Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’ Category

Ages ago, I used to make an annual habit of rereading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. While long Victorian novels are associated more with long cold nights by the fire, for me it always made ideal reading for the long hot summer days, its slow pace forcing me to slow down and escape the heat.

It’s a tradition that had slipped away from me over the past few years – not consciously but somehow it never seemed to fit. I would still pick it up regularly, read a few hundred pages perhaps, and then, having enjoyed my visit with old friends, move on to something new.

This year there was no moving on. I read it at a leisurely pace last week (during another heatwave here), delighted to be reunited with Molly Gibson whose life is upended when, on the verge of womanhood, her long widowed father remarries and she gains not just a new mother but a new sister. I’ve written about my love for Wives and Daughters before and my reasons for loving it have not changed. Every character is wonderful and terribly real, full of both loveable and frustrating traits. The small society in which they move is perfectly drawn, with both affection and exasperation. And somehow for a book that is 700 pages long the story never lags. Indeed, it’s only frustration is that the end comes too soon, Mrs Gaskell having died just before she could bring her masterpiece to a skillful conclusion.

It reminded me of what I knew all along: there is no better choice for a summer read than this. It forced me to slow down and savour what I was reading, a hard task during this anxiety-ridden summer and all the more pleasurable because I’d been challenged to do it by other means. And now I can move onto another equally pleasurable task: a rewatch of the wonderful television adaptation, in which Michael Gambon is the most perfect personification of Squire Hamley that could ever be imagined.

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wives-and-daughters-oxford-world-s-classics-14684306I am reading Wives and Daughters again.  I am just easing my way into it, still in the midst of the preparations for young Molly’s visit to the Towers.  It is such a familiar book that I am always torn between savouring each line and rushing ahead to greet my favourite characters, relive my favourite scenes.  As much as I enjoy the Miss Brownings, their flutterings remind me how long I have to wait to see the magnificent Cynthia in action.  As much as I revel in that first glimpse of Clare’s self-centeredness, I love her so much more a few years later when she becomes Hyacinth Gibson and her true character is exposed to her new family.  I missed my annual rereading of this book last year (having been caught up in the Twentieth Century with A Century of Books) and it is a delight to return to it.

To me, Wives and Daughters is the ideal summer book.  I always feel the urge to turn to it when the weather turns hot and there is nothing more satisfying than sitting in a cool place on a hot summer afternoon, getting caught up in Molly’s story.  The first time I read it was in summer, probably a decade ago now, but I did not have the privilege of reading it in such leisurely conditions as I now enjoy.  Or perhaps I merely lacked the patience to wait until I could arrange myself in such comfort.  Instead, I read it hungrily, gulping down a few pages anytime I had a few free minutes.  I remember finishing it on the bus coming home from my summer job, missing my stop because I was so caught up in the ending.  Or, more importantly, the lack of an ending.

Last week, Hayley described her perfect summer reading as “something Victorian suitable for use as a doorstop when it’s not being read.”  I feel the same way and Wives and Daughters fits the bill exactly.  Trollope might be the only author more suitable for summer reading and, based on reviews that have been popping up recently, I know I am not the only blogger who has turned to him in recent weeks.  I read his The Three Clerks last week and really enjoyed it (and will hopefully manage to review it in the next few days).  Once I’m done Wives and Daughters, I am already planning my return to Trollope’s Barsetshire with The Small House at Allington.

The Eye of LoveWe had a long weekend here and before starting Wives and Daughters I made the most of it in terms of reading.  I’ve picked up a bit of a head cold – a most unpleasant thing to have at any time but especially when it is warm and lovely outside – but that does mean that I’ve had more time for reading.  I’ve begun my acquaintance with Margery Sharp, reading first Cluny Brown and then The Eye of Love.  Sharp lives up to her name in both but I found myself rather underwhelmed by The Eye of Love.  The story focuses on a pair of plain, middle-aged lovers whose ten year affair is disrupted when he – Harry – is forced to engage himself to the daughter of a business associate in order to keep his own business afloat.  Harry and Dolores are a touching and absurdly romantic pair, desperately in love and ignorant of how ridiculous their adoration appears to the outside world, but still their story failed to touch me.  Martha, Dolores’ stolid and self-sufficient nine year old niece is the star of the book but even so it felt a bit of a chore to work through to the finish.  I had checked the sequel – Martha in Paris – out from the library already but I am not sure if I shall read it.  Sharp is quite funny in Cluny Brown, less so in The Eye of Love, but in both books she simply takes far too long to tell the story and ties in characters and storylines that are of no interest.  I can understand why she appeals to others but she wears my patience.

