Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wives & Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is the Ultimate Victorian Novel

I love this cover, it's a detail from a painting called Waiting by John Everett Millais.

BEST. VICTORIAN. NOVEL. EVER.

OK, I guess I've said that about other novels before -- probably about Bleak House. But this is one of my all-time favorite books -- I think I've read it three or four times in the past 10 years since I discovered it, in print and audio, and I've seen the TV adaptation multiple times. It's just wonderful. I have so many books that I want to read that I don't re-read old favorites nearly enough. This is worth making an exception.

If you're not familiar, here's the setup. Basically, it's the story of two families, the Gibsons and the Hamleys, living somewhere in the town of Hollingford in the late 1820s (it's before the Reform Act of 1832, and there's mention of a King but not Queen Victoria). Mr. Gibson, a widower with a young daughter Molly, is the local surgeon, and the Hamleys are one of the oldest families in the county, even older than the local gentry. Squire Hamley has two sons off at Cambridge and an invalid wife. The two families become closer when young Molly, aged 17, goes to stay at Hamley Hall because one of her father's medical apprentices has decided he's in love with her. Mr. Gibson realizes Molly is too old to be unchaperoned in the house with the two medical students while he's out taking care of patients, so she goes off to spend time with Mrs. Hamley. 

Molly endears herself to the Squire and the kind Mrs. Hamley, but the old-fashioned though kindly squire has no intention of either of his sons falling in love with Molly. During Molly's visit, her father spends a lot of time at the Towers, the ancestral home of the local gentry, the Cumnors. There he meets the widow Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a schoolmistress and former governess of the Cumnor family. He decides pretty quickly she'd make a suitable stepmother for Molly. 

Molly, Cynthia, and Mrs. Gibson nee Kirkpatrick from the TV miniseries

Molly is less than thrilled to acquire a stepmother but is happy to be getting a new stepsister, Cynthia, who's been off at school in France for pretty much her entire life since her father died. The new Mrs. Gibson isn't the stereotypical evil stepmother, though she is pretty self-centered and mildly annoying. However, Molly and Cynthia really and truly care for one another. 

Meanwhile, the Hamley sons have returned from Cambridge, and are much thrown together with the Gibson family. The elder son Osborne is dreamy and poetic, with a Big Secret, and his loyal brother Roger is clever and scientific. 

Molly with Roger Hamley. He's supposed to be the less-attractive brother. 

There is tragedy, there is comedy, and there are secrets. It's a really great domestic story with lots of charming characters. It's very reminiscent of Jane Austen without being a knockoff, and has the added bonus of weighing in at about 650 pages, much longer than any of Austen's novels. It's lovely to spend a good long time with these characters in their world. 

I loved all the characters, even Mrs. Gibson who often made me roll my eyes and practically throw something across the room. (I listened to parts of it on audio while driving and walking the dog and sometimes yelled out loud at her). Squire Hamley has no patience for Mrs. Gibson and is rewarded with the best line in the entire book: 


"I'm not saying she was silly, but one of us was silly, and it wasn't me."
(Yes, that's Michael Gambon [AKA Dumbledore] as the Squire).

And I haven't even talked about the miniseries, which is BRILLIANT -- so many great actors! If you've watched a British TV series in the past decade, you'll recognize nearly all the leads and much of the supporting cast as well. I actually saw the miniseries first and I've since read the book three times. It never gets old and Elizabeth Gaskell has become one of my all-time favorite Victorian novelists -- North and South is also wonderful, and Cranford is a hoot. I only wish Gaskell had lived long enough to write more books! Wives and Daughters is actually unfinished as she passed away before completing the final short chapter of the book; however, it had been serialized and she had left detailed notes with her publisher which are included, though the ending is pretty much self-explanatory. 

I'm counting this for the Re-Read a Favorite Classic category for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 

15 comments:

  1. I loved the miniseries of this book! So awesome. But I've never read the book. I've only ever Cranford, which I did really like. It's obvious that I need to read more of Mrs. Gaskell's books in the future. :)

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    1. It's just wonderful. The series is extremely faithful to the book, though I don't exactly picture the Hamley brothers as they are in the series. But that's a small quibble.

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  2. Great comnentary. I have only read North and South and enjoyed it a great desl. What I also like about Gaskell is that some of her books are set in the North of England and as with the Brontes, the North of Engkand in Victorian times a fascinating place, very different from Jane Austen's world which I also enjoy reading about but the North has its own beauty and mystery.

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    1. I love North and South also and I think I need to read it again!

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  3. I couldn't agree more! I adore this book and to me it represents Victorian literature at its domestic-focused best. I used to reread it almost every year but realise now it's been far too long since I last picked it up. Thankfully, I'm on vacation with a copy close at hand...

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    1. I was alternating between audio and print and I found a receipt from a restaurant in Venice tucked into the pages! I remember bringing it with me when I visited in 2014. An excellent vacation read!

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  4. I didn't like North and South, too dark, but I loved, loved, loved Cranford. I haven't read Wives and Daughters yet. I'me eager to read more of Gaskell's books.

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    1. I love Cranford too but the style wasn't what I expected after seeing the miniseries -- I think I actually like the TV version better! I've only read North and South once and loved it, and now I really want to read it again. I wish she had written more books!

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  5. I completely agree, Karen!! I absolutely adore both the book and the miniseries and want everyone to read/watch them. I'm overdue for both a re-read and a re-watch as well. I also wish Gaskell had lived longer; I've made myself save a few of her works and still have Ruth, Mary Barton, and Sylvia's Lovers to look forward to. And I think about that Squire Hamley line often!

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  6. I only read it for the first time earlier this year, and have decided it's one of my favourite Victorian novels too, and that memorable line from Squire Hamley is just the best. I love the feeling of excitement and movement throughout the story, as Roger goes off to Africa, as well as the English village feeling of Hollingford. And I loved the miniseries too. It only took a couple of seconds to see that it was going to be well cast and stick to the story.

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  7. Why have I never read this? Sounds perfect!

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  8. I loved North and South and have been meaning to pick this one up too. I'll have to move it up on my list!

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  9. I am besotted with W&D too--it is an exceptionally good novel, and the characters are so interesting. I cannot say that I "liked" Mrs Gibson--but what a character study! And that line - "I'm not saying she was silly, but one of us was silly, and it wasn't me." - I picked up that line (or something akin to it) from my dad, and used it before I ever read W&D, so I just about fell over when I first read the line in the book. I do love Squire Hamley, and Roger is one of my all time favorite heroes. Yes, the mini-series is also exceptional.

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