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To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room - a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself 'as sure as clockwork', and left the household very little peace afterwards. ... Read more
Customer Reviews (35)
A VERY slow read...
I have seen this novel recommended to lovers of Austen, but they may find themselves disappointed. Mrs. Gaskell was of an altogether different era than Austen, and compared to the latter author's lightness and elegant wit she downright oozes Victorian ponderousness. The story is a fairly simple one, revolving around a mere handful of characters, and hardly bears protraction to around 600 pages.
A scheming, hypocritical stepmother tries to secure one of the sons of the local, impoverished squire for her own daughter, Cynthia. The younger son falls in love with the frivolous girl, but then sets off on a long scientific expedition to Africa with only a vague engagement settled, and Cynthia strangely indifferent to his adventures. Her stepsister Molly, meanwhile, is the one who has real feelings for him; she is also the one who soon delves beneath all the surfaces and discovers why the eldest son of the squire wasn't interested in marriage, and which secrets govern the whimsical behaviour of her stepsister. The marital ups and downs of Molly's father, a country doctor, and the occasional interference by the local grandees and the town gossips provide secondary plot material.
The outcome is a foregone conclusion, looming large at an early stage - though ironically we never actually reach it, as death whisked the author away before she could pen the final one or two chapters. Her editor wrote an afterword revealing the unravelling of the plot as already sketched out by Gaskell.
It takes some stamina to arrive there. After the first half, the narrative starts to drag, making obvious points over and over again, and deluging the reader with obsessive detail. Once Osborne Hamley's secret and fate have been revealed, it seems as if the author is groping her way towards the predictable end, not sure how to get there. Her predilection for inserting pedantic literary and biblical references at every turn also grows tiring soon enough (and makes an annotated edition a necessity).
Despite all that, there is a general sense of charm; nor can it be denied that there are several well-rounded and believable characters in this book, squire Hamley and the new Mrs. Gibson the most successful among them (the former truly endearing, the latter, however, eventually degenerating into stereotype). For those with a taste for (upper) middle class life in 19th century in England this will hold interest, but I find it hard to believe in this novel as a work of genius, and it certainly doesn't compare favourably to major works by Austen or George Eliot.
wives and daughters by elizabeth gaskell
I love this story.For anyone that likes Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre.This is in a similar vein but less intense.Very good read and video.
Nothing every-day about this Victorian chronicle
With its fairy-tale beginning ("In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house . . ."), the subtitle of Wives and Daughters is gently ironic. While the basic plot is standard--boy and girl meet and overcome many obstacles, including themselves--Gaskell's tale is as much about the rapidly changing Victorian world as about Molly Gibson and her provincial village of Hollingford.
Set before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters consciously brings together England's aristocratic past, represented by Squire Hamley and the upstart earl and countess of Cumnor Towers, and the future, represented by Molly Gibson and Squire Hamley's sons, especially Roger. The elder son, Osborne, puts his own interests and more modern sensibilities above those of his father, while Roger envisions a future of science, exploration, and expansionism. To Mrs. Gibson, who marries to avoid having to work and dependence on the aristocracy, Osborne offers her daughter an entrÃ©e into at least the landed gentry, whereas Roger is merely a second son demeaning himself by dabbling in the sciences. Although renowned in London for his travels and discoveries, Roger becomes worthy of her notice only when he is taken into the inner circle of Lord Hollingford and the Towers as a result of his personal achievements.
While the visible action takes place within the small circle of Hollingford, Cumnor Towers, and Hamley Hall, Gaskell encompasses the widening world of rural England. Cynthia attends school in France while the Hamleys are off to Cambridge. The Hamley home is filled with relics from India, while Lady Harriet advises the Miss Brownings on how to obtain the best-priced Indian tea. Cynthia returns from her jaunts to London fashionably dressed and with hints of admirers, while Roger comes back from Africa browned, bearded, and mature in aspect and mien. Even villagers like Miss Hornblower feel the pull of the larger world and the new technology. As Mr. Gibson tells Molly, " . . . if these newfangled railways spread, as they say they will, we shall all be spinning about the world; 'sitting on tea-kettles,' as Phoebe Browning calls it."
