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‘We are in another world, with the greatest novelists’ – Wives and Daughters

Posted
13th December 2023
in blog, blogsNnews, Events, Literature

This season of events at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House examines Elizabeth’s last, and for many her greatest novel, Wives and Daughters, published in monthly instalments from August 1864 to January 1866. Sadly, Elizabeth’s death on November 17 1865 meant that the final chapter was left unfinished. This blog considers the publication history and reception of Elizabeth’s masterpiece.

On the recommendation of her friend, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth changed her publishers from Chapman and Hall to Smith and Elder, who published Bronte’s novels. This was the start of a successful business arrangement and a lasting friendship with George Smith, who ultimately lent her enough money for a mortgage to facilitate her purchase of the Lawn in Hampshire, where she died in 1865.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë and Sylvias’ Lovers were both published by Smith, and in November 1863 Elizabeth first ventured into writing for his monthly periodical, The Cornhill Magazine. First, ‘My Cousin Phillis’ appeared in four parts, followed in August 1864 by the serialisation of Wives and Daughters, which continued over 18 issues and was illustrated by a very young George Du Maurier.  

Molly looking out window

At this time, Elizabeth began a new phase in her writing career, reverting to the Cranfordesque style of rural and domestic fiction and away from her controversial social problem novels. However, this change was not, as some saw it, a regression into the safety of a more feminine form to allay any criticism from those who felt women should not meddle in political matters; it was Elizabeth’s very successful attempt to manage market forces and use them to her advantage.

A New Readership?

The Cornhill readers were very different from the readership of Household Words, the periodical edited by Charles Dickens that Elizabeth contributed to from its very first issue on 30th March 1850. Marie Warmbold explains:

They wanted to be entertained not exhorted and they were both nostalgic for the “good old days” of idyllic English country life, which included lords and their shires, and desirous of believing that society could both progress and retain tradition.

In Wives and Daughters, the stagnation produced by a nostalgic clinging to the past is represented symbolically through the Hamleys; their ancient, decaying estate and the disease, which ultimately claims the lives of two family members. It is only Roger, the healthy and robust younger son, who has no claims on the title, and is therefore free to pursue a career as a scientist in the modern world.

Characterisation

Wives and Daughters is a character-driven novel and it is for her delineation of character that Elizabeth garnered the most praise. From her introduction to this text, the novelist and critic, Rosalind Lehman writes:

when we come to Cynthia, we are in another world, with the greatest novelists . . . Mrs. Gaskell never drew any other character like Cynthia. Indeed, we may scan the length and breadth of Victorian fiction and find nothing to compare with her:  one wonders from what experience or self-knowledge her creator begot and nourished her.’

Cynthia understands her own morally flawed nature and in trying to explain herself to Molly, she makes a significant comment on the nature of Victorian heroines, who may not necessarily be good women:

‘I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.

Ultimately, Cynthia is a social survivor, who has had no proper parental guidance and as such she becomes the mouthpiece for Elizabeth’s belief that Education and proper nurturing in the home are key to character formation:

‘Oh, how good you are, Molly! I wonder, if I had been brought up like you, whether I should have been as good. But I’ve been tossed about so….Mamma does not know it; it is not in her to know what I might have been if I had only fallen into wise, good hands.

Yet despite her overall moral probity, apart from one lapse into secrecy and deception, Molly is drawn to Cynthia, and readers are invited to share Molly’s viewpoint. Elizabeth here, as elsewhere in her work, explains rather than judges her characters’ actions, for as Angus Easson so rightly states, she ‘finds it difficult to think of anyone as actively bad’. It is this very concept that has divided critics, some seeing it as strength, others as a weakness in her work.

Molly and Cynthia with Mr Preston

A Comic Triumph

There can be no doubt, however, about Elizabeth’s ability to entertain and Mrs Gibson is a comic triumph, even her name Hyacinth has a Dickensian flavour, which provides insights into her rather superficial character. Yet beneath the comedy we are shown a single woman who struggles not only to survive, but also to maintain an air of respectability in a male-dominated society. We therefore have some sympathy with her small ‘innocent’ indulgences which she considers:

sins to be concealed: the dirty dog’s-eared delightful novel from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors; the lounging-chair which she had for use at her own home, straight and upright as she sat now in Lady Cumnor’s presence; the dainty morsel, savoury and small, to which she treated herself for her own solitary supper.

Later, she continues to entertain with her attempts to drag her husband, the quite traditional local doctor into a higher social stratum. Here we see her casting aspersions on his simple lifestyle:

‘I shouldn’t like to think of your father eating cheese; it’s such a strong-smelling, coarse kind of thing. We must get him a cook who can toss him up an omelette, or something elegant. Cheese is only fit for the kitchen.

Even her attempts at matchmaking have comic appeal as Mr Gibson firmly instructs her not to meddle in his daughter’s affairs she turns the hope that: ‘it were Molly’s good fortune to meet with such another as Roger“, into an invitation to match make:

‘”I will try for her; I will indeed,” said Mrs. Gibson, relieved by his change of tone.

“No, don’t. That’s one thing I forbid. I’ll have no ‘trying’ for Molly.”

So strong is Elizabeth’s writing here that readers can imagine the tone of voice and facial expressions as Dr. Gibson delivers this firm command to his wife. Yet behind the humour we see a woman, who like Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, realises that she has a duty to marry her two daughters ‘well’ to ‘good’ husbands.

Angus Easson states that Wives and Daughters like many of her other pieces, is very personal:

Playing over the novel is Gaskell’s own character, her humour, her understanding of people and situations – all these combine to make the novel; a summation, however unintentional, of her writing career.

Find out more about the novel by joining us at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House for our new season of events through this link.

Blog by Dr Diane Duffy, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House


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Wives and Daughters