#6: WIVES AND DAUGHTERS, Elizabeth Gaskell
For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’d like to introduce #6, Elizabeth Gaskell’s beautiful novel Wives and Daughters.
Rachel and Emily Hylton are responsible for simultaneously introducing me to two great loves: BBC period miniseries and Elizabeth Gaskell. During a luxurious winter weekend in Asheville a few years ago, we watched the brilliant, 301-minute epic film of “Wives and Daughters.” It was perfect, light, and funny; just about everything one could hope from a rendition of a great novel. The only thing was that I hadn’t actually read Wives and Daughters at the time.
I had heard of Gaskell before, but frankly, by the time I watched “Wives and Daughters” with the Hylton sisters, I had long since read all of Austen, all of George Eliot, and all of the elder Brontës to convince myself that I had exhausted my appetite for 19th-century English women novelists. I had no plans to start reading Gaskell’s novels (even though I did subsequently devour the other BBC reproductions of her novels Cranford and North and South, which are really excellent, particularly during exam week).
My mind was changed after I’d been assigned to read Wives and Daughters in a class on the British novel at UNC. I had bought the thick paperback copy for the class, but our professor ended up dropping the book from the reading list, saying it was too long and we wouldn’t have enough time to finish it before finals. While announcing this, however, she noted that Wives and Daughters was, in her opinion, “one of the most beautiful and masterful novels in the British tradition.” I raised my eyebrows, somewhat surprised, and decided to save my copy and return to it some day.
“Some day” turned out to be two years later, once I had graduated university, married, and moved to a new town. I read Wives and Daughters this past summer and quickly became enthralled with the little universe Gaskell had created. The novel follows the life of young Molly Gibson, who is raised by her doctor father after her mother’s premature death. Molly is intelligent and sweet and possesses an unwavering devotion to her father. She develops a friendship with the Hamley family–particularly with Mrs. Hamley, the invalid matriarch–and the Hamley’s sons, Osborne and Roger. Life seems to be happening at a pleasant clip for Molly, until her father brings home a new wife.
Dr. Gibson abruptly marries an attractive but unbearably vain and garrulous widow, Hyacinth Clare. Molly feels hurt and betrayed and, naturally, strongly dislikes her stepmother. Hyacinth might have fallen neatly into the evil-stepmother archetype were it not for the complicating influence of her daughter, Cynthia.
Molly is an interesting heroine, but her stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, is perhaps an even more interesting one. The professor who wrote the introduction to my edition of the novel noted that Cynthia Kirkpatrick was perhaps “the most complex female character” he’d ever met in a 19th-century novel. A tall order, perhaps, but she seems to fit the description. Cynthia is very beautiful and very aware of the power that her beauty gives her. She arrives to the Gibson household fresh from a French boarding school and filled with pretentions and secrets. Molly and Cynthia take a bit of time to warm up to one another, but after a few chapters, they have come to care for one another as true sisters. Cynthia, however, does not operate in a way we would expect. We expect her to be silly and flirtatious–which she sometimes is–but she surprises us with her ability to transcend her stereotype of the glamorous, desirable single girl. While mired in a romantic trap that she has created for herself, Cynthia exhibits both great lapses of judgment and bouts of the deepest insight and self-awareness. Gaskell never fully lets us make up our minds about her–and that is, perhaps, the true genius behind the character of Cynthia Kirkpatrick.
Wives and Daughters was not the most beautiful and lyrical book I read all year, but it was certainly one of the most enjoyable. Gaskell writes with brilliant humor and keen eye for the intricacies of middle-class life. Once you enter her universe, you will be quick to laugh and loath to leave. She holds a firm grasp on her readers and manages to keep them–to keep us, rather–grounded solidly in the reality she has created for us. And that’s why it’s worth reading another 19th-century English woman novelist.