Wives and Daughters is a leisurely, meandering forest path, with dappled sunlight pooling in the occasional fairy-tale glades – an expansive bildungsroman canvassing the untheatrical lives of Molly Gibson and her county neighbours, from the aristocracy to the servants.
To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl.
Mrs Gaskell’s final novel may lack the grit of my beloved North and South, focusing instead on the “old worn grooves of… the South”. It takes a certain mood for the lengthy examination of those grooves, and Mrs Gaskell’s voice has a beautiful, lulling, motherly tone. But potential readers are sorely mistaken if they think this novel is dull or blandly expository. No, Mrs Gaskell paints with her characteristic sensitive strokes, colouring her characters so convincingly that the stepmother and villain are sympathetic, if they cannot be likeable. As vain and manipulative as Mrs Gibson may be, she vows to be an impartial stepmother, and to love Molly as much as she does her own daughter. (That is to say, less than she loves herself, but we cannot expect too much from such a silly, self-involved creature.) The secondary characters are as charming; I especially love Lady Harriet, who used her rank to champion poor Molly when her conduct was unfairly subjected to the scandalous gossip of Hollingford. The squire too, although prone to tempestuous tantrums and exasperating pride, is as tender-hearted a friend to Molly as a higher ranked middle-aged man can be.
Osborne ransacked the hothouses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.
The plot may seem mundane, but before the reader’s senses are so much as piqued, the narrative slips into a wry comedy of manners. It dissects Truth, family tensions, female adolescence, nationalism, religion and women’s position in Georgian society. Like North and South, profound power shifts are woven into the deceptively humdrum fabric of everyday life: the aggressive expansion of the middle class, the reinstatement of the South as the economic capital, “the emergence of a scientifically led intelligentsia”.
I only give four stars because at times, Molly and Cynthia are more akin to two halves than individual wholes. The latter is the fatherless, ‘bad’ counter to the motherless, ‘good’ former. Molly is the “steady sun”, and Cynthia the “inconstant moon”. I also almost wish Molly’s romantic hero were someone else. Their tacit understanding and easy friendship are heartwarming, but their relationship began when the hero took her under his wing and deemed her his favourite – but frail and ignorant – pupil, whom he must shelter and protect. Molly gradually steps away from her wide-eyed role as Telemachus, but readers are much less privy to the hero’s changing perception of his pupil, then his sister, then his love and equal (I assume there was this change – I cannot have him still considering her a frail young thing). Indeed, we are not sure exactly how he came to love her either, especially after his fervent infatuation with her sister. Perhaps Mrs Gaskell intended to reveal all this, but she sadly passed away before she could write the final chapters.
Wives and Daughters is a delicate union of humour and depth – a moving magnum opus, a cautionary fable, a penetrating illustration of the individual, inner life, inescapably entangled in the fine-spun web of perplexing relationships and outward appearances.
Favourite quote: “I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
One of my favourite reviews, most lovingly written by B0nnie in the form of a perfect extended metaphor.