Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

Elizabeth Gaskell’s unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters, examines the roles of women in society, the complex nature of parenting and exactly why highly moral people should avoid superficial spouses (relations and friends). Yet why does it seem that superficial shallow people always seem to latch on, limpet-like, to those who have scrupulous morality?

Young Molly Gibson is the only daughter of the widower Dr. Gibson. She’s on a visit to Cumnor Towers, the home of Lord and Lady Cumnor for the once-a-year festival for the peasants to oohh and ahhh while the nobility condescend to share space. Molly is stranded and taken to rest in a bedroom. She’s left to the care of Mrs. Clare Kirkpatrick, a former governess who married and left the family’s employment. But things didn’t go well for Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Her husband died, and left with a small child, Mrs. Kirkpatrick now runs a school and lives for chance invitations to the grand house of her former employer. Her child, Cynthia, is somewhat in the way, and so she’s shipped off to school in France. While Lord and Lady Cumnor give Mrs. Kirkpatrick the occasional charity invitation, she also has her uses, and so she’s put in charge of Molly. This early scene gives us a glimpse of Mrs. Kirkpatrick when she gobbles up the supper sent for Molly and then promptly forgets that the ill little girl is left in her charge. Little did Molly know that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was shortly to become her stepmother. …

This wonderful novel follows the life of Molly Gibson. She’s the only child of the hard-working Dr. Gibson who decides to remarry in order to provide Molly with a mother. Of course there’s a secondary issue of Dr. Gibson’s servants being completely out-of-control, and so a new wife will come in handy when it comes to running the household. Clare is a ‘type’ and if Dr. Gibson had taken more time to consider the matter, he would have run for the hills, but Clare knows how to charm men:

Her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accents he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect on his nerves that a cat’s purring has upon some people’s.

Once Dr. Gibson’s proposal is made, Clare, who now reverts to the name Hyacinth, begins to show her true colours. Not that she is a bad woman. No, she’s vain, superficial, foolish, snobbish, selfish. Given that Clare/Hyacinth is treated so insensitively by Lady Cumnor, perhaps we could have some sympathy for the poor former governess, but Clare is always banging on about how sensitive she is–which is just an excuse for her behaviour and her perpetual demands for attention. She’s about as as sensitive as a concrete wall. The nail in the coffin of Clare’s character: marriage to Gibson has rescued Clare from all of her financial worries, but once she becomes Mrs. Gibson she starts acting as though she’s gone down in the world.

The Gibson household, having made the shift to the new mistress (several old servants depart) then adjusts to the arrival of the beautiful Cynthia, Clare’s daughter. While Molly is the heroine, and a great one at that, Cynthia is far more fascinating. And all the young men who visit the house seem to think so too. Two brothers come to visit, Osborne, the eldest and Roger Hamley, the sons of Squire Hamley. Molly has a deep rooted relationship with the family and was much loved by the Squire’s late wife. Osborne is the favourite son, or he was the favourite, and now he’s a disappointment to his father.

Wives and Daughters has a more gossipy feel than Trollope. The author recreates the world of Hollingford–a small town where everyone knows all the comings and goings of their neighbours and scandal provides great entertainment. While villagers gossip amongst themselves, the Miss Brownings act as a bridge between the villagers and the Doctor’s house when it comes to the plot twists regarding the land agent Mr. Preston and Cynthia.

Both Dr. Gibson and Molly keep confidences, and the fallout of these confidences highlights these characters’ moral integrity. Contrast this to the behaviour of the new Mrs. Gibson, who uses information gathered during eavesdropping to further Cynthia’s future. With a mother like Clare, it’s easy to see how and why Cynthia suffered and fell into trouble. While Molly is an open book, if one cares to pry open the pages, Cynthia is entirely different. She’s matured early and without a responsible parent. Both the Doctor and Molly cannot understand Cynthia, and the Doctor, who had a relatively peaceful life before he remarried, finds out the hard way that his wife is a disappointment. Cynthia, however, is a mystery:

She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp.

Molly is a gem, and yet we have probably all had experiences of seeing the quiet ‘gem’ overlooked by the more glittery, worthless types who have incredible plasticity when it comes to beguiling men. Like her father, Molly has never had the experience of dealing with someone as complex as Cynthia, and Molly is far more troubled by Cynthia’s problems than Cynthia is. Cynthia’s “real self was shrouded in mystery,” and while Molly befriends Cynthia and truly loves her, the friendship can only go so far before Molly finds that she faces “a dead wall beyond which she could not pass.” Cynthia acknowledges that she lacks “the gift for loving” (probably inherited) and that becomes painfully true when Molly sees the man she loves fall under Cynthia’s spell.

Cynthia was one of those natural coquettes, who instinctively bring out all their prettiest airs and graces in order to stand well with any man, young or old, who may happen to be present.

This was a fantastic read. There were times Molly was too angelic, and I sometimes wondered why Dr Gibson didn’t strangle his wife. No wonder he starts enjoying his time away from home. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Gibson moves from annoying to dreadful, and her petulance regarding her husband’s need to treat dying patients shows her true nature and her “superficial and flimsy character.”

But if this Mr Smith is dying, as you say, what’s the use of your father’s going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind?’

The woman just doesn’t get any notions of moral responsibility. She doesn’t act badly from malice, but simply from petulance, selfishness, immaturity and a wildly overblown sense of her own moral standing. Everyone exists to make her life easier–to please her. The sharp delineations of society are very well drawn through the characters’ interactions, and several incidents illustrate how the upper classes feel as though they have ‘the right’ to arrange the lives of the lower classes. But Gaskell also shows us what the lower classes expect from the toffs and in one scene depicts the townspeople as terribly disappointed when the nobility don’t wear any jewels to the local ball. They were cheated of an expected display.

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging -pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short– not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Gaskell, Elizabeth

3 responses to “Wives and Daughters: Elizabeth Gaskell (1864)

  1. How does it work, reading a novel that’s unfinished? Does it end leaving you high and dry, or does ‘unfinished’ mean it wasn’t revised or edited?

  2. A lovely review and the quotes are quite wonderful. On to the ever-growing list

  3. I had some concerns as it is unfinished but the plot lines are clear enough. Austen’s Sanditon is more unfinished as you go farther into the book. I found it unsatisfying for that reason. Wives and Daughters has no editing issues and the novel, up to the last page, is fully realised. It’s just that you have to fill in the blanks as to who marries who etc but it’s not that hard.
    The editor of Cornhill Magazine (where the novel was serialized) wrote a wonderful afterword which effectively manages to finish the novel for us.

    Here’s an excerpt:

    While you read any one of the last three books we have named (Wives and Daughters, Cousin Phillis, and Sylvia’s Lovers), you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

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