04/11/2009

ELIZABETH GASKELL'S WIVES AND DAUGHTERS


A wonderful suspended story

After reading 915 pages, and after finishing the last ones just few minutes ago , what a pity that I have to go to sleep without knowing what will happen to Molly and Roger. I’m sure Mrs Gaskell would have written such a touching finale for such a great novel. I‘ve read somewhere – and I’m convinced it is true – that she was thinking of writing something like the end of her North and South: Roger would come back after six months and his proposal to Molly would start with his giving her the dried rose he had carefully and lovingly kept all that time and which Molly herself had given to him before his departure. Just then, Molly would understand that the time of her full, long-wished for, happiness had come. Romantic story!

Only that …


On November 12th, 1865 , with only a few pages to be written, Mrs. Gaskell was sitting round the fire after tea with her daughters in the country house in Hampshire which she had just bought in readiness for her husband's retirement. Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, she fell forward and died of a heart attack. Whether she had previous attacks we do not know - if she had, she said nothing about them. She was 55. Sad story!

Again. What a pity we can’t read the beautiful scene she had in mind to close this long , amusing, well-written novel which had been published in the Cornhill Magazine as a serial from August 1864 to January 1866.

To know more about the plot, click HERE.


Parents & Children


Elizabeth Gaskell was very good at depicting beautiful romances, but after reading several of her novels, I noticed that she was actually eagerly interested in parent /child relationships and very good at depicting their little nuances, were they complex, troubled, loving , deep or shallow ones.

Only in Wives & Daughters we have several examples, which are all different but  equally meant to show how important, in a character’s life , filial or parental love can be, how much these bonds affect an individual’s growing up, the formation of his/her personality and his/her frame of mind.
Cynthia and Osborne are spoilt by the wrong type of bond with their parents: too little love for the first and too much of it for the latter have made them very little responsible and rather selfish people. Roger, though always misjudged and not very much loved by his parents, comes to be an extraordinarily good man (though not always wise, i.e. his love for Cynthia).

We find many other examples:

1. Molly and her father

2. Mrs Hamley / Osborne

3. Mr Hamley /Osborne

3. Mrs Kirkpatrick and Cynthia

4. Aimée and her little boy, Roger


Mrs Gaskell is not new to this sensitive approach to human basic love bonds. She had described John (the father) and Mary’s (the daughter)very exclusive relationship in MARY BARTON (1848) without saving us her reproach for some negative aspects:

After Mrs Barton’s death “ Between the father and the daughter there existed in full force that mysterious bond which unites  those who have been loved by one who is now dead and gone. While he was harsh and silent to others, he humoured Mary with tender love; she had more of her own way than is common in any rank with girls of her age. Part of this was the necessity of the case; for of course all the money went thrugh her hands, and the household arrangements were guided by her will and pleasure. But part was her father's indulgence, for he left her, with full trust in her unusual sense and spirit, to choose her own associates, and her own times for seeing them." (p. 23)


In NORTH AND SOUTH (1855) Margaret’s deep love for her unfortunate father matches with John Thornton’s strong attachment to his overbearing mother.





Gossip and rumours

While Mary Barton and North and South are mainly set in big industrial towns, Manchester and Milton (fictitious name for Manchester itself), Wives & Daughters , like Cranford, is set in a small countryside village, an enclosed and enclosing environment Mrs Gaskell had known very well in her youth. In both her country novels, she highlights the reality of gossiping and spreading rumours, which could ruin and forever a person’s reputation, but that are, indeed,  comical features in her stories.

Molly risks to spoil her reputation to help her step-sister. She’s seen alone with handsome Mr Preston in isolated places or exchanging letters with him. She knows she didn’t do anything wrong; after a first astonished and angry reaction, her father believes in her good faith. But she has to bravely bear  everything happening to her – the looks, the smiles, the whispers - and wait patiently for the end of all that malevolent interest in her person. Is this Gaskell’s recipe to fight rumours?



Romance



In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell's  mastery gets to the highest point, its really a delight to follow her gifted story-telling and her careful characterization. You find plot, intrigue and romance in it. Yes, romance. Involving and moving as in North and South, blossoming from a long-lasting friendship as in Mary Barton.

