04 July 2013

Wives and Daughters (Elizabeth Gaskell)

Wives and Daughters was the last book I started in my recent travels, on the train back to Kansas from New Mexico. I think it was recommended to me ages ago when I read Fathers and Sons? So yeah, the Project Gutenberg ebook's been sittin' on the ol' Nook for a while. Glad I finally got to it, though!

Set in the 1820s in an English country village, Wives and Daughters is mostly the story of Molly Gibson, daughter of the local surgeon. I'm not gonna lie, she's pretty annoying, v. much in the Sweet Gentle Victorian Heroine mold, which can often read as spineless to a millenial harridan like me. She's hardly insufferable, though, and she's surrounded by some great female characters--and male as well, in the persons of Squire Hamley and his two sons, Osborne and Roger, all good dudes.

But as the title tells us, the women in the book may be defined by their relationships to men, they occupy their own feminine spaces, and it's in these that the novel largely dwells. Mr. Gibson's appallingly self-centered second wife sometimes shades into evil-stepmother territory, it's true; her daughter, Cynthia, however, defies stereotype. Cynthia is flirtatious, and thoughtless at time, but she and Molly become as close as sisters, despite their differences (this diverse-sibling relationship is mirrored by the Hamley boys). I loved Cynthia (and I loved that everybody thinks her name is totally out there): she knows who she is, and she knows her own mind, flaws and all.

(Also gotta give a thumbs-up to the happily unmarried Miss Browning, who says at one poit, "I am rather inclined to look upon matrimony as a weakness to which some very worthy people are prone.")

One warning should you decide to read this one--it was published serially, starting in August 1864, and Elizabeth Gaskell died of a heart attack in November 1865 without finishing it. It's almost there--you can tell what's going to happen--but it's really a shame she didn't get to write it.

*For the standard by which I now measure heroine insufferability, read** the sentimental journey of Ellen Montgomery, protagonist of Susan Warner's 1850 The Wide, Wide World--America's first bestseller!

**No, please don't read it, it's awful. Like, in one of the first chapters, Ellen's mother chides her because Ellen says she loves her mom more than she loves Jesus, and her mom is all, "I love Jesus more than I love you." SERIOUSLY THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENS AUGH

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