After being introduced to North and South, a Victorian classic novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I absolutely loved, I picked up Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, hoping that it would assuage the withdrawal symptoms I was suffering from after finishing North and South and looking for another book that could inspire the same level of emotion. Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last novel before her sudden death in 1865; in fact, she was not able to finish it and it was completed by another writer of that time.
Wives and Daughters is centered around the life of Molly Gibson, a young girl living with her widowed father in a small English town in the 1830s. Her mother died when she was very young, but she still leads a very happy life, adored by everyone in the town, with many friends of her mother who watch out for her, and a very close and loving relationship with her father, who is a highly respected doctor. This tranquil state of affairs is completely upended when her father gets remarried. The new Mrs. Gibson is far from being the “evil stepmother” that is almost a caricature in most stories when the father remarries, but she is somewhat of an airhead, with not much sense, intelligence, and depth of character — all of which Molly has in abundance. This makes it very difficult for Molly to really respect her stepmother, and she finds her very wearying at times, but she puts up with it in good spirit — helped enormously by the fact that her stepmother has a daughter, Cynthia, whom Molly takes to right away. There is even less of the “evil stepsister” angle here that we are used to from our Cinderella fairy tale days — Molly and Cynthia form an instant sisterly bond that only grows stronger as time passes and it is their relationship that is the real highlight of the book.
There is, of course, the obligatory romance, and in Wives and Daughters, it is in the form of Roger Hamley, the son of a local squire who develops a close friendship with Molly but then falls head-over-heels in love with Cynthia when he sees her. This is not surprising, given that Cynthia is exceptionally beautiful and has that effect on most men. However, she does not have Molly’s character and depth of feeling — and she is the first person to acknowledge that. In contrast to Cynthia, Molly’s feelings for Roger are very intense, but she never lets them be known and does not ever feel jealous or envious of Cynthia for capturing Roger’s attention.
Of course, eventually, everything is resolved, and Roger and Molly do get together — it wouldn’t be much of a story if they didn’t. That said, this wasn’t really the point of the book. As evidenced by its title, the story was more about the close relationship between Molly and Cynthia and the experiences they go through together, including how they deal with a somewhat villainous character, Mr. Preston, the aristocratic lords and the ladies of the neighboring manor, and the gossip of the local townsfolk. At over 600 pages, Wives and Daughters is a long, extensive, minutely detailed book that captures much of the life of those times and the thoughts and feelings of all the characters, so much so that reading it is an experience in and of itself. For those who love reading about Victorian times, there’s so much of the book to sink into — the author seemed to be in no rush at all to wrap things up.
On my part, while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t fall in love with it as I did with North and South, and this brought home to me an important realization — that the inspiration behind any great work of art cannot be manufactured at will. Thus, there is no guarantee that anyone who has created an outstanding book, movie, painting or song will continue to do so with the same level of success. Inspiration has to strike, and while the creator cannot force it, he or she can make the best of it when it comes and create something truly remarkable that can bring joy to millions of others. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor, we should appreciate that these could be “once in a lifetime” creations and savor them as such.
Wives and Daughters
Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
Original Publisher and Date: Elder and Company, 1866
Reprint Publisher and Date: Norilana Books Classics Norilana Books Norilana Books, April 2008
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.