Wednesday, 28 September 2011
Book Review: "Wives and Daughters" by Elizabeth Gaskell
This is the story of the self-effacing Molly Gibson and her incandescent step-sister Cynthia Kirkpatrick, as they negotiate the thorny territory of life, love and loss in a small Victorian town.
This book is a lesson to me in reading the product description more carefully. I was not aware of Mrs Gaskell's inconvenient demise, nor the consequent fact of the final few pages of the book being unfinished. I found out both facts at the same time, as I read the "last" page of the book. After ploughing through the hefty tome for two weeks I was more than a little disappointed.
I'll state initially that the free Kindle version is badly formatted, with typos and paragraph indentation errors causing a mild distraction.
This book is intended to be a character study rather than a plot driven narrative, which would be fine if the characters had more spark about them. I was dismayed in the early chapters at Molly's lifelessness and the Hamleys' genteel tedium. Even Mrs Gibson, the most developed character, felt a little limp and in need of some ironic sparkle in her treatment.
Cynthia's arrival brought the book to life and her flawed personality lit up the pages. I enjoyed seeing Cynthia spar with her mother, at which times the wit and irony of the writing almost reached the level of Jane Austen. I felt that Gaskell pushed the envelope a little with Cynthia: she is certainly a more risque character than any other female since Lydia Bennett. Cynthia is amoral: a flirt and a jilt who trifles with and abuses everyone around her, even Molly. The triumph of Cynthia is that she knows her flaws, accepts them and feels no need to make efforts to improve herself.
There aren't many events in the novel, but Molly tends to find herself in the middle of all of them: her father's marriage, the trials and tribulations at Hamley Hall and Cynthia's trail of destruction. I became frustrated that although Molly is present for these events she takes no active role in them beyond murmuring comforting words, and there is always something or someone to buffer her from conflict: she is removed to the Hamleys' to save her encountering Mr Coxe; when there is irritation and argument towards Mrs Gibson it is Cynthia who enters into the fray, leaving Molly hovering in the background; and when scandal rears its head against Molly she does not face her accusers, but hears of the issue in the safety of her own home, and from the kindness of her father. She does not resolve the issue herself: a combination of her illness and Lady Harriet's intervention serves to restore her standing in society. Such a passive heroine irritated me. I found Molly to be tedious, and would have preferred Cynthia to be the main character.
Lady Harriet is underused. She drops in an out of the story at intervals, acting as Molly's guardian angel and a bridge between the high people and the low. She is bright, lively and witty and far more engaging than Molly.
The central theme of the novel is marriage, but in contrast to many novels of the period marriage does not seem to do anyone in the novel any good. Those who marry for convenience such as Mr and Mrs Gibson, find themselves at odds with each other and with no common ground. those who marry for love such as Osborne and Aimee, find their way beset with difficulty and heartache. Cynthia marries for money and is initially happy. However given her inconstant nature and the dullness of her husband the long-term future of their marriage is doubtful.
Miss Browning calls marriage a "weakness", and it is certainly at the point of entering this state that characters are exposed to danger. Mr and Mrs Gibson become unhappy upon their marriage, and their unhappiness is reflected on to Molly. The question of Roger and Osborne's marriages are a cause of much conflict at Hamley Hall, and lead to dire consequences for the whole family. And Cynthia's flirtations and adventures cause scandal for her and for Molly.
The single characters, the Miss Brownings and the widow Mrs Goodenough, are silly old biddies, and their state is not to be envied either.
Mrs Gaskell conveys the precarious existence of women at the time: marriage was a necessity, but handling the business was frought with difficulty, and the outcomes mixed.