The spheres of the sexes are vastly different. Clare Kirkpatrick thinks "how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; some one who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room." Even as Mr. Gibson thwarts the advances of Molly's first suitor, he tries to keep his "little goosey" unprepared for anything but life under the protection of a man, either father or husband. He advises her governess, "Don't teach Molly too much: she must sew, and read, and write, and do her sums; but I want to keep her a child, and if I find more learning desirable for her, I'll see about giving it to her myself." As men of science, he and Roger believe themselves to be dispassionate and rational, yet Molly senses their obvious mistakes before they do and that they are more deeply affected than they appear to be. Gaskell's characters, however, do not follow stereotypes. Lord Cumnor, a garrulous gossip, and Squire Hamley, an openly emotional man, are "womanly" in their ways, while Lady Cumnor and her daughter, Lady Harriet, are models of independence and detachment. Rather than assert her own independence and risk upsetting her excitable, patriarchal husband, Mrs. Hamley wastes away, ironically depriving her husband of her management of his emotions and their expression.
Molly is raised to suppress her feelings. As Mrs. Gibson's values clash with those of Mr. Gibson and Molly, he is able to ride off and immerse himself in his work, while Molly can only swallow her emotions or, as a last resort, hide them in solitude. There is hope, however, that Molly can avoid the life for which Mr. Gibson is preparing her, that of an obedient wife. Her life as companion to Mrs. Hamley shows her impressionable mind the folly of pride and the lasting harm it causes as it separates Mr. Hamley and his elder son. Her natural curiosity and intelligence, consciously discouraged by Mr. Gibson, are encouraged by Roger Hamley, who bridges the ancient Hamley past and the future of science and discovery. This future will be built on achievements, not family name, which makes young Osborne's parentage significant only to traditionalists like the squire and Mrs. Gibson. Their vision of the possibilities never extends beyond their own desires and concerns.
In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell addresses myriad issues important to her and her contemporaries--medicine, science, marriage, the family, gender roles, monetary wealth and land wealth, rural mores, the perception of English heritage and strength and French decadence, exploration, and change. Her characters are so richly drawn that the reader begins to anticipate Mrs. Gibson's "infinite nothings" and Mr. Gibson's searing irony. Gaskell imbues some of them with an enticing air of unsolved mystery. What are Mr. Gibson's origins? Who was Jeanie, his first love, and why did he not marry her? How does that and his other early relationships influence his behavior toward Molly? Why, at age 28, does Lady Harriet refuse a good match and seemingly scorn romance? Gaskell does not judge her characters--even Mrs. Gibson has redeeming qualities--nor does she reveal all their secrets. Wives and Daughters is an enlightening, captivating, and, despite its unfinished state, satisfying look at Victorian life and society, the influence of which is still felt.
I wasn't that excited about reading "Wives and Daughters", since I'd just finished "North and South" by Mrs. Gaskell, and found it rather tedious.I was pleasantly surprised.
Gaskell did a fabulous job drawing the characters in this book.Cynthia is one of the most skillfully crafted characters I have ever encountered.She's shallow and selfish, but also very kind and lovable -- and it's completely believable.All the others are very easy to accept as "real people" - something I don't encounter very often in victorian literature.
It's a love story that becomes predictable early on, but the complexities along the way are fascinating.Molly finds herself in the middle of every scandal, although she has nothing to do with any of it.Her stepmother, who throws off phony aristocratic airs at every turn, is actually a very funny character rather than a villain.Though Molly has had to face many hurtful challenges, she never acts victimized.Though she struggles with the choices she has to make, she never loses her strength.
It's sad that Gaskell didn't live to finish this book, but it's pretty much wrapped-up where she left off, so not much is lacking.Don't let that stop you from reading this book.
Her Gifts Lay More in the Direction of Social Realism
"Wives and Daughters" is a novel of provincial life, set in the small town of Hollingford. Some commentators have identified this with Mrs Gaskell's own home town, Knutsford in Cheshire, but references to the Malvern Hills and to its proximity to Birmingham suggest that it is located further south, probably in Worcestershire. The action takes place several decades before it was written in 1864-65, although the exact time-frame is difficult to determine exactly. Some topical references, such as to Catholic emancipation which took place in 1829, suggest that the book is set in the late 1820s and early 1830s, but other factors suggest a somewhat later date. (The barrister Mr Kirkpatrick is referred to as a Q.C., not a K.C. as he would have beenbefore the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837).
