Sunday, September 30, 2007

Review: Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters: An Every-Day Story by Elizabeth Gaskell. Introduction and notes by Pam Morris.

With its fairy-tale beginning ("In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house . . ."), the subtitle of Wives and Daughters is gently ironic. While the basic plot is standard—boy and girl meet and overcome many obstacles, including themselves—Gaskell's tale is as much about the rapidly changing Victorian world as about Molly Gibson and her provincial village of Hollingford.

Set before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters consciously brings together England's aristocratic past, represented by Squire Hamley and the upstart earl and countess of Cumnor Towers, and the future, represented by Molly Gibson and Squire Hamley's sons, especially Roger. The elder son, Osborne, puts his own interests and more modern sensibilities above those of his father, while Roger envisions a future of science, exploration, and expansionism. To Mrs. Gibson, who marries to avoid having to work and dependence on the aristocracy, Osborne offers her daughter an entrée into at least the landed gentry, whereas Roger is merely a second son demeaning himself by dabbling in the sciences. Although renowned in London for his travels and discoveries, Roger becomes worthy of her notice only when he is taken into the inner circle of Lord Hollingford and the Towers as a result of his personal achievements.

While the visible action takes place within the small circle of Hollingford, Cumnor Towers, and Hamley Hall, Gaskell encompasses the widening world of rural England. Cynthia attends school in France while the Hamleys are off to Cambridge. The Hamley home is filled with relics from India, while Lady Harriet advises the Miss Brownings on how to obtain the best-priced Indian tea. Cynthia returns from her jaunts to London fashionably dressed and with hints of admirers, while Roger comes back from Africa browned, bearded, and mature in aspect and mien. Even villagers like Miss Hornblower feel the pull of the larger world and the new technology. As Mr. Gibson tells Molly, " . . . if these newfangled railways spread, as they say they will, we shall all be spinning about the world; 'sitting on tea-kettles,' as Phoebe Browning calls it."

The spheres of the sexes are vastly different. Clare Kirkpatrick thinks "how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; some one who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room." Even as Mr. Gibson thwarts the advances of Molly's first suitor, he tries to keep his "little goosey" unprepared for anything but life under the protection of a man, either father or husband. He advises her governess, "Don't teach Molly too much: she must sew, and read, and write, and do her sums; but I want to keep her a child, and if I find more learning desirable for her, I'll see about giving it to her myself." As men of science, he and Roger believe themselves to be dispassionate and rational, yet Molly senses their obvious mistakes before they do and that they are more deeply affected than they appear to be. Gaskell's characters, however, do not follow stereotypes. Lord Cumnor, a garrulous gossip, and Squire Hamley, an openly emotional man, are "womanly" in their ways, while Lady Cumnor and her daughter, Lady Harriet, are models of independence and detachment. Rather than assert her own independence and risk upsetting her excitable, patriarchal husband, Mrs. Hamley wastes away, ironically depriving her husband of her management of his emotions and their expression.

Molly is raised to suppress her feelings. As Mrs. Gibson's values clash with those of Mr. Gibson and Molly, he is able to ride off and immerse himself in his work, while Molly can only swallow her emotions or, as a last resort, hide them in solitude. There is hope, however, that Molly can avoid the life for which Mr. Gibson is preparing her, that of an obedient wife. Her life as companion to Mrs. Hamley shows her impressionable mind the folly of pride and the lasting harm it causes as it separates Mr. Hamley and his elder son. Her natural curiosity and intelligence, consciously discouraged by Mr. Gibson, are encouraged by Roger Hamley, who bridges the ancient Hamley past and the future of science and discovery. This future will be built on achievements, not family name, which makes young Osborne's parentage significant only to traditionalists like the squire and Mrs. Gibson. Their vision of the possibilities never extends beyond their own desires and concerns.

In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell addresses myriad issues important to her and her contemporaries—medicine, science, marriage, the family, gender roles, monetary wealth and land wealth, rural mores, the perception of English heritage and strength and French decadence, exploration, and change. Her characters are so richly drawn that the reader begins to anticipate Mrs. Gibson's "infinite nothings" and Mr. Gibson's searing irony. Gaskell imbues some of them with an enticing air of unsolved mystery. What are Mr. Gibson's origins? Who was Jeanie, his first love, and why did he not marry her? How does that and his other early relationships influence his behavior toward Molly? Why, at age 28, does Lady Harriet refuse a good match and seemingly scorn romance? Gaskell does not judge her characters—even Mrs. Gibson has redeeming qualities—nor does she reveal all their secrets. Wives and Daughters is an enlightening, captivating, and, despite its unfinished state, satisfying look at Victorian life and society, the influence of which is still felt.

Sunday, 30 September 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.


  1. The novel is set at least a decade before the Victorian age began. And I hope that Gaskell handled the Molly Gibson/Roger Hamley romance with more depth than the 1999 miniseries did.

  2. Where was the novel set? Was it in the north of England, Yorkshire?

  3. It was probably set near Manchester, as that had become Mrs. Gaskell's home after her marriage.

  4. I got the impression it was set in Warwickshire, where Mrs Gaskell had gone to school. It's a little while since I last read it, but I remember Hyacinth telling a story about how Mr Kirkpatrick had walked five miles to Stratford (upon-Avon, presumably) in the rain to buy her a muffin, and I had the impression that the Kirkpatricks had lived near Ashcombe/Hollingford. I forget the other reasons I thought of Warwickshire, but it seemed to fit and some of the place names sounded right - Ashcombe, for instance, evokes the south-west for me rather than the north. However, in the BBC miniseries they seemed to go for northern accents so perhaps they thought of Cheshire too! I think "Midlands" is as specific as Mrs Gaskell gets, and that could apply to Cheshire at a push, although I like to think that Warwickshire is more likely as it's quintessentially Midlands! I suppose if we were really interested we could, for example, look at how long it takes the characters to travel to London, and clues like that. But perhaps Mrs Gaskell didn't want to pin it down to a particular location, and was inspired by several places.

    Interesting review btw!