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A Good Place To Start

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Wives and Daughters 1
North and South 1

A Bad Place To Start

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Cranford 1

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Categorization is odious. There is tremendous overlap among genres. These pigeonholes are offered only as a convenience.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810 - 1865)

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anna shapiro February 10th, 2006 01:28 PM PST

If people have heard of Mrs. Gaskell, it is usually as Charlotte Bronte's friend and biographer, or they have read CRANFORD, about a community of genteel ladies and mild domestic pursuits. WIVES AND DAUGHTERS is something else altogether. It is called "the most underrated novel in English" by the editor of the Penguin edition; it actually lives up to this claim. I couldn't believe that, having read some of the worst of my favorite authors--like George Elliot's ADAM BEDE, Thackeray's PENDENNIS (a third of it, anyway), or Austen's unfinished LADY SUSAN--in my search for more of what I'd loved, I'd overlooked something this good. Not even overlooked: never heard of.
In certain ways, it is in the classic mode established by Austen. There is a young marriageable girl, Molly Gibson, who has lived happily for years with her widowed father, a busy country doctor. But then one of the doctor's two apprentices tries to propose to Molly, and Mr. Gibson decides he must get himself a wife as soon as possible, essentially as a chaperone. In the meantime, he sends Molly to visit the family of a local squire whose wife has always longed for a daughter and begged for Molly to stay. They have two sons. The elder is expected to marry money and rank, but the younger, a budding naturalist and thorougly decent guy, could almost be allowed to stoop to marry a doctor's daughter.
Enter the prospective Mrs. Gibson, the stepmother-to-be. Here Gaskell is especially subtle, realistic, shrewd, and exceptional in her characterization. Hyacinth Gibson, as she becomes, is pretty, graceful, a perfect lady, and indifferent to almost anything beyond her own comfort and status, including the truth, or her own daughter. But she is also without ill will. This is a wonderfully complex portrait, in other words, though extremely lightly done. Needless to say, she is not good news for Molly or, finally, anyone, but she isn't made a villain, not even as Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice might be viewed as a villain. Her own daughter, the beautiful Cynthia, has the hardest time being nice to this elusively impossible mother, and she is another thrillingly complicated character, psychologically--similar in kind to Gwendolyn Harleth in DANIEL DERONDA, but with possibly trickier depths.
I will only say that the lovable young naturalist falls for Cynthia, and Molly, who loves both of them, has to daily applaud a spectacle painful to her.
I have rarely seen family relations, or friendship, so truthfully written about, or with such perception, in the literature of any era. While modern books have been frank about bad family feeling, they rarely are so in a rounded way. The very length of the novel is in its favor. If you read little besides contemporary fiction and then encounter this, you see that what modern fiction gains in speed, it loses in creating a sense of living with the people in the book. When you finish a book like this, you haven't just been entertained or stimulated: you've gone through something.
Gaskell died before completing the last chapter. The Penguin edition supplies a synopsis of the intended content. This is frustrating, but does not destroy the gratification of seeing the pattern of the whole complete itself. The reality that's been created is solid enough to withstand this unwished-for glimpse behind the curtain.

emac52 November 13th, 2006 08:27 AM PST

I agree completely! Most people haven't heard of Mrs Gaskell, and yet she was a contemporary of the Brontes and Dickens... In my opinion, Wives & Daughters is probably some of her better work - and although she died before completing it, I think that enough of the plot has already been revealed to the reader for them to determine how she intended it to end.

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