The Best ManMore satisfyingly, I also reread The Best Man by Kristan Higgins this weekend.  It came out this past February and I read it for the first time on the day of release; it was in fact the novel that, after almost a year of Kobo ownership, made me break down and buy my first ebook, having until then relied on library ebooks.  And now I’ve read it again and I haven’t entirely ruled out the possibility of reading it at least once more before 2013 is done.  I love Higgins’ contemporary romances (she has written ten to date) and this one, the story of a young woman who returns to her hometown after having been jilted in the most embarrassing fashion at the altar several years before, is one of my favourites (Just One of the Guys and All I Ever Wanted being my other favs).  I love the quirky and outspoken families and communities that are so central to Higgins’ characters’ lives and just the general sense of humour and warmth that sustains all of her books.  She has a new book coming out at the end of October (The Perfect Match) and you just know I am going to be reading that the day it’s released.

But for now, back to Molly.

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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I had been looking forward to Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories by Jenny Uglow after hearing it praised by so many other bloggers and, when I came to read it, I was delighted by how well it lived up to its stellar reputation.  Going into it, I knew the outline of Gaskell’s life and had a vague impression of her personality but really did not know very much.  I can’t even call myself a well-read fan of hers, having only read North and South (which I enjoy) and Wives and Daughters (which I adore and reread at least once every year).  But from what I did know of her life, what I had read of her work, she seemed like one of those authors whose real life I might find even more interesting than her fiction, whose personality might make her a more interesting character than any one of her creations. 

I’m sure I should have been more interested in Gaskell’s childhood than I was.  There are many parallels between her own experiences and those of her characters, after all: Elizabeth’s mother died when the girl was only a few months old and she was sent away to be raised by her mother’s relatives in the country.  Her elder brother, John, was a sailor who went missing when Elizabeth was a teenager.  Her father had married again and had two more children but Elizabeth was not brought into the new family and remained with her aunt in a Cranford-esque village.  But, frankly, it was an unexceptional, seemingly happy childhood and is perhaps covered a bit too thoroughly. Elizabeth was intelligent and quick, but seemed destined to be a wife, albeit one who wrote clever letters with a strong narrative, rather than a respected authoress:

As a schoolgirl Elizabeth had responded eagerly to books and to her teachers, but she showed no passionate hunger for learning; she was no Mary Ann Evans seeking fuel for her devouring intellect; no Harriet Martineau complaining that she had to sit in the parlour and sew instead of learning Greek.  Nor did she, like the Brontë sisters, create her own imaginary world built from the books she read, the distant wars she heard of.  She was a clever child, but those warnings against displayed learning seem to have had their effect, since for many years, as an adult, she hid her cleverness, claiming not to have read economics, not to understand science, not to like sermons, not to be ‘metaphysical’.  But she did escape into literature and drew on her reading constantly, for comparisons with other lives, for different visions of the world – and for ways of telling stories.

