Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell
This novel has been on my pile all year. I wanted to read it for the Back to the Classics Challenge. A couple of weeks ago, I was going to spend several hours on a bus, and I needed some nice wholesome reading to pass the time. Wives and Daughters seemed the perfect choice, and it turned out lovely.
Molly Gibson is the village doctor's daughter, and she's been raised very simply (this is in the 1830s). When she is seventeen, her father starts worrying that he can't chaperone or guide her properly, and so he marries a pretty, insinuating widow who is in fact shallow, manipulative, and selfish. Molly does her best to get along with her new stepmother, but it's a continual struggle.
Her comfort is her new stepsister, Cynthia, who is charming and sophisticated, having grown up largely in French boarding schools. The two become very close, but Molly does not always understand what Cynthia is up to and she insists on becoming involved in Cynthia's 'scrape' with a man who won't leave her alone. It is Molly's reputation that suffers.
Sadly, the novel is not quite finished. It appeared serially in Cornhill Magazine, and Mrs. Gaskell died before completing it, though only the final wrapping-up remains. It's clear enough what Molly's fate will be, but I wish we could really read it.
It's a wonderful novel that explores the difficulties (and joys) of family relationships, especially where mothers and sisters are involved--very nuanced, careful, and realistic.
Mrs. Gaskell also spends a lot of time dividing the world into two sorts of people. It's actually easiest to make two lists. Things Mrs. Gaskell doesn't really approve of include: finicking snobbery or aristocracy, fancy poetry, old-school education in the classics and nothing else, hatred for the French, overzealous love of all things French, and over-interest in fripperies and dress. Things Mrs. Gaskell does approve of include: plain English sense, science and mathematics, interest in the wider world, progress, simple dress, straightforward friendship with the French, interest in the poor, and plain English sense. (Did I mention plain English sense?)
One thing that really comes home to the modern reader is how incredibly narrow and confined village life was, before fast transportation and communication made it easier to escape. These people--well, most especially the women--are always with each other; the average day involves spending most of the waking hours with each other. Only visits to other local residents, equally well-known, offer relief. In the several years of the novel, Molly's stepmother leaves home for a visit to another city once. To Mrs. Gaskell, this was normal life (though she emphasizes that Molly's stepmother, being a selfish woman, keeps Molly at her beck and call more than is normal). To us, it sounds horribly confining, no matter how much we love our families.
Molly's town, like Cranford, is based on Mrs. Gaskell's home of Knutsford in Cheshire.
I actually have a whole bunch of books to write up, and the Classics Club is having a celebration....there is all sorts of stuff to post about. But I've been staying very strictly off the computer because of sore arms. They're a lot better now, but I'm still going to stop typing before they start again. I'll just have to wait.