Friday, February 8

Posted by Laurel Garver on Friday, February 08, 2019 5 comments
If you haven't seen the BBC miniseries Wives and Daughters, based on the unfinished novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, I heartily recommend it. I found the story more accessible than Austen's works, perhaps because the social faux pas are more evident to a modern reader. I often feel I'm missing something when I read Austen--the manners so central to the comedy are a bit too removed from our own day.

The acting is really first rate. All the characters come across as full-orbed. The heroine, Molly, is virtuous but outspoken, trustworthy to a fault and perhaps a bit too attached to her father. The stepmother who enters the story is an interesting riff on the stereotype: she's a bit self-absorbed and small-minded, but she's more weak than anything else and never cruel. She fumbles at asserting her role as mistress of the house, coming across as a pitiable character. Along with the stepmother comes a daughter, Cynthia, who is also quite a mixed bag. She's beautiful, charming, free spirited and careless. Though she and Molly become fast friends, her charm and carelessness get her into sticky situations from which Molly loyally tries to rescue her. The hardest part of the story is when Molly crucifies her desires, standing back as the man she loves falls for Cynthia, who neither cherishes nor deserves his love.

The hero and main love interest, Roger, is also pretty unusual. Instead of a rakish, dashing fellow, or a romantic artist or poet, he's a naturalist. He spends his hours outdoors collecting insects and pond scum, then brings his finds inside to draw or examine under a microscope. He seems a far more iteresting hero than most men you'll find in women's literature. He's the guy Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables series) could be if L.M. Montgomery were better at writing men.

There's a strong undercurrent involving class issues. Most of the romances take place across class boundaries. Those who oppose the matches are often humbled later for their opinion. At one point, Molly repirmands the daughter of the most fabulously wealthy family in town, Lady Harriet, a young woman about 5-7 years her senior. Lady Harriet had confided that she's been invited the home of two middle class spinster sisters who she considers "quite ridiculous," and Molly chides her to not go if you're only going to gawk and laugh, adding that she dislikes hearing her class spoken of that way. Lady Harriet takes the rebuke in stride and her admiration for Molly grows to the point that she takes great pains to help her "protege" ever after. Lady Harriet's brother likewise admires Roger's first-class brain and becomes his benefactor. It was refreshing to see noblesse oblige working properly.

Most of all, I think Wives and Daughters is a fascinating character study in the effects of different parenting. Molly loses her mother at a young age, yet matures into a loyal, soft-hearted girl. Her foil and stepsister, Cynthia, loses her father at a young age. Yet Cynthia matures into a woman who is unable to feel deeply or make meaningful connections with people.

One would expect the motherless girl to fare worse, but Molly is more fully human. Gaskell’s point is that a child needs loving care, regardless of the sex of the parent who gives it.

Cynthia’s living mother treats her as a burden from the beginning of widowhood, sending Cynthia off to boarding school at age 4. Every school vacation, Cynthia is left in the care of strangers while her mother travels with the great families that employ her as governess.

The net effect of this continued neglect is a vanity and manipulativeness, someone who cannot ever turn off the charm for fear of rejection. Yet Cynthia is apt to reject others, three suitors in all in the course of the novel. She admits that she’s not really capable of love or deep feeling for others. Today I think Cynthia would be said to suffer from an attachment disorder.

Molly, on the other hand, is blessed to be educated at home by a loving governess. She lives in a community where the women watch out for her, take an interest in her growth, strive to keep up a relationship with her. Though her father is a busy country doctor in the age of nothing but house calls, he works to be as available as he can. Theirs is a relationship of nurture and friendship. Gaskell paints their intimacy by showing father and daughter kneeling at the fireside, making toasted cheese sandwiches and amiably talking about the day’s events.

When Molly’s father marries Cynthia’s mother, thinking it will help is “poor motherless girl,” Gaskell makes it clear that it’s far too late for Molly to be helped by a stepmother. Her good character is well formed by age 17, as is Cynthia’s weak character. A great tension of the story is whether either girl will be swayed by the new family circumstances so late in “childhood.”

What literary classics have you most enjoyed? What have you learned from them?


  1. I loved this book, too, though I didn't realize when I started reading it that Gaskell died before finishing it--and I was crushed to miss her own ending!
    Actually just yesterday I was discussing this book with my sister (and fellow book nerd), mentioning that Cynthia is one of the most interesting and multi-faceted characters I've ever read. I couldn't stand her--yet I loved her because Molly did.

    1. Have you seen the miniseries? The script writers create an ending that strikes me as a fairly anachronistic outcome--the future wishing itself into the past. Would love to hear your thoughts on it!

  2. It sounds like a great read. I love the way you described the relationships. Thanks for the review!

    1. Keep in mind the novel is unfinished. With the miniseries, the script writers wrote an ending that feels pretty satisfying, though I have a hard time imagining it's the exact way Gaskell would have chosen.

  3. Hi Laurel! I've just returned to blogging and am so excited to see you are still around. Hope all is well!