But then, in 1832 at the age of twenty-one, Elizabeth married the Reverend William Gaskell, a fellow Unitarian, and moved to Manchester.  I was hugely intrigued by what was glimpsed of William Gaskell and of the relationship between husband and wife. Elizabeth was energetic, almost sprightly: Uglow mentions an instance in 1860, when Elizabeth was fifty years old, where the author went directly from ten days at her daughter’s sickbed to a ball at Oxford where she danced until four in the morning.  William, on the other hand, was much more sedate and the match between two such different personalities must have seemed strange to their friends.  But the marriage was a happy one and both partners gained from the association:  

Elizabethwas lively and open.  William, until people knew him well, appeared grave, scholarly, rather austere.  Yet these contrasts strengthened their relationship.  She drew him out, finding his warmth and humour, and touching a romantic-vein in his nature, while he gave her a fixed point in the compass of her emotions, a stability which she sometimes resisted but never undervalued.  At times she wished he was more demonstrative, less dry, less rule-bound, less busy.  When he was away, she confessed she breathed more freely – but she always yearned for his return.  She turned to William not to make decisions for her, but to reinforce or question those she made for herself.  He became a valued critic and a stalwart support against the criticism of others, upholding her right to publish the truth as she found it.

If only their letters to one another had survived!  Elizabeth was a wonderful letter writer and William’s letters are witty and intelligent, if not quite so chatty as his wife’s.  They spent a lot of time apart once the girls were adults, pursuing different careers and interests, so there must have been hundreds of letters (Elizabeth was nothing if not prolific in her correspondence) and had they survived what details of their characters would have been revealed, I wonder?  I like to think that for all their separations, they were gaps in distance, not affection or loyalty.  An elderly Mr. Gaskell was a great favourite of young Beatrix Potter and she, I am convinced, was a good judge of character.    

It is wonderful to realise how well-connected the Gaskells were to some of the great people of the day, both through Elizabeth’s work and through their Unitarian faith.  Scientists, artists, feminists, social activists, and, of course, writers, are counted among their friends and family and it is rather giddy-making to think of Gaskell chatting with Florence Nightingale, the Darwins, the Carlyles, Harriet Martineau, Charles Dickens, and countless others.  The Unitarian emphasis on rational thought and questioning rather than blind faith seems to have attracted and created some of the best, most innovative minds of an incredibly exciting era:

The richness of Gaskell’s fiction derives from the very fullness of the daily life which constricted her writing time.  She moved in a world where personal contacts and the flow of ideas were so interconnected that the idea of the web will not do, unless one thinks of an autumn hedgerow where web after web glistens in the sun, each so intricately linked to the other that the slightest touch sets them all in motion.  A better image is that of overlapping circles, drawn by a compass whose point is fixed in a central circle of Elizabeth’s family, marriage, and faith.  Family relationships shade into a wider Unitarian circle, and this in turn overlaps with others – philanthropic, political, literary, scientific – which embrace people of different religious affiliations: Anglican, Evangelical, Quaker, Christian Socialist, agnostic.  Such rings then touch and connect with others, with circles of theologians, writers and radical refugees from Europe, with American Transcendentalists, feminists, and abolitionists. (p. 309)

And if she was able to converse with the great people of the day, then so too was she able to witness the great social changes: Manchester, dirty and smelly as Elizabeth may have found it, was certainly the place to see first-hand the transformations wrought by the industrial revolution.  As a minister’s wife working among the city’s poor, Elizabeth had a better idea than most how the workers lived and what their struggles were.  Her novels now are remarkable to both casual readers and social historians for the detailed and realistic portrait of an industrial city’s working class. 

Elizabeth died in 1865, age only fifty-five.  Far too young, obviously, but, and this may be a callous thing to say but I don’t particularly care, what a wonderful death she had!  As Uglow describes it, it was a Sunday, so Elizabeth had attended church, visited with some friends while showing off her new home, walked about the garden, and then had sat down to tea with her daughters and her son- and future-son-in-law in a nice cozy room, where they happily chatted away.  She died in the middle of sentence – quickly, so painlessly that no one else at first realised what had happened.  Yes, too young, but ideal in all other aspects. 

