Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell.

Wives and Daughters is a classic of romance literature. Written after Jane Austen's novels, around the time of Little Women and the Brontë sisters, it was a social commentary as much as an entertaining serial. While not the everday, if bizarre, characters of a Charles Dickens tale, the characters in Wives and Daughters are not entirely 'common', half of Molly's acquaintance resembling various gentry characters from Downton Abbey, and the other probably being more familiar to readers of Jane Austen. While Pride and Prejudice's inter-class romance was shocking, a match of love, based on friendship and respect, between a country doctor's daughter and a gentleman was still a bit of a leap. It's romantic, of course, but its also deeply satisfying. This is as true for the incomplete story, Gaskell died before finishing it, as it is for any imagined ending. The one published by a contemporary author, as well as the one the 1999 BBC Miniseries created.

The abrupt ending also makes it an easy topic to center ones review around, and from a modern writer's aspect, it could be interesting as an exercise to complete it. After all one would have to be up on those times, and write in the author's style, and hopefully some hints had been left behind with which to continue a faithful continuation. Unlike a certain author of the same century, I don't believe Gaskell was intending to spite the readers who were cheering for the lovebirds since the beginning. A reviewer could also easily segue into reading several different endings, which would all be in about the same vein, and deciding which was her favorite.

I had no idea how the story should end, but I found the BBC adaption, and the ending, to be practically perfect. (As perfect as can be for a Victorian romance.) While I have no problem 'spoiling' a centuries old novel, I will not spoil the miniseries for you. The ending was so satisfying, that I was high on it for days.

Gaskell knows whats going on in all her characters minds, and her characterizations are wonderful, if not always charming. Like Austen, she sees the hypocrisy and trouble with being a good parent, a good person, and a romantic person. In today's highly self-aware and critical world, we won't agree with everything the characters say or do, but it's not entirely clear that Gaskell thinks her 'teasing' heroine or 'berating' father figure are indeed correct. I think she's just replicating things she has seen, and idealized them a bit, made them interesting for us. If a reader declares, probably being correct in doing so, that Cynthia is allowed to flirt with whom she pleases, they forget the context of Cynthia and of the work; it is not appropriate for the times the character, or the author, lived in. That seems to be the biggest feminist problem with this work, and because Gaskell cannot defend herself, we can assume and pressume whatever we please. Is Molly actually interested in Natural History, or is her interest in the men? Is Cynthia at fault for leading men on, when all she claims is a wish to be well liked by her present company?

Where Elizabeth Bennett and her father got along, despite all their failings, there is actually a well-deserved falling out between Molly Gibson and her father in this book. I barely lasted a chapter, but I relished all the same. How Gaskell intended us to read the characters is irrelevant, we as readers bring our own histories to the pages, and I find the characters refreshing. I once got into a somewhat heated conversation with a teacher about reading into the decadence of The Great Gatsby: it unintentionally foreshadows Black Friday, I said, while the argument against me was 'Fitzgerald wrote Great Gatsby before then, he didn't know it would happen!' I did not think that, either, Doctor, but I did wonder if that which rises opportunistically should be dismissed? Should we ignore the sometimes encompassing idiocy of characters like Mr. Bennett and Mr. Gibson, while they in turn bemoan 'hysteria'? No one can say if Gaskell sided with Mr. Gibson or Cynthia in their falling out, but since societal morality at the time of her novel and at the time of publication sided with Mr. Gibson, he is automatically given the right. I say, if the work holds up to it, why not remeasure it's themes? The author isn't the only one in this relationship, after all, and she's dead.

Gutenberg Edition.