Bookish Discussions · Reviews

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters:


Spoiler free | Rating: 5 out of 5 stars | Read: 24 June – 4 July, 2018

Wives and Daughters was something else entirely. It has quickly become my favourite Gaskell novel, and one of my all-time favourite 19th century reads. It was such a lovely book. The story is centred on Molly Gibson, detailing how her life is thrown off course when her father remarries. She is devoted to him, and the prospect of sharing that devotion does not appeal to her. Despite receiving a vain and manipulative stepmother from this marriage, Molly’s life is enlivened by a glamorous new stepsister. However, Molly quickly finds herself a go-between for Cynthia’s love affairs, risking her reputation and the man she loves in return.

Unfortunately, Gaskell never managed to finish writing Wives and Daughters. It was serialised in Cornhill Magazine from 1864 to 1866, but she sadly died in 1865 due to a heart attack. She left the ending unwritten. Thankfully, due to the Victorian’s love of preserving letters, we know how Gaskell wanted the novel to end. It was pretty much finished anyway (I reckon there was only one chapter left to write), and it was very clear how the story would have ended. I wasn’t bothered by this though. I was just happy that Gaskell managed to write as much as she did (the whole 766 pages of it). I loved being immersed in this story, with these characters and that writing.

As with most of Gaskell’s novels, the narrative is centred in a small community. These, in particular, are my favourite reads from the 19th century. A small community had such a huge impact on the lives of its inhabitants, especially the women, as people were privy to gossip and constantly questioned relationships between the opposite sex. This was captured brilliantly through Molly and Cynthia, two young girls who didn’t know any better. I really liked Gaskell’s subtle critique on this way of life. For example, Cynthia contemplated going to Russia to become a governess (not always the wisest choice for women of this century) to escape the gossip she found herself entangled with. I think the length of the novel allowed this to be fleshed out as much as possible.

Additionally, I really enjoyed the host of characters. There were roughly four family names – the Gibsons and the Hamleys being the main two – and all of different classes. They were all so unlike each other, meaning something new was always happening in the story. My favourite character was Molly. It was such a privilege watching her grow into a strong character; she accepted life’s struggles head on, and often without complaint. She was understanding, loving and passionate. I was completely invested in her story, and am very happy with how it panned out. I would have hated not to have known the fate of my favourite character.

Strangely, I also really liked Mrs Gibson. She is often labelled manipulative, vain and selfish by other people but I feel like she has a much deeper layer to her character. I can’t say that I didn’t see those traits shine through once in a while, but I also felt like it was all an act. She didn’t want to love Molly like her own child, but she did. I expected her to treat Molly awfully – resent her to a certain extent – but instead she often confided in her and treated her as she did with Cynthia (which, albeit, wasn’t that great). I thought this was a really interesting dynamic, and I feel like Mrs Gibson is a little overlooked. She brings a lot to the narrative, despite her being shallow and self-centred.

Overall, Wives and Daughters was a long but lovely read. The narrative is often compared to a fairy tale – the opening paragraph, the (not so) wicked stepmother, the sweet female protagonist, and the rich and loving gentleman. It’s all there, and it’s all completely enchanting. Don’t be put off by the size of this novel; every word, every chapter, and every volume was utterly beautiful. I would definitely recommend to anyone and everyone!

Have you read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell? What’s your favourite? I’d love to discuss it with you!

Thanks for reading, Lauren Xx

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters:

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