Wives and Daughters (1866)

by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell isn’t as well known as some of her contemporaries, but her following is growing. She was an extremely versatile writer, ranging from domestic novels to ghost stories to a biography of Charlotte Brontė. Her last book, Wives and Daughters, is generally considered her best.

Wives and Daughters is a long, leisurely paced novel set in the early 1830s in a fictional English village called Hollingford. There Molly Gibson is growing up with her widowed father, the country doctor. When Molly starts to attract male attention, Mr. Gibson decides their household needs female guidance, so he marries a widow who had been a governess for the children of the local lord and lady.

Unfortunately, the self-deceptive, silly Mrs. Gibson is incapable of wise mothering, but she does bring with her a daughter Molly’s age, and the girls become close even though they’re different. Cynthia is charming, complex, and unpredictable, while Molly is loyal, sincere, and practical. Men find the beautiful Cynthia irresistible, including the man Molly doesn’t admit she herself loves.

Wives and Daughters provides a warm, witty picture of a community that is self-contained yet starting to feel the intrusion of the industrializing world outside. The squire whose family owned the land for centuries is not faring as well as the lord whose family arrived a few generations before. The man of science is the one who will make a name for himself, not his more classically educated older brother from whom more was expected. Molly’s husband will encourage her curiosity and learning, in contrast to her father, who thought too much education could harm her.

Wives and Daughters first appeared in 18 monthly parts in Cornhill magazine. Sadly, Gaskell died suddenly before writing the last segment. It was clear where the story was headed, and Gaskell’s editor wrote a final section describing how she had planned to end the book.


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