Molly loves Roger in a very generous, disinterested way. She suffers seeing that Cynthia, her step-sister, accepts to be engaged to him but not because she is jelous and wants Roger for herself. She suffers because she knows Cynthia doesn’t love him, is not really interested in him, and he , deeply in love with her, is going to be disappointed and heartbroken.


This is the kind of love Mrs Gaskell thinks worth the name: patient, generous, disinterested, long-lasting, time – resistant. Other examples are, John Thornton helping Margaret to be cleared of any accusation and still loving her even after her blunt, offended/ing refusal of his proposal (North and South) ;or Jem Wilson, silently loving Mary Barton, who sees him just like a brother or an old friend, and watching her flirt with rich and handsome Mr Carson (Mary Barton).

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14 comments:

JaneGS said...

I'm so glad that you enjoyed W&D. I believe it is Gaskell's best work.

I will quibble with this statement, though: "Roger, though always misjudged and not very much loved by his parents..."

I think Roger is very much loved by both parents. The difference is that they don't idolize and idealize him as they do Osborne, which enables him to develop his own interests and his own confidence in those interests.

You mention the child/parent relationships in W&D--I also love how Gaskell explores sibling relationships in the book. In both the Roger-Osborne and Molly-Cynthia relationships, she didn't develop them as stereotypical jealous rivals, which is what I expected the first time I read the book. The brothers are supportive of each other, and the half-sisters truly care about each other though they are light-years apart in personality.

And then there is the Cumnor family and the various parent/child and sibling relationships there. Lady Harriet is one of my very favorite characters and I wish Gaskell had fleshed her out more in the story.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@JaneGS
I too think they re-valued Roger as an adult but for what I read they seem to focus their love and attention on Osborne. For instance:" Mr Osborne's likes and dislikes had been the law of the house in general until now. If he had liked any particular food or drink, any seat or place, any special degree of warmth or coolness, his wishes were to be attended to; for he was delicate, and he was the clever one of the family" (p. 118) Or Mrs Hamley's "Roger was never to be compared with him (Osborne)" (p.87)
These and other hints made it clear the Hamleys idolized Osborne and thought Roger inferior in many ways , and that is not the right way to love a child.
You're right Lady Harriet is such a brilliant character and I ,too , would have liked to have her more in the light. Beautiful novel, a delightful reading, indeed.
I would have liked to write so many things more but ... my blogging time must be limited... my job tasks first! and I'm not teaching Gaskell at the moment so... Thanks for contributing , Jane. I know you are an expert reader of Gaskell's work.

Luciana said...

Oh, I've loved W&D! It's is one of her best works indeed! Although N&S is my favourite of hers so far. I just HATE Cynthia. Really, I cannot like her at all! But Keeley Hawes made me like her a little more in the BBC 1999 series. This is a fantastic story. I hope people will read more of Mrs Gaskell!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Luciana
Mary Barton was the first of Gaskell's novels I read and I loved it so much. Then North & South came and I liked it much, though my appreciation of that novel grew after watching the BBC series. Since last year, I've started proposing Gaskell's Mary Barton and N&S to my last year students, so, you see, there are MORE people reading her!
You say you hate Cynthia ... I really pity her ... poor girl... with such a mother! That is the one I actually hated, Mrs Kirkpatrick/Gibson, Clare /Hyacinth. Insufferable!

Marie Burton said...

I have definitely heard of this title before but I am always wary of a long story that was not sufficiently completed! But with all the praise above, perhaps my fear is unwarranted. It certainly sounds like this is a family saga that should not be missed.
Thanks for the wonderful insights and the complete dossier you have here!

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Marie Burton
You're welcome! I love Gaskell and her novels. I like to read, teach and learn about her and her work . As I wrote, it's such a pity this story stops just one little step before the end! But I'm sure you'd like it.
Thank you for commenting!

costumedramas said...

