Saturday, July 19, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell

I read a little today: 100 pages or so of Wives and Daughters, which I’m reading for a book group (and as usual I’m behind.) This is one of those forgotten novels--forgotten by me anyway--which have been revived by feminist critics in recent years. (I myself first read it as a graduate student, after reading Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte.) Wives and Daughters is a rich example of her work, almost contemporary in its understated style, and is generally regarded as her masterpiece, Gaskell's style is quiet but intense, not unlike her friend Bronte's style in Villette (another masterpiece). Each character and episode is delineated skillfully, especially the character of Molly Gibson, whose life is sketched childhood to womanhood. Molly, a doctor’s daughter, is quiet, yet emotional and spirited, strongly bound to her father, and imbued with a sense of rightt.. She makes friends mainly among older people, because ther are no young ones in the neighborhood. Her father's marriage to a (slutty) former governess breaks up Molly's home: old servants are dismissed; she prevents Molly from visiting an old friend merely for the sake of stopping her; and she cares only about fashion and a posh social life (she wants to make Molly drop her old friends). Gaskell contrasts Molly with her new stepsister, the beautiful Cynthia, who doesn't stick strictly to the truth herself, doesn't care about people admiring her beauty (they've always done that),and informs Molly repeatedly that she'll never "be good." Yet the two amuse each other greatly: Molly has never known anyone like this.

By the way, we're reading Gaskell in this book group:

In his 1866 review of Wives and Daughters , Henry James wrote: "The book is very long and of an interest so quiet that not a few readers will be sure to vote it dull....The reader will be tempted to lay down the book and ask himself of what possible concern to him are the clean frocks and the French lessons of little Molly Gibson. But if he will have patience awhile he will see.”

Henry, I loved the details.

1 comment:

Ellen said...


Why not put it on Trollope-l? We have at least five people reading the book. I'm sure Judy and Clare would appreciate it, and so too Katherine Malinowski. Would you prefer me to do the sharing of it.