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Reading the Classics: WIVES AND DAUGHTERS

It’s actually winter in Southern California, closing us in for an entire week. Time to reread the great classics! And Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell,  is truly great, one of my favorites of all time. I also remain firm in my belief that it is one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. George Elliott certainly thought so–she admitted that this book was the inspiration for her great novel Middlemarch.

I do think that this book is in conversation with Jane Austen on a number of levels, first being that what women thought matters. All kinds of women, whatever their rank, age, or economic status.

On this reread, I noticed how much fun the narrative voice has with small town life whatever the rank. There is so much humor veining the sharp observations of human vagaries, underscoring how much Gaskell’s writing had changed.

She always aimed for great things, though her earlier novels (and Dickens scolded her for daring to write beyond the female writer’s “natural” sphere of domestic life) are problematical, rife as they are with popular Victorian cliche, such as long deathbed speeches. By this period she had begun to jettison the expected in favor of more subtle observations. The death beds are offstage; what we see is the profoundly realistic emotional drama of the aftermath. Illnesses don’t ennoble, and “purity” is ignorance–something the female characters talk about.

This book could as easily have been called “sex lives of wives and daughters” (it would be, today–marketing departments would require it) because there is so much commentary about sex, but in completely g-rated language. And not all of it is done by the young and breathless: there is a telling conversation between some older women “four widows in the room, with six husbands between ’em” after a spinster has left the room upon having delivered a valedictory speech on what ought to be proper courtship.

At heart is Cynthia’s trouble, preyed on by an older guy who became obsessed with her when she was fifteen, and she had no idea what she was doing. Gaskell gets into the emotional cost of raising girls to be ignorant, and the tension between society’s rules (enforced not just by men but by other women) and communication, psychological insight and experience.

Not a lot happens in this book if you’re looking for big ticket drama, but if you enjoy bricolage–the little things that resonate as real–give this a try. Oh, and bonus to Gaskell for a hero who is 100% geek: he’s big, awkward, and can’t help but yap about science!

Review from 2015 reread:

Great novels really are different books to different readers–and can vary for the same reader as well. But what really struck me when I reached that end was how this novel illustrates, like a nearly physical blow, the different between being told something and being shown. That is, when ‘show’ is done with Gaskell’s extraordinary skill. The reader hits that last chapter, and we’re told by the editor what will happen. We know how everyone ends up. But the effect is still a cold splash of old bathwater after the lingering, fragrant sunshine of the novel because we don’t know how these things will be achieved. The delicate humor, the amazing insight, the interleaved reactions–none of it’s there.

Another observation: how details add brilliance. Just the right details–ones that serve the mood, the mode, that illuminate character. We’ve all encountered writings in which research is stuck in clumps that cause the eye to start skidding down the page. Usually because these dumps of detail are neutral in affect, they don’t serve the story so much as exist parallel to it.

Miss Hornblower was going to travel by railroad for the first time; and Sally was very anxious, and sent her directions for her conduct; one piece of advice was not to sit on the boiler.


. . .looking with admiring eyes at a large miniature set round with pearls, which served as a shield to Miss Phoebe’s breast. ‘It is handsome,’ that lady replied. ‘It is a likeness of my dear mother; Sally has got my father on. The miniatures were both taken at the same time; and just about then my uncle died and left us a legacy of fifty pounds, which we agreed to spend on the setting of our miniatures. But because they are so valuable Sally always keeps them locked up with the best silver, and hides the box somewhere; she will never tell me where, because she says I’ve such weak nerves, and that if a burglar, with a loaded pistol at my head, were to ask me where we kept our plate and jewels, I should be sure to tell him…’

Then there are the wonderful details of psychological observations, in this case through image:

If Molly had not been so entirely loyal to her friend, she might have thought this constant brilliancy a little tiresome when brought into everyday life; it was not the sunshiny rest of a placid lake, it was rather the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders.

The second thing that struck me on this reading was just how much Gaskell manages, in a completely g-rated novel centered around the required ‘good’ heroine, to explore the delights and the dangers of sexual attraction.

I’ve often thought that many of the great novels of the nineteenth century are not just examinations of relations between men and women, but dialogues between the great writers on that subject. Trollope, for example, seems determined to prove (parallel to? Or in spite of? the powerful writings of the Brontes and Elliott from the woman’s POV) that once a woman falls in love, that’s it. She becomes shopworn goods if she falls out of love, and the acute observer can actually perceive this diminishment. The problem he never quite honestly addresses is that the young woman who has been properly raised in ignorance, excuse me, innocent purity, has no idea what love even is: at best, she might feel the quick flutter of attraction, and the enjoyment of attention. She loves his compliment on her new gown, without any notion that he wants to rip it off of her.

Gaskell, in this book, manages to make it clear for those with the experience to recognize the signals that innocent maidenhood is in fact a danger to the maiden, howevermuch the man likes control. (And he doesn’t always win her, either.) We get hints about Mr Preston being a bit of a rake (he is cruel in his very soul–tigerish, with his beautiful striped skin and relentless heart), having a Past, and his obsession with Cynthia is replete with his promises that if he can get her to wife, he can make her love him. Right. Married readers knew what that meant, even if young readers thought it a pretty sentiment.

Marriages in this novel are made between well-meaning people who have nothing in common, such as the Hamleys’–both wanting to do right by the other, but never understanding them, until one of them dwindles and dies.

This is a theme that Jane Austen explored, and Gaskell picks up. Austen suffices with dry wit and satire; Gaskell uses comedy to wonderful effect, but she writes as a mother, with compassion and insight into both sides.

Molly makes reference to fearing that being good means being like a candle snuffed out; Osborne is bewildered because he married a good woman, one he loves, but he cannot broach the invisible wall of rank to tell his beloved father. The doctor, for all his sharp observation, hooks up with a woman who slowly and relentlessly drives him out of the house with her continuous selfish pettiness; Roger Hamley, the other scientific eye, falls before a pretty face, without ever penetrating behind that pleasing manner until he finds himself dumped.

In this book the cost of ‘innocent purity’ goes both ways, it’s not just females as victims and men as predators. But men have the option of movement and experience on their side; the hemmed in woman does not, so who can blame Lady Harriet for not wanting to risk the comfortable life of a single woman for the dangerous waters of marriage?


2 thoughts on “Reading the Classics: WIVES AND DAUGHTERS”

  1. Sherwood Smith

    There is a summary at the end of the book, written by her editor, who claimed that she had outlined the ending for him. It wraps up the story, and also stands as about as stark a lesson in the difference between show and tell as exists in literature. We find out what happens, but absolutely all the image, emotion, and drama is at best a distant smudge of the horizon.

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