a tale of two daughters

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

My copy of Wives and Daughters rested on my shelf for years. Mostly, I was concerned that I would feel the sort of disappointment I felt when I read Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon. Would I come to love the characters and then feel a sense of unfulfillment when I reached an abrupt non-ending? I waffled on the decision to read it and just let it keep gathering dust; but last month, the Victorians group on Goodreads started a W&D reading challenge and I was finally tempted to dive in.

I initially wanted to write a section summary and reaction, like I did for Bleak House and Cecilia, but several life emergencies made it impossible for me to stick to the group’s reading schedule, much less post periodic updates on my reactions.

Because this is quite a tome, I feel a regular review can’t possibly do it justice, so I’m just going to focus on some of the things I most admired about the novel.

  • I loved the dynamic between Molly and Mr. Gibson in the first part of the novel, before he remarried. It so reminded me of the relationship between Maggie and Mr. Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss and really endeared me to the characters.
  • Mrs. Gibson’s flaws and views on society make for a great social commentary in the style of Jane Austen’s best social upstarts.
  • Actually, Gaskell’s epic domestic novel often reminded me of Austen and Eliot.
  • It’s a contradiction in terms to call it epic and domestic, but it’s the best phrase I can think of to describe the scope of a book on just about every aspect of country society.
  • While I did feel a bit let down by the missing conclusion, the novel felt nearly complete and clearly laid the foundation for a satisfying ending.
  • Some of Mrs. Gibson’s lines are fantastic. Like this one: “My dear, if you must have the last word, don’t let it be a truism.”

I regret not being able to take part in an active discussion on the book, as that was my main reason for taking part in the challenge, but feel quite a sense of accomplishment now that I’ve read it. I was also left with a burning desire to re-read The Mill on the Floss.

character and elegant economy

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

As an Austenite, I felt I had to read Lady Susan at some point. I am one those rare people who actually enjoy the epistolary genre, but there was something about this novella that left me a bit underwhelmed. One of Austen’s minor works, Lady Susan tells the story of Lady Susan Vernon, profligate coquette and shamelessly manipulative woman about town… er… countryside. Followed by a terrible reputation, Lady Susan’s character is quickly revealed through the letters of her dead husband’s sister-in-law. A terrible mother, concerned with making her daugther as miserable as possible so that she will marry out of despair, Lady Susan has little to recommend her to good society other than her charm. And charming she is, even when she writes to her friend, Mrs. Johnson, describing her plans to dispose of her daughter and toy with several men in the process. However, it is not until the Conclusion that Austen’s wit really comes through. For a 60 page novella, this little story seemed to drag along, only redeeming itself in its brief (non-epistolary) ending.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Yes, I read this because I so enjoyed the miniseries. Cranford was a charming little novel, a series of vignettes describing the goings-on in the sleepy little town of Cranford. “In possession of the Amazons,” Cranford is ruled by a set of middle-aged spinsters and widows concerned with the preservation of manners and social niceties. A series of episodes narrated by Cranford enthusiast Mary Smith, the stories are sweet and funny, and completely unlike any other Victorian novel I have read–in Cranford, spinsterhood is a respectable position, there is no rush to marry; the Amazons look upon marriage as a strange and unneccesary custom, after all, what use is a man in Cranford society?