Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell follows the story of Molly Gibson, the young daughter of a widowed country doctor in 19th century England. In the first chapter Molly is a young girl going to her first “open house” of the town’s Earl and family, held once a year at what the townsfolk call “The Great House.” She doesn’t have the best experience there and never attends another.
Some years later she’s a young lady, and one of the pupils her father has taken on has decided he is in love with her. Molly knows nothing of this, but her father feels she is too young for such things and sends her to Hamley Hall in hopes that his young protege’s ardor will cool. Mrs. Hamley has been one of his patients for years, not quite an invalid, but not very active, and for some time she has wanted Molly to come and visit. Through their time together they become quite close, and the Hamleys regard Molly as close as a daughter.
The Hamleys are landed gentry but have fallen on hard times. They have two sons away at Cambridge: Osbourne carries the family’s hopes, handsome, charming, fashionable, and expected to do brilliantly, and Roger is a man of science, plainer, but steady as a rock. Squire Hamley loves Molly as well and regards her father as a dear friend but strongly feels that marrying Molly would be beneath either of his boys because her father is a “professional” man.
While Molly is away her father contemplates his situation. Molly is at the age where it is awkward for him to keep taking young men as pupils, as his pupils live with him. He hadn’t really thought of remarrying, but begins to think it would be good for Molly if he did. Circumstances bring him into contact with Miss Claire, former governess at the Great House, and in pretty short order he proposes.
Molly is not happy. She feels the loss of having her father all to herself, and her earlier encounter with Miss Claire makes her unexcited about having her for a step-mother. But she tries to make the best of it.
Claire, or Hyacinth, as she prefers to be called after her engagement, married primarily to escape the pressure and tedium of having to support herself and her daughter Cynthia, near Molly’s age, who is at school in France. She speaks great flowing sweet words, but something always seems a little off in what she says. She’s not an evil stepmother, but she is totally self-centered. For instance, when her daughter Cynthia is due to come home, Claire, now Mrs. Gibson, wants to redecorate the girls’ rooms just alike even though Molly begs her not to. Molly’s room is furnished with her mother’s things. But Mrs. Gibson doesn’t want people to think she favored her own daughter by decorating only her room, so she insists that both girls’ rooms are alike.
Cynthia comes home, and the girls become fast friends, though Cynthia is the kind of girl that draws all eyes to herself when she enters a room. She’s beautiful, charming, and worldly-wise while Molly is more plain and naive.
The rest of the book follows the interactions of these and a few others. It’s not an action-packed plot, but it had me smiling in places and in tears in others.
Gaskell did a marvelous job with characterization. Cynthia and Molly, Osbourne and Roger are studies in contrasts, and it’s clear which of each pair is regarded as “good,” yet the others have some good qualities and invite our sympathy. None of her characters are caricatures: each has layers. Squire Hamley is gruff and blustery but not as unfeeling as he seems at times. Dr. Gibson is wise but has a keen wit and some of the best humorous lines. For instance, when his wife is envying someone with more than herself and consoles herself by saying, “But riches are a great snare,” her husband answers, “Be thankful you are spared temptation, my dear.” When Mrs. Gibson goes away for a week and Molly is looking forward to going back to some of their old habits, Dr. Gibson’s “eyes twinkled, but the rest of his face was perfectly grave. ‘I’m not going to be corrupted. With toil and labour I have reached a very fair height of refinement. I won’t be pulled down again.’”
It’s hard to say what the theme of the book is, if there is one. It definitely shows the complications of secrets, the devastating harm of gossip, the disappointment of misplaced expectations. Yet perhaps the focus is just on remaining steady and doing the right thing in the face of all of that.
Unfortunately Mrs. Gaskell died before the book’s last chapter was finished, but a Frederick Greenwood concludes the book with what was known of Mrs. Gaskell’s intentions.
I loved this book, and when it ended I was sorry that I wouldn’t be able to spend any more time with these characters.
Audible.com includes a little sample of the reading of their books, and I listened to several before choosing this one read by Nadia May. She was the most expressive, and she did a wonderful job with the different characters’ voices and inflections, from older men to young girls, and one character with a Scottish accent and another who was French.
I also indulged in the BBC-produced film of Wives and Daughters via Netflix (in four parts of about an hour and 15 minutes or so each), and it was remarkably well done. There were some little changes here and there, naturally, some scenes left out and others squished together, a greater liberty taken with the ending, but overall it was faithfully done and much of the dialogue was taken straight from the book.
Here is a trailer from the film — it’s making me want to watch it all over again:
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)