I love this novel and this is a great review, Maria - must agree that it is such a shame Gaskell didn't manage to write those last few pages, though it is so nearly complete. I also like the Andrew Davis adaptation very much - one of his best. I don't even hate Clare, although she is such an awful mother and I'm sure she would drive me mad if I had to spend any time with her in real life - I think Gaskell is great at making even her unlikeable characters in a way understandable and showing what has made them behave like that. Have you read that Roger might have been partly based on Darwin, who was a cousin of Gaskell's?
Thank you for posting this, I enjoyed it.:) Judy

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@costumedramas
I'm going to see the BBC / Andrew Davies adaptation as soon as possible. I hope I'll be able to do it this weekend but I'm so busy!
No, Judy, I have never heard about the Roger/Darwin hypothesis, I didn't even know he was her cousin! Thank you very much for contributing this to my post, then!

Adriana Zardini said...

I was searching for Gaskell in portuguese and found your blog! Nice blog! :)

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Adriana Zardini
I thought you were Italian, too, Adriana! Your blog is also very interesting and it seems we share much. Thanks for commenting and for becoming a follower!

Juanita's Journal said...

I hope that Molly and Roger's romance was handled with more depth in the novel than it was in the 1999 miniseries.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Juanita's Journal
Try to read it. It's such a wonderful novel!
Thanks for dropping by and commenting.
MG

Tesaje said...

I just discovered this novel and enjoyed it a lot. Gaskell does a really good job of developing characters in all their flaws and the constraints of the time. And she is laugh out loud funny at times. Unlike Dicken's, whose characters tend to be all good or all evil and the women are as flat as cardboard, Gaskell has believable characters who have all the shades of gray of real people struggling within the constraints of Victorian society and economics.

She is not as bitingly satirical as Austen but gets her points across nevertheless in a gentler way. Gaskell had the luxury of the serial novel to develop her characters in a manner like TV shows do today (but much better than most) unlike Austen who could just barely get published at all and only in a finished book form. I think the economic constraints must be taken into account in comparing the authors. Austen paved the way for women authors like Gaskell. I also much preferred Gaskell to any of the Bronte sisters who put together overwrought Gothic novels that are just ridiculous out of their time. Austen rightly skewered them in Northanger Abbey and it is no wonder they could not abide her.

As far as your comment about Molly's way of dealing with the vicious gossip, apparently you have never been the victim of such an attack. I have and there is no way to counter it overtly that does not make it worse. Do you not remember the phrase in Shakespeare "Methinks he doth protest too much"? That is the response people have to protestations against whispered attacks. The more you try to show the truth, the less people believe you. All you can do is hope that it dies down with no more fuel. In that society, it is even worse, as constrained as women were. The real extrication was due to Lady Harriet's full understanding of her own power over the gossips (due to societal rank) and her good nature in appreciating Molly's honesty and courage. She could well support a whole novel with her as the heroine.

Gaskell's great achievement in this novel was her ability to paint each character with many shades of gray. Even the evil Mr. Preston was not all bad and had been poorly used by Cynthia. She had every right to refuse him despite the prevailing attitudes and he had cornered her way too young but he did really love her insofar as anyone with his manipulative and controlling nature could. Clare was as bad a shallow, stupid, insensitive, selfish woman could be but she didn't really mean to be bad. The men were foolishly sucked in by both Clare's and Cynthia's beauty and flattery as real men usually are. Cynthia had more character than her mother and any young women of her talent for attracting and flattering men and who had been so neglected usually has but she still used Molly's good nature and then pulled away from the friendship once she had been saved to Molly's detriment. Shades of gray.

The novel does handle Molly's and Roger's romance with more detail but I enjoyed the movie's having Molly become a little scientist in her own right under Roger's tutelage. The novel didn't really show that much believing as they did that women shouldn't be educated much. I also like how the movie had the men suddenly see Cynthia and lose all interest in Molly as women like that tend to do to foolish men instead of Gaskell's scenes of it happening more gradually. I've seen that happen with rather plain women who have that thing that makes men go all ga ga over them.

Interesting the connection between Gaskell and Darwin. I kept thinking of Darwin while watching the movie and reading the book in all of Roger's scenes.

MARIA GRAZIA said...

@Tesaje
Thanks a lot for this interesting, detailed and thoroughful contribution. It's been a pleasure to read it! I'm always happy to meet readers appreciating Gaskell's work.