Wives and Daughters is Elizabeth Gaskell’s final novel which was interrupted in its completion due to the untimely death of the author. However incomplete it may be to the end, I found the book to be a completed work with beautiful writing, an interesting set of characters, and a good storyline. At a time when the “sensational” novels were at the peak of their popularity, Gaskell courageously took to writing this realist story which she called “An Everyday Story”.
The story mainly revolves around three families: the Gibsons; the Hamleys; and the aristocratic Cumnors. Family relations are at the root of the story. The father-daughter/step-daughter, father-sons, and mother-daughter/step-daughter relationships are subtly and very touchingly portrayed. There is much warmth and sympathy in Gaskell’s writing when she dwells on family relations.
There is also a love story, rather a love triangle between three main characters Roger, Cynthia, and Molly. While Cynthia wins Roge’s love and affection at first, this is transferred to Molly when Roger realizes the error of his blind infatuation and discovers to whom his heart truly belongs. The future development of the story of the lovers was interrupted by the untimely demise of the author. But, a possible ending has been outlined by the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, in which the story was serialized, based on notes and an outline that the author has left behind for the unwritten chapters. It is unfortunate that we readers were not privileged to read the ending in her own florid writing.
In addition to family relationships and the love story, the book touches on a wider variety of concepts. The class difference is one. The old Hamley, whose ancestral roots run to a time before the Norman Conquest, views any alliance between his sons and the daughters of Dr. Gibson, a “medical man” with no worthy connection, as unsuitable. Gaskell emphasizes this point by showing that even though the old Hamley considers Molly Gibson almost as a daughter of his own, he dreads a union between her and any one of his sons. The strongly held political allegiance is another. Hamleys are Tories from time immemorial, and the Cumnors are Whigs. There is an interesting political rivalry penned by Gaskell between these two families. When Roger Hamley, a budding scientist was invited to the home of Lord Cumnor, old Hamley forces the son to decline it on the ground that it would be a disregard for family principles to have any intercourse with the Whigs. The extremity of this political rivalry was hilarious. Although these political rivalries and strongly held prejudices on class difference were later relaxed towards the end of the story, it was disturbing to learn the amount of discrimination that prevailed in British Society in the early 19th century.
Also, Gaskell has touched upon general themes such as women’s position in society, their education, patriarchal dominance, and social values and conventions. And most interestingly, Gaskell has touched on future scientific developments. Through the character of Roger Hamley, who was said to have been modeled on the famous naturalist and her cousin Charles Darwin, Gaskell eagerly writes about the future scientific developments.
The story and its themes have been explored by Gaskell with the use of a very interesting set of characters. Molly Gibson is the author’s heroine. She is strong, courageous, and kind, yet shy and timid. She is the epitome of goodness. There were certain resemblances of her to Margaret Hale in North and South, but Molly was, to me, the better heroine. Her stepsister Cynthia is pretty and charming but selfish, self-centered, and shallow. The author is very sympathetic towards this faulty character and alludes that her faults were due to neglectful parenting. Mrs. Gibson, the second wife of Dr. Gibson is a pretentious and mercenary woman. Her character provided the needed comic relief to the story while old Hamley too contributed to a certain degree. Mr. Gibson provided solidity to the story. Roger Hamley is our hero. He is goodhearted, selfless, and learned. He represents the generation of social, political reform, and scientific evolution, whereas old Hamley represents dying feudalism.
The beauty of this work lies in the story as well as in Gaskell’s excellent writing. It is more polished and developed from her early writing days. And surprisingly, her writing is also satirical, which was a new development. Perhaps, Dickens’s influence has played a vital role in expanding her writing style.
Wives and Daughters is undoubtedly a brilliant production by Elizabeth Gaskell and it was a sheer pleasure reading it.