Elizabeth Gaskell, when she published Wives and Daughters in 1866 (a decade after Bleak House and nearly a decade before Middlemarch), subtitled it “An Everyday Story.” Many readers may agree with her assessment. This is the story of Molly Gibson, an ordinary small-town girl, beloved daughter of a widowed doctor (making her upper-middle class, as far as that goes in the rigidly hierarchical system of the day). All around her are families of higher degree — Squire Hamley and his sons, Lady Cumnor and her family — and lower degree, such as the extremely correct Miss Brownings. Owing to her upbringing, Molly is rather unworldly, not very educated (her father thought it unnecessary), and honest to a fault. She and her father are very happy together, moving in their limited social circle.
After an apprentice becomes smitten with Molly’s charms, however, Dr. Gibson is convinced he ought to remarry, if only for Molly’s protection. His choice is a woman who was once a governess to Lady Cumnor’s daughters: Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who also has a daughter, Cynthia, from a previous marriage. This blended family, as we would call it today, is not disastrous, but it’s awkward. Molly and her stepmother don’t get along flawlessly, despite real effort on both sides; Cynthia is beautiful, charming and engaging but essentially reserved; Dr. Gibson absents himself from the house rather than admit a mistake.
Molly, however, has other things to think about besides herself. The Hamleys at Hamley Hall, with whom she is on intimate terms, are in need of her help. The mother is very ill, and the lionized elder son, Osborne, has come home a disappointment from Cambridge, straining relations with his father to the breaking-point. The only person who seems a steady rock in the family is the younger brother, Roger Hamley, whose kindness to Molly has always given her pleasure and comfort.
The book continues to wind through the complexities of these relationships, including what Cynthia’s private reserve is about, why Osborne failed at school, how reputations can be broken and mended, and what true fidelity and constancy mean, in families, friendships, and love. The book is not quite finished — Gaskell died before the last couple of chapters could be written — but it is finished enough for satisfaction; it’s easy to imagine the quietly happy ending.
In Amy King’s introduction to the Barnes and Noble Classics edition I read, she quotes Henry James’s review of Wives and Daughters. He mingles praise with warnings to his imaginary readers that they might at first find the book dull, but that which was dull would soon enough prove to be the foundation of a strong investment in—even love for—the novel’s heroine. This was exactly my experience with this book. At 688 pages, it was an investment of time, one of those really long Victorian novels you have to get stuck into before it gets rolling, and at first, the minutiae of Molly Gibson’s “everyday story” did seem a bit dull.
But about a quarter of the way into the book, I realized I was hooked. In a way, this novel reminded me of Middlemarch. This was not so much a book about will-he-or-won’t-he-marry-her. This was more a book about he-married-her-and-now-what? Dr. Gibson makes his ill-matched marriage, and both families must live with the choice, emotionally, socially, and financially. It’s the ins and outs of those relationships, subtle and true as they are, that make this novel hum with life. I was interested in the themes of health, of class, and of foreignness (the French are redeemable, whereas Africa is always going to be absolutely Other), but it’s the family ties that make the book.
Last year, I read Gaskell’s Cranford and absolutely loved it. This was another rousing success. I’d recommend this to anyone looking for a lovely long Victorian read.