It is a wonderful and thorough book, with Uglow preferring to perhaps overshare rather than hold back any facts from the reader.  Uglow’s writing is competent but not dazzling.  There are no brilliant passages here and few memorable lines.  I might have loved it better had not so much time been spend analyzing the novels and stories themselves.  I understand the logic of this approach but when the analysis is not being used to illustrate Gaskell’s life effectively (and it rarely was), it seems wasteful.  It has made me eager to read more of Gaskell’s works for myself, to sample her diverse offerings as a storyteller, to find what I now know of her in her work:

The variety of her fiction has often baffled those who wish to pigeon-hole her neatly; social comedy, protest novel, domestic drama.  Such labels sacrifice her richness and complexity to false gods of order and unity.  Each of her selves, at various times, found its own voice and form…

But, more than anything, I know I must now track down the published books of Elizabeth’s letters.  Uglow quotes from them at length and, really, they appear to be more entertaining, more energetic than even her wonderful fictions.  And when isn’t real life more interesting than a made-up story?

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I can’t remember exactly when I first read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, what urged me to select it in the first place.  It was a summer while I was still in high school, I know, and I remember finishing it as I rode the bus home from work, missing my stop as I read those last pages, reeling with both delight and a sense of immense loss as the story transitioned from the last rather anti-climactic sentence Mrs. Gaskell penned before her death to the satisfactory outline of an ending contributed in her absence by her editor.  Each time I reread it, I come away feeling the same: after hundreds of pages, with the happy conclusion in sight, the abrupt end is always a shock and there is always disappointment that, even though you know how Gaskell intended to end the story, you’ll never have the pleasure of seeing how she would have executed it, what artistry and skill she would have employed in giving our heroine her much-deserved happiness.

Wives and Daughters, for those not already acquainted with Gaskell’s masterpiece, is primarily the story of Molly Gibson, the daughter of a widowed country doctor.  I hesitate to call it a coming-of-age story, knowing how some readers recoil in horror from anything so labelled, though it certainly is the chronicle of Molly Gibson’s steady growth and maturation.  Instead, I shall call it a novel-ish sort of novel.  It has everything you could want: romances of every kind, comedy, tragedy, mystery, and delicious secrets.  And yet it is not in the least sensational.  There are dramas of every sort going on around Molly but they are of the small, domestic kind.  Bad marriages are made and people die of lingering illnesses but these are the worst things that happen in Molly’s world.  It is a very human story, very relatable regardless of the decade or century.  Writing in the 1860s, Gaskell chose to set the story in the 1830s, the time of her girlhood, making Molly her own contemporary, and while the fashions and lifestyles may have changed somewhat over the years, the characters that Gaskell peoples her book with are instantly recognizable.

As the novel begins, one of Mr. Gibson’s young pupils has fallen in love with the almost seventeen year old Molly, and, worse, tried to declare his love by secret letter to the oblivious Molly.  Mr. Gibson quickly packs his daughter off for a long promised visit to a nearby family, Squire and Mrs. Hamley at Hamley Hall, and sets about rethinking his status as a widower.  After all, he reasons, a motherless daughter is a sad thing to have on ones hands.  Is it not his duty to his beloved daughter to ensure that she has the proper female guidance as she transitions from child to woman?  And so, without Molly’s knowledge, he begins to think of marrying again and begins a modest courtship of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolteacher and former governess already vaguely acquainted with the family.

Molly, meanwhile, has been absorbed into the Hamley household, proving to be the perfect companion for the invalid Mrs. Hamley and a delight to the Squire as well.  The Hamleys have no daughters, only two sons: the brilliant Osborne, of whom great things are expected, and the steady, good humoured Roger, both studying at Cambridge as Molly begins her visit.  All three parents agree that it is a very good thing their children are not in the same place all at one, young people being so inclined to fall in love when placed in proximity to an eligible party of the opposite sex: Mr. Gibson because he does not think his daughter old enough to become so entangled, the Hamleys because they believe their sons should be looking a little higher than the daughter of a provincial doctor when it comes to choosing a wife.  But Osborne and Roger are the focus of Mrs. Hamley’s life, her greatest delights, and much time is spent telling Molly of them.  Molly, like any suggestible, sheltered teenage girl, falls half in love with Osborne through both his mother’s praise and his own dreamy poetry, which his mother gives to Molly to read.  So when Roger comes home from university alone to break the news of Osborne’s academic failure, she instantly takes against the younger brother who would dare to debase this household idol and “so in mute opposition on Molly’s side, in polite indifference, scarcely verging on kindliness on his, Roger and she steered clear of each other.”  That is, until Mr. Gibson visits and springs on Molly the news of his engagement to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, sending a distraught Molly sobbing into the garden after his departure, where the awkward Roger discovers her and handles the situation far more ably than most twenty-one year old men I know and, continuing to encourage and support her afterwards, establishes the basis of a firm friendship:

If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds.  Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly’s grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough. (p. 123-124)

He also begins to take on her education as well.  Roger is an avid naturalist, enchanted by the natural world around him, and Molly, to some extent, catches his enthusiasm.  But, as Gaskell clearly reminds us, there is nothing untoward about their relationship as they are both very young, with very definite ideas of who their future partners will be:

Every young girl of seventeen or so, who is at all thoughtful, is very apt to make a Pope out of the first person who presents to her a new or larger system of duty that that by which she has been unconsciously guided hitherto.  Such a Pope was Roger to Molly; she looked to his opinion, to his authority on almost every subject, yet he had only said one or two things in a terse manner which gave them the force of precepts – stable guides to her conduct, and had shown the natural superiority in wisdom and knowledge which is sure to exist between a highly educated young man of no common intelligence, and an ignorant girl of seventeen, who yet was well capable of appreciation.  Still, although they were drawn together in this very pleasant relationship, each was imagining some one very different for the future owner of their whole heart – their highest and completest love.  Roger looked to find a grand woman, his equal, and his empress; beautiful in person, serene in wisdom, ready for counsel as was Egeria.  Molly’s little wavering maiden fancy dwelt on the unseen Osborne, who was now a troubadour, and now a knight, such as he wrote about in one of his own poems; some one like Osborne, perhaps, rather than Osborne himself, for she shrank from giving a personal form and name to the hero that was to be. (p. 151-152)

Eventually, reluctantly, Molly has to return home to her father and her new mother and this is when the novel really begins to take off as Gaskell begins to incorporate more and more characters, some of them truly magnificent creations.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick/Mrs. Gibson is marvelous.  A pretentious but poor widow, she eagerly accepts Mr. Gibson’s offer and the improvement in her material circumstances and social standing the marriage offers.  She instantly sets about ‘improving’ his house, his diet, and his daughter and, intriguingly, putting off the return of her own daughter Cynthia, who is the same age as Molly, from school in France.  But Cynthia does eventually return and she is just as wonderful and flawed as her mother.

Gaskell’s straightforwardness has always appealed to me.  Artifice and obfuscation are the talents of her minor characters, never her heroes or heroines, admirable for their plain speaking and clarity of purpose.  Never is this contrast clearer than between Molly and her stepsister Cynthia.  Cynthia bursts into the novel and into Molly’s life in a whirl of colour and energy.  She is beautiful and captivating, spirited and somewhat mysterious.  She can be all things to all people, knowing how to act best to please each member of her audience.  And though the contrast between her and the honest, direct Molly is great, they quickly become close confidents, true sisters.  The greatest benefit by far of Mr. Gibson’s marriage is the introduction of Cynthia into Molly’s life and it is the complications caused by the beguiling Cynthia that truly see Molly mature.  Molly is thoughtful and considerate, guided by intelligence and good judgment where Cynthia is selfish and thoughtless, eager to jump ahead without considering the consequences, to run away when complications ensue.  But Cynthia adores and admires Molly, conscious of her own flaws and Molly’s moral superiority.  Cynthia may lament her shortcomings, as in this little speech to Molly, but she would much rather have and be able to laugh at them than to attempt any great effort to reform herself:

‘…I am not good and never shall be now.  Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.’

‘Do you think it easier to be a heroine?’

‘Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history.  I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation – but steady every-day goodness is beyond me.  I must be a moral kangaroo!’ (p. 229)

Cynthia may never be good but, like Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, she will always be interesting.  It comes as no surprise when Roger is instantly smitten by her on their first meeting – who would not be?  Things become suitably tangled after that and Gaskell makes the rather inspired decision to send her male love interest off to Africa for much of the novel, meaning no romantic conclusions can come about too quickly  – a clever tactic when writing a serialized story!

