When my friend Charmagne recommended this book to me, I reacted with skepticism.
“Elizabeth Gaskell? She was a Unitarian!”
I'd never read any Gaskell before, but I did have Wives and Daughters on my shelf. And there it stayed until my sister Elizabeth discovered that Gaskell was worth reading. For the next week, my not-quite-as-bookish-as-me sister was glued to the page. “This is thrilling,” she told me at intervals. And so I promised to read it when she'd finished.
Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson, the doctor's daughter in the little town of Hollingford. Molly, a quiet, sensitive girl, is beginning to attract the attention of young men and Dr Gibson realises for the first time that Molly really needs a mother. His choice falls upon Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, a handsome widow with a daughter of Molly's age named Cynthia.
Meanwhile Molly has made friends with the family of proud old Squire Hamley, whose family has been in the district since before the Norman Conquest. There's Osborne Hamley, the handsome and brilliant heir upon whom the Squire and his wife have pinned all their hopes, and Roger Hamley, the plain and plodding younger son.
When the charming and dashing Cynthia comes from France to live with the Gibsons, Molly immediately loves her. Unfortunately, so does everyone else—including the man to whom Molly has, almost without realising it, lost her heart. But an impenetrable air of mystery surrounds Cynthia. What is her secret? Why does the sinister yet handsome Mr Preston seem to have some hold over her? Read on to find out...
Wives and Daughters is a very satisfying book, containing just the right amount of character development and plot. The domestic nature of the story, combined with the romantic imbroglio that erupts among the characters and the understated, biting wit is reminiscent of Jane Austen; but there are a few marks which—after hearing something about the plots of North and South, Cranford, and Mary Barton—distinguish the book as one of Elizabeth Gaskell's. Unlike Austen, Gaskell has a keen interest in the interplay of social classes—the bourgeois class to which the Gibsons belong, the aristocratic Cumnor family, and the untitled but excessively proud Squire Hamley. There is also a difference in tone. People die in this book with very little provocation; lives can be blighted; there is no guarantee of a happy ending for everyone.
Not that Wives and Daughters is an unhappy book, for those of you who were getting worried!
I was interested to consider how Mrs Gaskell's Unitarianism came out in the book. I don't believe there's anything particularly wrong in the book itself—Molly could sometimes be annoyingly perfect, and a bit know-all even with her father—but the reader with no knowledge of her beliefs would not be concerned at all. The Unitarianism, I think, makes itself most felt in the author's overriding concern with class. Unitarians drove much of the social reform movement of the early 1800, since (like Horace Mann) they tended to put their faith more in the saving power of legislative and social reforms than in the really efficacious saving grace of the dying God-man.
It's also interesting to note that Mrs Gaskell, a cousin of Charles Darwin, included a naturalist character in this book in tribute to him.
The bottom line? A well-written book with great characters and an intriguing plot. Unfortunately, Mrs Gaskell herself suffered a bad case of Author Existence Failure before the book was finished—the last chapter or two is missing. Readers should not be put off by this, however, since by that time it is possible to see how the book would have ended, and Mrs Gaskell left notes behind her for the last chapter itself.
I have seen the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation of Wives and Daughters with Justine Waddell as Molly Gibson. It's a fine adaptation of the book, quite faithful, and I recommend it—though, as always, not as a substitute for the book itself!