Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wives and Daughters

Lately I've seen a renewal of interest in the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, so I decided to try one; a Victorian novel seemed like a good thing to have going in the background of my other reading this fall. The only Gaskell novel I found on the shelf at my public library was Wives and Daughters, so that's the one I read.

Now, I should have read the preface and the afterward, but I often skip those for the Victorians; they're so rarely interested in subverting the text, and usually any supplemental material is by an editor or some other college professor I don't feel the need to read like. But I should have read some of that for this novel--because the author very inconsiderately died while writing it. So for the whole second half of the story, while I was slogging through way more than I cared to read about how insipidness pays off for the proper Victorian heroine, I was waiting for her marriage to the man she fancies who will surely, in the end, appreciate her--and the novel doesn't get there!

The most fun I had reading Gaskell was in appreciating how catty she could be to her characters, especially the step-mother of the heroine, who reminds me a little of Elizabeth Bennett's dingbat mother in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

The step-mother, Mrs. Gibson, has the same comical need to keep up a genteel appearance; "dinner," or the main meal of the day, was evidently taken at lunchtime by farming families and at suppertime by the imaginary genteel families of which Mrs. Gibson has heard or read:
"At lunch Mrs. Gibson was secretly hurt by my lord's supposing it to be her dinner, and calling out his urgent hospitality from the very bottom of the table, giving as a reason for it, that she must remember it was her dinner. In vain she piped out in her soft, high voice, 'Oh, my lord! I never eat meat in the middle of the day; I can hardly eat anything at lunch.' Her voice was lost, and the duchess might go away with the idea that the Hollingsford doctor's wife dined early; that is to say, if her grace ever condescended to have any idea on the subject at all; which presupposes that she was cognizant of the fact of there being a doctor at Hollingford, and that he had a wife, and that his wife was the pretty, faded, elegant-looking woman sending away her plate of untasted food--food that she longed to eat, for she was really desperately hungry...."

Even cattier is the passage in which the author of the novel describes Mrs. Gibson as a person who
"had no great facility for understanding sarcasm; it is true it disturbed her, but as she was not quick at deciphering any depth of meaning, and felt it to be unpleasant to think about it, she forgot it as soon as possible."

And most fun of all is the authorial comment on a neighbor's remark:
"'Well! Mrs. Gibson, I suppose I must wish you joy of Miss Cynthia's marriage; I should condole with some mothers as had lost their daughters; but you're not one of that sort, I reckon.'
Now, as Mrs. Gibson was not quite sure to which 'sort' of mothers the greatest credit was to be attached, she found it a little difficult how to frame her reply."

If I ever decide to read anything else by Gaskell, it will be North and South, as Nymeth recommends. Perhaps this time I took my undirected reading a little too far--being more underemployed than usual makes me understand better why many book bloggers make lists. I probably won't go that far, but will think about whether I should continue reading as unsystematically as I usually prefer to do.


Libby said...

Oh, North and South is fantastic! I don't find Molly GIbson quite as insipid as you do--and Cynthia is a piece of work! But I quite love Gaskell in general. Cranford is fun--connected short stories. And Ruth and Sylvia's Lovers are both quite tragic. Mary Barton, her first, is also fascinating in its depiction of Victorian working class life--much more than any of the other novels.

Amanda said...

Was the entire second half of the book written by someone else? I'd been under the impression before that it was just the last few chapters.

I've yet to complete anything by Gaskell. I tried to listen to Ruth a few years ago, but the narrator insisted on reading as if her audience was kindergartners, so after 12 chapters I stopped listening.

FreshHell said...

I'd rather watch these on PBS than try to read something full of passages like those. Are there sentences in there? What are they even saying? Call me stupid but that lunch/dinner one...I can't make heads or tails of it. I think my brain forgot to recharge its batteries last night.

kittiesx3 said...

Jeanne, have you ever read The Revolt of Mother by Mary Wilkens Freeman? I LOVED that short story as well as A New England Nun.

This is a completely different recommendation than my previous ones--if you haven't read any of her stuff, get going!

Karenlibrarian said...

I'm sorry you slogged through it and ended up disliking it so -- I just loved it. I really liked Molly, and I liked that Cynthia and Mrs. Gibson weren't just the stereotypical evil stepmother and stepsister. Of course, I saw the miniseries before reading the book, as with Cranford, and so that may have influenced the way I feel about the story. I still haven't read anything else by Gaskell but my Jane Austen group is planning to read North and South next year.

Nymeth said...

I hesitate to read this one exactly because she didn't finish it! Anyway, I hope you like N&S better when and if you get to it. Though the way Margaret is "rewarded" at the end is very much what you'd expect from a Victorian novel, she's much more spirited than your average heroine.

Jeanne said...

Libby, I find most Victorian heroines either a bit insipid like Molly or more resigned like Cynthia; it wears on me after about the first 40 chapters! I'll consider Mary Barton or maybe some of the Cranford stories.

Amanda, sorry, no, it's not the whole second half--what I meant is that I kept reading only to see the man she loves realize how faithful and true (not to mention long-suffering) she is, and then all I got is a note from an editor at the end of Chapter 60.

FreshHell, I love the way it's written, but then I'm used to making my way through older literature than this.

Elizabeth, I'd read A New England Nun, but I hadn't read The Revolt of Mother until today--
Thank you--that was kind of an antidote to the insipidness of Molly.

Karenlibrarian, I didn't dislike it; I must have overstated my case. I didn't much care for any of the characters, but I did love the way Gaskell skewered some of them, and I did enjoy the writing in general.

Nymeth, that sounds good. In fact, it's kind of a memorable phrase: "more spirited than your average Victorian heroine"!

Avid Reader said...

I read Cranford earlier this year and I'm hoping to get to N&S next year. Maybe this one will be next after N&S.

Melissa said...

I've been meaning to read some Gaskell, too. I have "The Life of Charlotte Bronte" and "Wives and Daughters" on my nook, but somehow they never seem to work their way up my TBR list! :)

Jenners said...

I've been seeing quite a few Gaskell posts around ... we must be reading the same blogs.

And I'm all for reading with reckless abandon ... it keeps things interesting.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

Hee hee, I love when authors are catty towards their characters, especially the awful ones. I've been meaning to read Gaskell, but maybe will start with a different book.

Jeanne said...

Avid Reader, I'd listen to Libby and try Mary Barton (her first) before Wives and Daughters (her last).

Melissa, If you're the kind of person who likes to be reading several books at once, I recommend this one. I was finishing it on planes and in airports and it didn't suffer from the interruptions.

Jenners, I love your phrase too--almost enough to adopt it as a motto: "reading with reckless abandon!"

Kim, the nice thing (guess I left a lot out of this review) about the way Gaskell is catty towards Mrs. Gibson is that she doesn't seem to dislike her that much, just to see her weaknesses. Very clearly.

Aarti said...

Um, North & South is, I think, the greatest PBS/BBC costume drama miniseries ever produced. I do think Victorians in general like to hit you over the head with the "themes" of their novels, so in Gaskell's case, I admit to preferring the movie versions to the book versions.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, there's an idea. I might need to check out Gaskell offerings on Netflix!

Anna said...

I've seen a lot about Gaskell on the blogs lately, but I haven't read anything by her. I'll have to give North and South a try, though it sounds like Wives and Daughters is interesting as well.

Jeanne said...

Anna, I have seen several people who didn't want to invest in an entire Victorian novel dipping their toes into Gaskell with Cranford.