I finished Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters a couple days ago and found it was a satisfying read; it wasn’t quite as absorbing as I wanted it to be, but as I’ve written here before, that could well be my fault. I did find myself consistently interested in the characters and stories and I found lots to think about. I’d say this is a book that was more likely to make me pause and think than to keep turning the pages at a fast pace.
The novel’s title is a big clue as to its themes, of course; it’s all about family relationships, particularly as they affect women. This is a typical 19C novel in the sense that it’s about young women as they reach marriageable age, telling the story of how they and their families negotiate all the difficulties this brings. Two of the main characters, Molly and Cynthia, contrast in interesting ways; Molly is a quiet, meek, obedient, nearly-perfect heroine, but Cynthia is much more complex and troubling. She is flirtatious and popular; she is secretive and slightly suspicious; she is not quite regular and proper and therefore destined to a nice-quite-perfect fate. Molly is likeable, but Cynthia is much more compelling; Gaskell makes it clear that it is her upbringing — her mother’s neglect, in particular — that has made her the way she is, and while this is not her fault, there is no getting around the fact that she must suffer for it. Cynthia knows this and she seems to mourn it a little, but she also accepts it bravely.
There is something troubling about this; Gaskell leads the reader to sympathize with Cynthia — Molly sympathizes with her too — but it’s clear that there is no way Cynthia can overcome this handicap. She is doomed by her upbringing. Well, not really doomed — she ends up in a reasonably nice marriage — but there is no way she will reach the level of Molly’s goodness and happiness. This is typical of 18C and 19C novels where characters can seem stuck; a certain amount of change may occur but ultimately they’ll get sorted out according to their family background, their upbringing, their innate level of goodness, and rewarded or punished at the novel’s end accordingly. You know from fairly early on that Molly will find a good husband and be happy, and that Cynthia will struggle and suffer and make mistakes and wind up with a clearly less-than-perfect end. Her story is more about how she will accept her circumstances rather than how she might change them.
I was also interested in the fates of the two main male characters, Roger and Osborne (whom I wrote about here). Not surprisingly, these two have more room to change and grow and make mistakes than the female characters do; Roger’s main story is that he falls in love with the wrong woman, but he is allowed to recover from this and eventually find the right one, and Osborne marries the “wrong” woman who eventually turns out to be the right one, or at least an acceptable one, and he is forgiven. These are things that Molly would never, ever do, and that Cynthia gets punished for.
Roger is an outdoorsy type, a scientist, a traveler, and a writer; the introduction to my edition notes that Gaskell modeled him after Charles Darwin. He’s a much more stereotypically masculine figure than his brother Osborne, the poetry-writer, the romantic, the handsome one, the one with a secret life. It’s like Gaskell is writing the end of the Romantic era and the beginning of the Victorian one; the book was published in 1866, and my introduction tells me it was set about 40 years earlier than its writing. The book is clearly written from an 1860s perspective, looking back at the 1820s; it’s full of references to the way things used to be, to the peaceful, quiet past, and also to changes to come, the railroads, for example.
This is only a brief sketch of a few things going on the in novel; there is so much more to notice. Molly’s father I find troubling — at the beginning of the book he mentions in conversation that he doesn’t think women need much training in reading and writing, which surely is Gaskell’s signal that we are to be a bit suspicious of him — and her stepmother is as well. She’s a comic figure much of the time, so self-absorbed and manipulative she’s almost unbearable. There is also a host of minor characters who are amusing and annoying and thought-provoking in turn. This makes the second Gaskell novel I’ve read; I think I may well end up reading more.