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Wives and Daughters: Gaskell’s Influence in Victorian Literature

Whew! I feel so happy with myself right now. This book that I am going to talk about today is one that has been on my to-be-read list for so long, and this finally was the year I read it. I have been familiar with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters for several years now and have watched the beautiful costume mini-series created by Andrew Davies, (who has created countless stellar period pieces for the BBC), multiple times. I also have read Gaskell’s North and South, and watched its accompanying adaption, as well as Cranford. Overshadowed by her many peers, Elizabeth Gaskell is a fabulously underrated author who is only in the last few decades finally getting her due. A close friend of Charles Dickens, (who was also an admirer of her talent), Gaskell in her own day was much better known than now. During her life, Cranford was her most popular novel in terms of general appeal, but outside of that, particularly in academic circles, she was relegated to the pile of other so deemed “sentimental authors.” Usually female and writing to appeal to a female audience, the male dominated canon was loath to accept them into what was such a male-dominated literary space. It is only more now that Gaskell is getting the recognition she deserves and is being appreciated not just for her romantic storylines, but for the political and subversive social commentary that figures in her work, such as that found in the politically charged North and South and the commentary on the power dynamics of men’s and women’s relationships in Wives and Daughters.Though Gaskell appeared to live the life of a demure Victorian woman, she proved through her writing she was no shrinking violet when it came to discussing the prominent questions of her day.

Wives and Daughters is a really wonderful novel. The subtitle, “An Everyday Story,” definitely delivers on what it promises by giving us a slice-of life-type story about sweet-tempered doctor’s daughter Molly Gibson, and her effervescent stepsister Cynthia Kirkpatrick, as they navigate family relationships and romantic entanglements with the Hamley’s two sons, Osborne and Roger, as they progress into womanhood. But as Roger vies for Cynthia’s affections and Osborne hides secrets of his own, the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Preston, a character from Cynthia’s past, continues to loom hauntingly in the background. All of these ingredients make for a deliciously satisfying book with enough intrigue and melodrama to make the pages skim by. But though the story offers much in the way of entertainment value, it also works as a clever vehicle for Gaskell to question many societal norms, such as Molly’s most valued trait being filial duty, despite her father showing a startling lack of care about her feelings toward his new marriage. Or how Cynthia is considered the culpable vixen, more than the victim, of a liaison based in monetary exploitation, and xenophobia and religious prejudice end up indirectly costing Osborne his happiness. Wives and Daughters probes all of these themes and many more.

The book also gives a wonderful sense of an England on the brink of change. The Industrial Revolution was changing the fabric of the landscape, and small towns, like the one Molly grows up in, were some of the few hold-outs that were still clinging onto their provincial ways of life. Much like Margaret Hale’s Helstone in North and South, Hollingford is portrayed as an idyllic place where time has stood still. This insular environment also provides the perfect setting for Gaskell to showcase the strictly-adhered-to class divisions that influenced so much of Victorian society. Here she seems to have taken a page out of George Elliot’s playbook in how she depicts the subtle variations between everyone based on their respective social classes. Molly Gibson is firmly middle-class and is thus too “low” in station for Roger Hamley’s father, but despite the family’s wealth, her stepmother, Hyacinth, believes that Cynthia is too “high” to be wasted on the younger son of a mere squire. Gaskell also demonstrates the upward mobility though of the middle-class as well through Molly, who like her physician father, moves fluidly from the tradespeople of the village, all the way up to Lady Harriet and the noble Cumnor family.

Though Dickens gets a lot of credit for moving the Victorian novel toward a great awareness of class divisions, and for shining a light on the ever-widening gap between the upper and lower strata of society, Gaskell should be awarded her fair share of credit as well. Gaskell’s contributions too long have been overlooked because of her sex. She should be granted her spot in the canon of great Victorian writers and her works should be taught in more classrooms. There is much that can be derived from her novels and more research should be dedicated to exploring her work. If you are a fan of Jane Austen, George Elliot, or the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell is more than worth a read.

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