Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1865
Once upon a time, a clever country doctor lost his young wife and had to raise his little daughter on his own. Dr. Gibson and little Molly get along quite well on their own. I mean “on their own” in the British sense, which includes a nanny/cook, a maid and a governess. Anyway, the father and daughter have a sweet and caring relationship. He teases her. She’s too young to understand his teasing, but she loves him and takes care of him as best she can after his long days riding through the country tending to rich and poor alike. Until one-day Dr. Gibson intercepts a love letter sent from one of his foolish interns to his sweet young daughter.
Sensible Dr. Gibson loses his mind. He can’t possibly TALK TO HIS DAUGHTER about love, sex, or romance. So, he resolves to get married as fast as he can so that his daughter’s sexuality will promptly become someone else’s problem. If you think dating is hard at your age in your city (I’m sorry. That’s rough. It’ll get better. Don’t settle.), consider Dr. Gibson’s circumstances. In his little village there are two types of people: nobles who wouldn’t deign to marry a country doctor and illiterate peasants. Given his rare social status as an educated, middle class man in 19th century rural England, there’s only one person in town he could possibly marry, the noble family’s governess.
So he marries her. And she’s the worst. It turns out marrying based on class alone is a garbage idea. The new Mrs. Gibson is a selfish, frivolous, controlling hypocrite who makes herself comfortable at the expense of making everyone else miserable. She brings her charming, lovable, frivolous daughter, Cynthia, with her. Dr. Gibson acquired a wife to shepherd his daughter safely through the perils of young womanhood, a time at which young ladies might lose their character if unguided. Among the many ironies of this inconvenient marriage of convenience, the bitterest is that Molly nearly loses her character after becoming entangled in one of her step-sister’s messes. A mess Cynthia never would have been tied up in if her mother was a halfway decent person.
Men, for the love of all things decent, it is better to have an awkward conversation with your daughter about sex and/or love than to marry the closest woman in order to avoid that conversation.
What I have written is the briefest outline of the plot of Wives and Daughters; there’s a lot more to it. You will love Molly, Mr. Gibson and Cynthia. You will despise Mrs. Gibson. There are several romances to get invested in. There are so many more characters to love and laugh at.
Gaskell is a brilliant writer and this is possibly her finest book. She has an Austenesque ability to poke fun at her characters’ foibles and to make you root for their romances. If you love a funny, romantic period piece you will love Wives and Daughters. I know I mostly give positive reviews, but this book is among my favorites. I adore it. I didn’t know going in that Gaskell died before she finished writing this book and I actually cried a little when I got to the end. It felt like she died right that moment. It’s horrible to think that Molly’s story is unfinished. But Gaskell got quite far enough. The rest was going to be falling action anyway. It’s well worth reading in its unfinished form.
Before I sign off, I’d like to provide this quote to demonstrate Gaskell’s brilliant characterization of the horrible second Mrs. Gibson. The Gibson family has just learned that a certain child has recovered from life-threatening illness:
“I wonder how the poor little boy is?” said Molly, after a pause, speaking out her thought.
“’Poor little child! When one thinks how little his prolonged existence is to be desired, one feels that his death would be a boon.”
“Mamma! what do you mean?” asked Molly, much shocked. “Why, every one cares for his life as the most precious thing! You have never seen him! He is the bonniest, sweetest little fellow that can be! What do you mean?”
“I should have thought that the Squire would have desired a better-born heir than the offspring of a servant,—with all his ideas about descent and blood and family. And I should have thought that it was a little mortifying to Roger—who must naturally have looked upon himself as his brother’s heir—to find a little interloping child, half French, half English, stepping into his shoes!”
“You don’t know how fond they are of him,—the Squire looks upon him as the apple of his eye.”
“Molly! Molly! pray don’t let me hear you using such vulgar expressions. When shall I teach you true refinement—that refinement which consists in never even thinking a vulgar, commonplace thing! Proverbs and idioms are never used by people of education. ‘Apple of his eye!’ I am really shocked.”’
This woman just declared that it would have been preferable for a child to die, then she pretends to be shocked at the vulgarity of a cliché. One person in this conversation is vulgar, unrefined and generally wretched. It is not Molly. That piece of dialogue perfectly exemplifies her character. You will love to hate her. You will shake your fists at Dr. Gibson for marrying her.
You might like Wives and Daughters if:
- you’ve read every Jane Austen book and you just want more. Really, it’s very Austenesque. More so than Gaskell’s other books which are a bit grittier and more tragic with harder hitting social commentary.
You might not like Wives and Daughters if:
- you’re a soulless goblin.
Final Thoughts: I’ve read it three times and I’ll read it again. This book is so well written. So charming. So incisive. So wonderful. It’s a damn good piece of writing. Elizabeth Gaskell forever. She is my queen. George Eliot has been dethroned. Gaskell! Gaskell! Gaskell! Honestly, if you haven’t read something by Gaskell, stop considering yourself a well-read person. Try Ruth or North and South or Wives and Daughters. You won’t regret it.