As I said before, yes, this is a coming-of-age story about Molly Gibson but it is so much more.  It is a story about families: the Hamleys and the Gibsons and the changing relationships within them: the loyalties between brothers, between sisters, the bonds of fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, and the consequences of both good and bad marriages.

Squire Hamley may be my favourite character.  He certainly suffers the most, losing his beloved wife and his son, whom he spent most of the time at odds with.  He is very emotional too, far more so than any of the other characters, male or female.  He speaks about what he feels – loudly! – while everyone else conceals their emotions.  It is not necessarily a positive trait: after all, his vocal admonishments of his eldest son only drive them further apart, Osborne taking his father’s words in his usual sensitive manner, leading him to conceal some rather significant details about his life away from Hamley.  So many readers eschew Victorian novels because of their repressed characters, mostly male.  Squire Hamley must be the antidote to such stoics yet he manages to be emotional and sympathetic without being emasculated.  He has an overwhelming personality and can be selfish in his desires and expectations; while I may not want him as a father, I will always love him as one of the most vivid and lifelike characters I have ever come across.

The love story between Roger and Molly is one of my all-time favourites.  Roger feels so real.  He is perfect in so many ways but not in all.  Like any young man of twenty two, he is easily blinded by love, falling prey to Cynthia’s numerous charms in a quite ridiculous manner.  Molly had been half in love with her romanticized ideal of Osborne before meeting him but Roger’s first love is rather more serious.  His keen analytical skills and strong morals fall rather to the wayside, unconsciously compromised by his selection of Cynthia as his future wife.  She is his ideal and the entire time he is falling in love with her, he never really sees her for what she is and how horribly ill-suited they are.  And poor Molly, only starting to realise her feelings for Roger when he begins to shower Cynthia with attention, having to watch him commit himself to a woman who she knows doesn’t care for him half as much as he does for her:

As long as Roger was drawn to Cynthia, and sought her of his own accord, it had been a sore pain and bewilderment to Molly’s heart; but it was a straightforward attraction, and on which Molly acknowledged, in her humility and great power of loving, to be the most natural thing in the world.  She would look to Cynthia’s beauty and grace, and feel as if no one could resist it.  And when she witnessed all the small signs of devotion which Roger was at no pains to conceal, she thought, with a sigh, that surely no girl could help relinquishing her heart to such tender, strong keeping as Roger’s character ensured.  She would have been willing to cut off her right hand, if need were, to forward his attachment to Cynthia; and the self-sacrifice would have added a strange zest to a happy crisis.  (p. 362-3)

Molly is good.  That is a very unfashionable thing to be, especially these days, but I do prefer my heroes and heroines to be so.  She is not angelically good like the heroines of sickeningly sweet children’s story or cheap, mostly forgotten Victorian novels.  She struggles, she talks back on occasion, gets frustrated and angry like anyone but, more often than not, she does as she believes she ought, even, most importantly, when it may bring social ruin.  And there’s something very noble and wonderful about that, about her desire to be good and helpful to others.  Roger is equally good and I love him for that.  After all, that is how Roger and Molly first became friends, when he sought to comfort and help her through a difficult time.  Finally, I love that they are both the kind of people who worry (to both the amusement and approval of their elders) about being worthy of the one they love – so different from the callous, delightful Cynthia, casting lovers aside with reckless abandon until she finds the one who seems to expect the least from her and worships her all the same.

I have so much more I could say about Wives and Daughters, so many minor characters that could be discussed, so many plot points that could be analysed!  It is a novel that I never tire of talking about, full of characters that will be with me always.  If you haven’t already read it, please do.  Take your time and enjoy it.  Or, if you’re not ready to make the commitment to six hundred odd pages of superb entertainment, do at least check out the BBC adaptation penned by Andrew Davies with Justine Waddell as Molly, Keeley Hawes as Cynthia and Michael Gambon as a truly spectacular Squire Hamley.

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