This is definitely the best piece of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I’d rank it in the handful of English Classic novels I’d read again and again, along with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and Trollope’s Barchester Towers.
It disguises its charm under a rather vapid opening, featuring a pathetic little girl, the only child of the widowed country doctor, who is invited to visit the grand house of a local noble family and is bitterly unhappy and over-awed. But if you stick with it, beyond this – hardly gripping – start, the novel steadily improves, until, by a quarter of the way through, it is so absorbing that you can’t put it down, and it henceforth remains at that glittering level until its abrupt finish, about 95% of the way through the storyline, where Gaskell suddenly died of a heart-attack. Fortunately, it’s clear enough where the threads of storyline were probably ultimately heading that the premature ending doesn’t spoil the novel.
This is a lighter novel than Gaskell’s other famed work: North and South. Wives and Daughters is full of sharp social commentary, without being in any sense a social polemic couched as a novel; and while North and South etches forever into the reader’s mind a bleak image of northern mining towns, Wives and Daughters paints a Trollope-esque picture of a country town somewhere in the lush, rolling countrside of the Malvern hills. Yet, Wives and Daughters is far from trite or shallow. There are an abundance of amusing scenes, but there were others that reduced me quite literally to tears. And, to the modern reader, it is also fascinating in the way that it brings the everyday Victorian world to life: repeatedly, I encountered surprising or striking little details I didn’t know before, and I’ve now also got a list of interesting new words from ‘Alnaschar’ to ‘Tippet’.
But, above all, what makes and drives this novel is its characters. And it is they who produce the roller-coaster plot-turns, which always keep the reader in suspense, and yet never seem unnatural or overly coincidental consequences of the characters’ behaviour. They are also all unusually believable. Too many works of fiction, from those of Dickens to J.K. Rowling, feature too many characters that are entirely ‘goodies’ or ‘badies’; the goodies in such novels may have some flaws, but the badies are supposed to be irredeemable by and large. Wives and Daughters has no through-and-through badies. Just as ‘good’ characters, like the doctor, can make serious mistakes (a man of judgement, sense, and upstanding morality, he chooses a disastrous second wife – one can hardly believe as the reader that he will really go through with the match!), even the wickedest character in the novel, the duplicitous and shady Mr Preston, has a redeeming feature – his genuine love (though love ‘in his own way’) for Cynthia.
Remarkably few works of fiction have appealing heroes and heroines, and the heroines of the English Classics are a particularly irritating bunch, with a mere handful of appealing exceptions (Elizabeth Bennett being the most obvious). I can’t think of a single one of Trollope’s heroines who possess zest, humour and sanity, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, not to mention Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, are absolutely insufferable. So, within that context, Molly of Wives and Daughters is okay. She is a bit wimpy undoubtedly, but she is sweet-hearted and admirable. She has a touch of Fanny of Mansfield Park, who I didn’t mind but I’ve heard other modern readers find annoying, so I’d be interested to know if Molly evokes similar irritation for other people. To my mind, her main flaw as a character is that she is a bit too perfect – the flaws of some of the very lovable characters such as the squire, Osborne, and not to mention the captivating Cynthia, make them more interesting characters. Likewise, the hero, Roger, is a little bit dull, and rather two-dimensional compared to much of the rest of the cast, but again he’s likeable and on the whole one sympathises with him. In sum, the heroine and hero are fine, and but the cast around them is what makes the novel.
First-prize, to my mind, goes to Cynthia. The author tells us that she is the sort of young lady that men and women, young and old, are utterly bewitched by; and she has the same effect on the reader. You fall under her spell and quite in love with her. Vivacious, beautiful, daring, witty, semi-amoral, self-confessedly incapable of deep love yet generous to those she cares for, naturally reserved in regard to deep emotions, contrary-minded, unpredictable, mysterious, talented, and yet with what we would now term ‘a self-destruct button’ and to some extent ‘broken’, she is without doubt one of the best and most richly textured female characters in Classic fiction.
Next, I think, to Osborne, who both is and drives the real tragedy of the novel. When Osborne appears, first by reputation rather than by sight, he has everything going for him, and Molly imagines him as a Gothic hero. He is handsome, intelligent, charismatic, a skilled poet, a successful Cambridge student, a loving son and brother, heir to the family estate, and the apple of his parents eyes. Yet, as the novel unwinds, so, slowly but surely, do the threads of Osborne’s success and happiness; when the novel begins, everything Osborne touches turns to gold, as it progresses everything Osborne touches starts to turn to dust. And I couldn’t help crying over his ultimate fate.
And so we come to my third favourite character, Squire Hamley – Osborne’s father. He is sometimes grumpy, unskilled at expressing his emotions, ashamed of his poor education, hot-tempered, proud, and yet possessed of a deeply loving heart (the great love between him and his invalid wife is a very sweet portrayals of a mature marital love) for his family, a caring master, a moral and good-hearted man, and a victim as well as agent of the tragedies that unwind around the Hamley household. I’m sure I can’t be the only reader that sobbed through the culmination of the father-son storyline.
And my fourth favourite, well let’s make it favourites, here: Dr and Mrs Gibson. Dr Gibson is likeable for his rather brusque but good character; Mrs Gibson is likeable as a character but not a person – she is a delicious foil for much of the humour in the novel. She is not entirely bad, indeed as far as her faults allow her she does actual mean well, but she is silly, pretentious, self-absorbed, vain, fussy, and full of machinations for the marriage of her daughters and the family’s social advancement. She is a little reminiscent of Hyacinth of ‘Keeping Up Appearances’, but she and Mr Gibson together also have a little of the Mr & Mrs Bennet dynamic. Initially, I could not believe that the sensible doctor really would be allowed by the author to marry such a silly second wife, but then it quickly became appear what potential this opened up for comedy in the rest of the novel, especially as the quick-witted and supple Cynthia is Mrs Gibson’s headstrong daughter.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of the novel, as part of the novel’s fun is trying to work out where on earth the storyline will twist next (which does make me wonder a little whether the intended ending would have been exactly as the unintentional ending seems to suggest). I’ll simply end with what, to me, seems to sum up how gripping this novel is: I read it on my small smartphone, and somehow it so captivated me that I completely forgot I was reading it in tiny chunks on the little screen of my phone, and I spent the best part of two days drinking it in; considering Wives and Daughters is a lengthy Victorian novel, that’s quite something!
If you haven’t read Wives and Daughters, and you like Classic fiction, I highly recommend it!