack of emotional support from her mother has left her with a fatal inability to feel deeply for anyone. Except Molly, whom she comes to love, and Mr Gibson, whom she says she likes and admires more than any man she has known. If only, it is implied, she had had such a childhood as Molly has had, she would be worthy of her beauty. But she is a flirt and a jilt, attracts the devotion of Roger, the man that Molly has secretly fallen in love with, while she is still entangled in a relationship formed when she was only 16. Molly discovers her secret and rescues her from what has become a trap, and Cynthia ends up breaking off the engagement to Roger and marrying a more ‘suitable’ man, one with wealth, ambition and pzazz.

And more. I always struggle to summarise a plot. There are many minor characters, all vividly drawn, and in the end (without an ending) Molly seems likely to get what she deserves, marriage to the man who is her moral, mental and emotional match. So it’s a traditional romantic plot. What makes it delightful and profound is the delicate irony with which characters are sketched; all are rounded, realised in vivid detail, even the minor ones, and the main characters are complex and fallible.

It is a perfect harmony of romance and realism. The gentle mastery of dialogue never fails. So, for example, when the new bride, Hyacinth, returns from her honeymoon with Mr Gibson, Molly leads her upstairs to the newly-furnished bedroom, and Hyacinth says:

“Now, my love, we can embrace each other in peace. Oh dear, how tired I am!” — after the embrace had been accomplished). ” My spirits are easily affected with fatigue; but your dear papa has been kindness itself. Dear! What an old-fashioned bed! And what a — but it doesn’t signify. By-and-by we’ll renovate the house — won’t we, my dear? And you’ll be my little maid tonight, and help me to arrange a few things, for I’m just worn out with the day’s journey.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “romance and realism: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. That was such a surprise, Christina, to see you reviewing ‘North and South’. It was one of my favourite novels, but I’d forgotten about it.I don’t know how that can happen. Thank you for reminding me and for such a fabulous review of this early feminist novel..

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