The main character is Molly Gibson, the daughter of the local doctor. Molly is befriended by Mr Hamley, the local squire, and his wife, who see her almost as a substitute daughter (their own daughter having died in childhood). Molly falls deeply in love with Roger, the Hamleys' academically brilliant younger son, but he sees her only as a friend, being infatuated with Molly's stepsister Cynthia. (Dr Gibson is a widower who has remarried a widow with a daughter around the same age as Molly). Roger is a scientific explorer who travels to Africa in search of new species of animals and plants; his character may have been inspired by the exploits of the likes of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. ("The Origin of Species" had been published only a few years earlier).
The book is clearly influenced by the work of Jane Austen (at times it reads like a pastiche), not only in its subject-matter but also in the way in which Mrs Gaskell tries to draw ironical, satirical pen-portraits of her characters. Cynthia, for example, is beautiful but shallow and fickle, and her mother, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson, is hypocritical, manipulative, conceited and snobbish. Dr Gibson is generally portrayed as a sensible, level-headed man, so it is not easy to understand why he should have taken such an obnoxious woman as his second wife.
The Austen novel with which "Wives and Daughters" has the greatest affinities is "Mansfield Park". In both books the central male character (Roger/Edmund) is the younger son of an upper-class family, overshadowed by a flashier elder brother (Osborne/Tom), but steady, reliable and decent. In both books he is loved patiently and in secret by a quiet, demure girl (Molly/Fanny) but becomes infatuated with another woman, beautiful but flighty and superficial (Cynthia/Mary). In both cases the patient girl's devotion is rewarded with marriage to the man she loves; Mrs Gaskell died before she could write the final chapters of "Wives and Daughters", leaving it unfinished, but there can be little doubt that this is the ending that she intended. Mrs Gaskell left what may have been a deliberate hint that Austen's book was her inspiration; the Hamleys refer to Molly as "another Fanny", that being the name of their deceased daughter.
I have some sympathy with those readers who preferred Cynthia, who for all her obvious character flaws is at least a rounded human being, to the idealised but insipid Molly. (But then, I am one of those who hoped that "Mansfield Park" would end with Edmund marrying Mary rather than Fanny, surely Austen's dullest heroine). Mrs Gaskell seemed to try so hard to make Molly good that she forgot to make her interesting.
Some of the most interesting scenes in the book were those involving Roger's older brother Osborne and his clandestine marriage to a French nursery maid. Osborne needs to keep this marriage a secret because his autocratic father, who has set his heart on a brilliant, financially advantageous match for his son and heir, would not welcome a daughter-in-law who was foreign, a Catholic and a former servant. I felt, however, that this potentially interesting theme was wasted by being relegated to a sub-plot, and wished that Mrs Gaskell had paid more attention to Osborne and Aimee and less to the Roger/Molly/Cynthia triangle.
At well over 600 pages this is a long book, much longer than any of Austen's, being a product of the system of publishing by weekly or monthly instalments, a system which had the effect of inflating by a considerable amount the average lengthof a novel during this period. Dickens also used this method of publishing, but although he was occasionally guilty of padding his books he was generally able to turn the system to his advantage by producing plots of ingenious complexity and finishing each episode at a dramatic point in the narrative. The plot of "Wives and Daughters", however, is too slender to support such a weighty book, and at times I found it frustrating as the action was slowed down to a standstill by yet another lengthy and discursive conversation a propos (to use a typically Gaskellian phrase) of nothing. (The book was successfully adapted as a TV series a few years ago, possibly because the dramatist was able to keep the basic plot but to prune out the duller passages) There were characters whose appearances I learned to dread, particularly the Misses Browning, a tedious pair of garrulous spinster sisters. Even the satire at the expense of Hyacinth, amusing at first, gradually became repetitive; Mrs Gaskell seems to have lacked Austen's gift for playful irony.
Elizabeth Gaskell is often regarded today as a novelist of the early Victorian industrial North, writing social-realist novels which tackled the problems of poverty, unemployment and labour relations ("Mary Barton", "North and South") and unmarried motherhood ("Ruth"). In "Wives and Daughters" she tried to move into Austen's territory, love and marriage among the provincial upper and upper-middle classes, but my view is that her gifts lay much more in the direction of social realism.
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