Saturday 7 November 2015

Review: Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell (1864-5)

It’s very rare to grieve for someone who died 150 years ago, but that’s how I felt when I reached the ‘end’ of Elizabeth Gaskell’s mammoth Wives and Daughters – her final novel which was left just unfinished with her sudden death in November 1865).

In this case there’s no Edwin Drood-style mystery – we’re in the final pages and know how the story will end – but the sudden stop feel like a bereavement, as we’re robbed of the happy ending the novel has been building to for 650 pages.

'Elizabeth Gaskell, George Richmond (1851)
The novel is about Molly Gibson – the doctor’s daughter in the provincial town of Hollingford. Molly’s mother has been dead since her infancy, but otherwise she passes a happy childhood, loved by her father, and petted by the unmarried ladies of the town. In her late teens her father is married again – this time to the pretty widow Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who was formerly a governess at the local great house owned by Lord and Lady Cumnor.

In one fell swoop Molly is divided from her father, and gains both a stepmother and stepsister – the beautiful and universally admired Cynthia. It is Cynthia whose actions dictate many of the novel’s biggest dramas, as she entangles herself with various men and gets into scrapes, while Molly suffers from indifference from the man she loves and libellous gossip at the hands of the town. 

But here’s the twist – Molly doesn’t dislike Cynthia, and Mrs Gibson isn’t a cruel stepmother. Gaskell’s worlds are inhabited by characters who can be careless and are very often misguided, but they are never caricatures. Wives and Daughters is her most perfect realisation of this vision – comparable to George Eliot’s achievement in Middlemarch (1871-2).  

She has a lightness of touch that makes the most minor of characters believable and sympathetic, and so succeeds in drawing us into this society. We understand the insidiousness of gossip among the middle classes, the pervasive influence of Cumnor Hall, and the rivalries between new money and old, Whigs and Tories. Our abrupt expulsion from this world is an unpleasant one – but it’s a testament to Gaskell’s plotting that she keeps us hooked, even when we’re no longer guessing.

Molly mightn’t be the brightest star among Victorian heroines – she’s perhaps closest to Caroline Helstone in Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849) in disposition. And lovers of sensation may feel Gaskell throws away hidden engagements and marriages and lets her villains get away a little easily.

But what she gives us is life – in England in the 1830s. If you feel like stepping outside of your own for a while and losing yourself in Molly’s cares, this is heartily recommended. One word of warning: you’ll be left missing the writer as well as the ending.

What would you like the see the Secret Victorianist read next? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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