Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Mrs. Gaskell was a contemporary of Charlotte Brontë. Although Brontë is better remembered now, Gaskell may have been more popular at the time. She was certainly more prolific (and, not coincidentally, longer-lived.)

I have only read a couple of her books. Wives and Daughters is very long and fairly interesting. It strongly resembles Mansfield Park, being the story of two young women, one meek and self-doubting, the other vivacious and almost too flirtatious for her own good, who are both involved with the same young man. He is, of course, very much taken with the temptress at first but in the end returns to his true love.

In this case, the two young women are stepsisters, which constitutes the other main thread of the novel. Molly's father decides that she needs a mother to assist and chaperone her through adolescence, so he marries a woman, who also has a daughter, without really getting to know her. This turns out to be a mistake.

One of the noteworthy things about the novel is that the "evil" stepmother is not evil at all. She is very frivolous, rather selfish, and not much inclined to honesty. But for the most part her faults are depicted as normal and understandable: she is only human. For example, there is a prolonged description of her struggle to make ends meet after her first husband's death (the only respectable occupation for an upper-middle-class woman at that time was teaching, and she's not very good at it) and her hopes that someone will marry her and relieve her of financial cares.

She also insists on treating Molly on fair and equal terms with her own daughter, unlike the evil stepmothers of fairy tale. There's a fair amount of selfishness in her decision -- she doesn't want people saying bad things about her, and as it turns out, she doesn't get along very well with her own daughter and often praises Molly at her expense.

Molly and Cynthia, her stepsister, become close friends. Cynthia, like her mother, is a very well-drawn and fascinating character -- fascinating in her flaws. She knows instinctively how to attract men . . . and very often doesn't know what to do with them when she's got them. She essentially grew up without any parenting . . . her father was dead and her mother packed her off to boarding school in France. In fact, her mother didn't even want her to come to her second wedding. Cynthia is more strong-willed than Molly but she lacks guidance and doesn't seem to have any plan for her life. She often says that she is not capable of love.

As if all this wasn't enough, the book also alludes to pre-Darwinian evolutionary theory, this being the young hero's field of study. His family is very interesting too, but I've gone on long enough already.

Wives and Daughters was Elizabeth Gaskell's last book. It was published in serial form from 1864 to 1866. Gaskell died at the end of 1865, before she could complete the final chapters.

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