Monday, March 9, 2009

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted by lea at 4:11 PM
WARNING: Elizabeth Gaskell died just before finishing the book so it's highly unsatisfactory at the very end.

Despite the above warning, Wives and Daughters is an excellent read throughout. Little Molly Gibson, daughter of the local doctor, grows up without a mother but is the model of goodness itself. She is a passionate soul with uncommonly good sense for one so young, and a sense of propriety that pleases everyone around her. Her life intersects early on with the Hamleys, a venerable family with two sons, Osborne and Roger, and then becomes thrown into turmoil when her father, with whom she has a perfect understanding and deep friendship, remarries. His choice is the beautiful but upwardly grasping, highly vain Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who has enough sense and understanding to capture the good opinion of those who know her only shallowly, but on closer inspection is a complete Monet (a mess, a cow, an utterly self-centred bitch). Her father, like Mr Bennett before him (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen) reconciles himself by turning a blind eye. The only benefit of the marriage, for Molly, is the addition of a new step-sister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a charming and beautiful girl with a hidden secret.

Gaskell, like many of the excellent writers of her age, captures perfectly the nuances and feelings and motivations of different characters in the book, so they are fully dimensional and instantly part of your world. Okay, not actually instantly. For me, as with many of the classics, it took around a quarter of the way in before it started to get really interesting (I wonder if this is because many of them were originally written in serial format, and the author often didn't know where the story would go until a few chapters in). The only flaw is that the hero and heroine of this novel, Molly and Roger, are too perfect. They are too understanding, too forgiving, too loving to be real. Their saving grace, ironically, is that Gaskell didn't endow them with too much outward beauty. This is a refreshing change from modern chick-lit, in which the main characters are too often perfect on the outside (gorgeous, rich, great jobs) without much said about what's going on inside.

But, just when the story has climaxed and everything has panned out for our hero and heroine to declare their love (a reader's reward for reading the mini-mammoth novel), Elizabeth Gaskell died, leaving some poor editor to try to fill in the details based on Gaskell's plans for the novel's ending. Despite the fact that we know how the story must end, gratification never comes because the ending is not told in the author's own words, in her style of writing. It's like preparing all the ingredients for a delectable chocolate cake, mixing each ingredient with care, pouring it into a cake tin and baking it with loving attention, only to taste it and find that instead of sugar, you've put in salt. A lot of effort goes into reading this novel but payday never comes.

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