Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters - Elizabeth Gaskell Now that I’m starting to come towards the end of my Classics Club list, I’m having to tackle some of the books I’ve been putting off reading since I put the list together in 2012. I’m really not sure why I haven’t picked up Wives and Daughters until now; I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Gaskell (North and South, Sylvia’s Lovers, The Moorland Cottage, Cranford and Mr Harrison’s Confessions) so it seemed likely that I would enjoy this one too. And did I? Yes, of course I did!

Wives and Daughters is set in a village in England in the 1830s, a world similar to the one Gaskell created in Cranford, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Molly Gibson, our heroine, is the daughter of the village doctor; her mother is dead and, as an only child, Molly is very close to her father. The two have a strong relationship built around love and trust, but the harmony of their little household is disrupted when Mr Gibson decides to marry again. His new wife is the beautiful widow, Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, former governess to the Duke of Cumnor’s children, and he hopes she will provide the seventeen-year-old Molly with the motherly guidance he is unable to give. Unfortunately, Hyacinth proves to be a selfish, manipulative woman and she and Molly don’t always see eye to eye.

As well as a new stepmother, Molly also has a new stepsister – Cynthia. Although she and Cynthia have very different personalities, the two girls become good friends – and it is this friendship which will get Molly into trouble when she tries to help Cynthia find a way out of her tangled love affairs. Meanwhile, there’s a romance for Molly too but it’s quite a subtle one and also quite one-sided, as the man she loves appears to be in love with someone else, so poor Molly has to keep her feelings to herself.

Wives and Daughters is a very long novel, with more than 700 pages, and there were times when it seemed to be going on forever, but I didn’t really mind because once I’d been pulled into Molly’s world I didn’t want to leave it again. I didn’t want to leave the characters behind either – they were drawn with so much care and in so much depth. I loved Molly for her honesty, intelligence and kind heart, and Cynthia, with all her charms, flaws and vulnerabilities, was also an interesting character. But I particularly enjoyed reading about the family at nearby Hamley Hall: the old country squire, his invalid wife, and their two sons, Osborne and Roger.

First published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, this was Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel, sadly left unfinished at the time of her death. I was aware that it was unfinished before I started to read, so I was prepared to be left feeling frustrated (as I was when I read Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood) but luckily this wasn’t the case. At the point where the novel finished I could see the direction in which the plot was heading and I was satisfied that, if the story had continued, things would have worked out in the way that I’d hoped.

Gaskell has a style all of her own, but I think this particular book would appeal to readers of Jane Austen; I could see some similarities in the characterisation, the dialogue and the shape of the plot. So far all of the books I’ve read by Gaskell have been quite different from each other. Wives and Daughters is probably my favourite so far, but I’m looking forward to reading the other two novels I haven’t read yet – Ruth and Mary Barton.

13 thoughts on “Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Judy Krueger says:

    I love it when I have read all or almost all of an author’s novels, especially when I like the author. Currently I am mid a 630 page novel and a couple weeks ago I read a 773 page one. I used to love long books but I guess with our modern frantic age, it kind of wigs me out to spend a week or 10 days reading one single book. There is much to be said for hanging out in the world created by one novel though and you captured that in your review.

    • Helen says:

      I used to prefer long books too, but that seemed to change when I started blogging. Now when I read a long book I find that I have to read some shorter ones in between as I feel guilty about spending too long on one book. Just one of the ways my reading habits have changed as a result of blogging!

    • Helen says:

      I love books that allow me to completely immerse myself in a fictional world and Gaskell seemed to have a special talent for writing that sort of book. 🙂

  2. Sandra says:

    I have never read any of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works. Just never quite got round to them. Neither do I have any on my Classics Club list so it may still be a while. But reading your review adds to the anticipation, Helen!

  3. Lark says:

    It’s the length that’s held me back from reading this book, but I think I need to move it up my list to nearer the top. Because it does sound really good. And I loved the other Gaskell novel (well novella really) that I read.

    • Helen says:

      I think the length was one of the things that held me back too. I would definitely recommend moving it up the list, though – I really loved it. 🙂

  4. jessicabookworm says:

    This sounds wonderful! I also have this on my Classics Club list however I think it is unlikely I will read it as part of the club now, as I don’t own a copy yet and I don’t have long till I’m finished! I think I should easily be able to squeeze in Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow to the club though; maybe even North and South 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I hope you have a chance to read this book at some point, even if not for the Classics Club. I haven’t read My Lady Ludlow yet, but it looks nice and short!

  5. Elena W says:

    Wonderful review! I agree, I think fans of Austen as well as Eliot would enjoy Gaskell. It’s a shame that she isn’t as well-known as them because her novels are splendid. I just finished reading W & D and then proceeded to watch the lovely BBC adaptation (which was how I first heard of the novel many years ago). Such a great story with complex characters and a good dose of humor!

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