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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

How could Elizabeth Gaskell do this to me? Seven hundred pages into Wives and Daughters (published in 1866) and her tale of life in a provincial English town came to an abrupt halt, leaving me with too many dangling plot lines. It was very inconvenient of her to go and die before finishing this novel; couldn’t she have just hung on a week or so? She could easily have wrapped the whole thing up in another 10 pages at a pinch. Fellow writer Frederick Greenwood tried his best at picking up where Mrs Gaskell left off but for all his skills, he couldn’t rise to the occasion.

I’m not so much bothered that I didn’t get to find out if the heroine Molly Gibson, managed to make it to the altar with Roger, the Squire’s son that she’d adored for years. Or if this sweet-natured doctor’s daughter also got rewarded for her loyalty to her friends and all her selfless acts of kindness.

What disappointed me more was that Mrs Gaskell left me wondering whether she would deal out some justice to Molly’s egocentric, socially pretentious stepmother Hyacinth.  She was quite the most delicious character in the whole novel, bringing a spark to all the scenes in which she appeared. We first meet her as the impoverished owner of a small school, desperately trying to make ends meet and maintain certain genteel ways. She quickly spies a way of out her predicament in the shape of Dr Gibson, a well-respected widowed doctor, that she sets about ‘improving’. The comfortable life and companionship once enjoyed by Dr Gibson and Molly are brought to an end once Hyacinth gets her way. Hyacinth starts by redecorating the doctor’s home and progresses to refinements such as moving the time of the main meal from the countryside norm of midday to six o’clock in line with the practices of London society. The doctor even finds his favourite  diet of bread and cheese is banned, replaced with the more refined French recipes and delicacies that the cook, more used to staple fair, always manages to ruin.

Hyacinth is a woman whose desire to rub shoulders with the great and the good overcame any maternal feelings towards her own daughter Cynthia. In her early years the poor girl was often left at home alone while her mother went hob-nobbing with the titled family for whom she was once a governess. Subsequently packed off to school in France, its not surprising that poor Cynthia turns out a vain, empty-headed flirt unable to form any meaningful relationships with men. Even Molly’s influence can only make a marginal impact on this girl.

What we have in Wives and Daughters is a collection of perfectly drawn characters within a narrative that charts the story of a young girl’s growth and the influence of her life on those around her. It’s not a historical novel but Gaskell deftly gives details that locate her action in the late 1820s-30s at the cusp of some momentous changes in English society. England is at peace with France though there is still bitterness and suspicion towards the French, the balance of power is still with the landed families and the protocols surrounding social calls is still prevalent. But Gaskell shows change is in the wind – the railways are starting to emerge and the Whigs and Tories are wrestling for power. It’s the glimpses of this society that Gaskell provides that I found the most interesting part of the book. They are not as evident as in George Eliot’s Middlemarch published eight years later but they are there if you keep an eye open for them.


My favourite literary era

classicsclub3Some of the monthly questions posed by the Classic Club have been fiendishly difficult to answer and involved much chewing of pencils and furrowing of eyebrows on my part before I could even think of a coherent response. But March’s question hasn’t created anywhere the same amount of angst.

What is your favourite “classic” literary period and why?

For me, there is no contest; it has to be the nineteenth century.

This is a period which witnessed massive and lasting change through the twin forces of industrial revolution and political revolution in France. The writers of the period turned to the novel as a way of representing and exploring those social changes. Reading many of the novels of this period gives me a chance to indulge in my love of history, particularly at the human level. Want to know what life was like for single women of no independent means? Read the Bronte sisters. Want to know about the effects of the new spirit of social mobility and economic potential? Read Dickens or Gaskell. If your interests lie beyond the borders of the United Kingdom, hop over to France to learn about working conditions for miners or the poor of Paris courtesy of Emile Zola or hitch a lift on a boat up the Congo river with Joseph Conrad for a look at the effects of colonisation.

George Eliot and Joseph Conrad: sharing the century but world’s apart in style

The variety of subject matter was also echoed by a tremendous variety in style and form.  At the start of the century the novel was still a relatively new (novel) form of writing. Through the early writers of the period it began to take shape. But once they’d found their feet as it were, they began to have even more fun with it, reshaping and reshaping it as they experimented with new approaches. They pushed against the boundaries as they looked for the form of writing that best gave expression to their ideas. Within the span of 100 years we moved from romance and the Gothic through the realism of George Eliot to the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins, the pastoral romances of Thomas Hardy and ending on the cusp of the new century with the emergence of the stream of consciousness style of narrative.

Diversity of form and diversity of subject matter make for a winning combination in my book.

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