Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters

 Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell was my Classics Club Spin book for March and April and I was rather daunted when I realised that the e-book version I had downloaded about six years ago has over 800 pages, but it’s really easy reading. It’s only the second book of hers that I’ve read – the other book is Cranford, but I think Wives and Daughters is so much better. Elizabeth Gaskell is a superb storyteller and I loved this book.

Today there are many editions of Wives and Daughters available. It was first first published in serial form in The Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866. Elizabeth Gaskell had died in August 1865 leaving Wives and Daughters unfinished. The final chapter was added by the editor of The Cornhill. In his concluding remarks he stated that little remained to be added to the story ‘and that little has been distinctly reflected into our minds.‘ He continued that he had summarised in his remarks all that what was ‘known of her designs for the story which would have been completed in another chapter.

It is set in the late 1820s to the early 1830s in the village of Hollingford (based on Knutsford), a close-knit community much like Cranford, and centres around Molly Gibson, the only daughter of the neighbourhood doctor. The characters are all fully rounded and believable people, most certainly not perfect people with all their faults exposed through their dialogue and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ironic descriptions. There is gentle humour and the plot carries the novel at a fairly brisk pace despite the length of the book – I was eager to find out how everything was resolved.

The story opens when Molly, an only child, is twelve and eagerly anticipating her visit to Cumnor Towers (based on Tatton Hall) for the yearly festivities hosted by Lady Cumnor and her daughters. But her enjoyment is spoiled when she gets lost in the house. She is found but then is overlooked when the carriages arrive to take all the visitors home and she has to wait for her father to come for her. This little episode provides an introduction to the other side of the village – the aristocracy.

Molly is very close to her father. When she is seventeen the doctor becomes concerned that one of his pupils wanted to declare his feelings for her and so he sends her to stay with the local squire and his wife and two sons at Hamley Hall. Mrs Hamley becomes very fond of her and treats her like a daughter and Molly becomes very friendly with the second son Roger. However, she knows she isn’t considered a suitable match for the Hamleys and thinks of him and Osborne as her brothers.

All is going well until Dr Gibson marries Hyacinth Clare (a former governess to Lord Cumner’s daughters), hoping she will be a mother to Molly. But Hyacinth is a selfish, socially ambitious and manipulative woman and Molly’s life is no longer happy and carefree, even though she does get on well with Hyacinth’s beautiful daughter, Cynthia. The two girls become good friends. Cynthia, though gets involved in a number of romantic entanglements which then gets Molly into trouble.

I don’t want to go into more detail about the various sub-plots and romances other than to say I enjoyed it all immensely. The fact that Elizabeth Gaskell did not finish the book didn’t spoil the book at all for me. She had all but drawn all the threads together so that the editor’s concluding remarks coincided with the way I had hoped everything would be resolved. Needless to say really, but Molly was my favourite character, which says a lot about Elizabeth Gaskell’s skill and understanding in portraying a ‘good’ character. I was completely absorbed in the world that she had created.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin book, Wives and Daughters is also one of my TBRs so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

Choosing a Classic

It’s time I began reading another classic for the Classics Challenge. I thought I’d look at the openings of some to see which takes my fancy.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she awakened herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards.

It reminds me of the children’s song Old MacDonald had a Farm with its repetitions. The little girl is Molly Gibson and Betty with the unseen powers is the family’s servant. It promises a story of a family and Molly’s place within it and this opening interests me. I don’t know anything about the book and have not seen any of the TV adaptations, so I’m coming to it with a completely open mind – no other interpretations to influence my reading of Elizabeth Gaskell’s words.

Silas Marner by George Eliot:

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses – and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak – there might be seen, in districts far away from the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

This one looks good too about village/rural life at the beginning of the 19th century. The only book by George Eliot that I’ve read is Middlemarch, which I loved. You have to have time and patience to read her books. Silas Marner, however, is a much shorter book with less characters than Middlemarch.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome:

There were four of us – George and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were – bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

We were all feeling seedy, and we were getting quite nervous about it.

Yet another author I know nothing about and as for the book I only know it’s reckoned to be a comedy. Again I have very few preconceptions about this book and have no ideas about the characters or what happens. I think Montmorency may be a dog as the book’s full title is Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog).

Now I just have to decide which one to read.