Ah, the joys of diving into a long Victorian novel. I splurged, as I must on occasion, and read Elizabeth Gaskell’s romantic novel Wives and Daughters. At 644 pages, it was a bit of a sacrifice for my book a week reading goal, but it was well worth the effort.
I’ve never read anything by Gaskell before, so I was excited to meet a new female Victorian writer, hoping that I’d find a new author to read en masse. And, thank goodness, I wasn’t disappointed.
Wives and Daughters has a slower pace than Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters’ books. I compare it more with George Elliot’s work in its concern with character development and particularly the importance of the relationships between the characters. In this book, as the title suggests, the relationships in focus are those of daughters (step-daughters, to be precise), step-mothers, and wives.
Molly Gibson is the fresh faced, doe eyed main character, who is almost TOO good. I admit, I had a hard time believing how good she was, just like Beth in Little Women…a little too good. But in Alcott’s book, Beth isn’t the main character. Rebellious and badly behaved Joe is the main character, so Beth’s goodness is a little easier to take. Same goes for Pride and Prejudice. Jane is a little too good as well, but we have Lizzy to make it all even.But, Molly’s strength lies in her faithfulness and devotion to those she loves. She’s not out to impress anyone, and she’s genuine. Those are certainly amiable qualities.
Molly lives with her widowed father, the local doctor. I loved all the details about country medicine, so that was a wonderful surprise in the book. Molly has that Heidi-like country freshness about her. She and her father are thick as thieves, and Molly roams wild about the countryside.
The plot gets going when Molly’s father decides to marry, mainly for Molly’s sake. The woman he chooses is good on paper, but in reality, isn’t necessarily the best choice. Clare is selfish and bossy and much more immature than the girl she is supposed to be raising, an irony that Gaskill continually points out.
Of course, there are love interests, in the form of Roger Hamley, a member of the wealthy landowning class, far removed from Molly’s prospect in marriage. But, of course, there are 600 pages worth of experiences that throw these lovebirds in each other’s way, with the complication that Roger falls in love with Clare’s daughter (Molly’s stepsister) Cynthia.
Imagine my surprise when I got to the end of the book to find it uncompleted. Gaskill died before she finished it, and nobody bothered to tell me this. I suppose I could have learned it if I’d have bothered to read the introduction, but sometimes, those spoil the endings.
Other editions have added alternate endings. And we pretty much know where the story is going. Gaskill has wrapped up most of the plot lines.
However, that was a new experience for me, one that I’m not sure I want to repeat unawares. I accidentally woke Dan up with my protestations when I was up late finishing the book and came upon that “ending.”
Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book though, especially if there’s one with the completed ending. I also hear that there are some good BBC versions out there, for those of you who enjoy watching period dramas. I’m assuming that the BBC added an ending to avoid annoying their viewers.