Wives and Daughters was Elizabeth Gaskell's final novel. In fact, she died before the last installment was written and published. Fortunately for us, the novel takes us almost to the conclusion, and Gaskell's notes help us envision the ending she intended.
The story takes place in the small British town of Hollingford around 1830. The setting is similar to Cranford, the only other Gaskell novel I'm familiar with. The town seems to be run by the older women—both widows and spinsters—at a time when change is in the air and barriers of all sorts are beginning to break down. The railroad is linking city and country, young people are ignoring some of the stricter social rules, and love is finding a way to cross class lines.
The novel follows Molly Gibson, daughter of the town's doctor, as she copes with more personal changes—in particular, the ramifications of her father's marriage to Clare Kirkpatrick, erstwhile nanny and schoolteacher. Until the new Mrs. Gibson and her beautiful daughter, Cynthia, come on the scene, Molly and her widowed father lived a quiet and casual existence. Clare, a subtler and more manipulative version of the typical evil stepmother, puts an end to all that, turning the Gibson household into a reflection of her own vision of her new social status.
Fortunately, Cynthia and Molly seem to get along, although they could not be more different. Molly is caring, quiet, emotional, and a bit intellectual. Cynthia is vivacious, shallow, and selfish. These contrasts drive the stepsisters' social lives, their interactions with potential husbands, and their roles in the Gibson family dynamics.
Gaskell introduces us to three other local families, each one representing a different aspect of British culture of the times. The Cumnors, who made their money a century earlier in the tobacco trade, spend most of their time in the city but condescend to invite the townspeople to their country estate of Cumnor Towers once a year. Hamleys have lived on Hamley lands since the time of the conquest, but the squire is worried about retaining an inheritance for his sons. The Miss Brownings are firmly rooted in the old ways and find it difficult to accept new fashions and the behavior of the younger generation.
I listened to the unabridged Blackstone Audio production of Wives and Daughters, read by Nadia May. May is a well-known audiobook narrator who brings emotion and pacing to the reading without being dramatic. She varies the voices of the characters enough so the listener can differentiate among them.
Most editions of Wives and Daughters, including the audio, incorporate the original editor's note, which explains what Gaskell had in mind for the conclusion of the novel. I was thankful that a ending was not written by someone else and that, instead, we are simply informed of Gaskell's intentions. By the way, the novel does not seem to end abruptly; I was satisfied that the various plot lines were either adequately tied up or were headed to a clear conclusion.
Note that I highlighted the novel twice in January 2010 (#1, #2).
Wives and Daughters at Amazon
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Many editions are available, try Oxford University Press, 2009
Challenges: Support Your Library, Audiobook, 2010, 100+
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)