Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is fantastic. I cannot imagine a world where someone would read this chunky novel and hate it – so please do not shatter my illusions. Besides, Henry James loved it and he knows all.
On with the story! Molly Gibson is a young girl of 17, raised by her father after her mother dies, who must navigate the English countryside during the 1830s. Her father remarries and the new Mrs. Gibson is certainly a less-than-perfect stepmother for Molly, but Molly does gain a beloved stepsister (but really a romantic rival). How will Molly survive her new family structure and will dear Cynthia steal away all the eligible bachelors?
In short, I would love to teach this novel if I ever manage to become a teacher of such things. Gaskell, while appearing to write a rather light-hearted romantic sort of story, has actually crafted an intelligent and decisive work of social commentary. She goes beyond writing about manners and class structure (though these themes are present) and journeys into deep questions of marriage’s necessity, nature vs. nurture, and what makes family family. At the end of the novel, even Molly’s often clueless stepmother stops to wonder that “people talk a good deal about natural affinities” and what concepts beyond mere blood or familial title make us bound to each other.
For these reasons, I think Wives and Daughters was way ahead of its time. You have women shunning marriage and enjoying being in middle age with no husband or prospects. You have fathers that can’t get on with sons and mothers who are clueless about their daughters. Then you have the charming relationship between Molly and her father that puts all other parent/child bonds to shame. There are social scandals in the name of good and people crossing class lines with a nonchalant shrug of their shoulders. With this novel, you get a front row seat to a cultural evolution of sorts and it’s a tremendous ride.
I loved Molly dearly as a vehicle of honesty – she’ll show you the truth behind every other character’s motives. Cynthia is such a complex female and sister to Molly – a perfect FOIL really. You’ll root for Molly while booing Cynthia only to end loving them both. Don’t be dismayed when you learn Gaskell died before finishing the novel. At 650 pages, the story is fairly complete in its final written chapter. There are no doubts left as to who marries whom and besides – the BBC miniseries will give you a proper ending. And do watch the mini-series because it is amazing and so loyal to the book.
So make plans to include Wives and Daughters in your 2012 reading. You won’t be disappointed! I cannot wait to read something else by her as this was my first Gaskell. The writing is so clean and easy to read, yet sucks you in and keeps you turning the pages. She doesn’t go in for major cliffhangers, but there’s always some secret you’re waiting to be divulged that keeps you intrigued. This novel was emotionally cathartic over Christmastime as I was dealing with my own family dilemmas and estrangement from my father. Perhaps not as bitingly witty as Austen, but a pleasure all the same.
Tomorrow I’ll be posting on Delirium by Lauren Oliver so stay tuned!