08 February 2010

Review: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

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 Powell's
Wives and Daughters at Amazon
These 3 links lead to affiliate programs.

Many editions are available, try Oxford University Press, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780199538263
Challenges: Support Your Library, Audiobook, 2010, 100+
YTD: 11
Source: Borrowed (see review policy)
Rating: B


Meghan 2/8/10, 7:24 AM  

I've wanted to read this for a long time! I'm glad to hear that it doesn't end abruptly. That was really my only worry about it - my last experience with an unfinished book was My Lord John by Georgette Heyer and that ends in the middle of a sentence!

JoAnn 2/8/10, 7:43 AM  

Have just added this to my audible wishlist. I really enjoyed listening to Great Expectations a few months ago, and am sure I'll be ready for another audio classic soon!

bermudaonion 2/8/10, 9:53 AM  

I usually don't like the endings other authors patch onto unfinished books, so I'd be like you - glad that they just ended it with the author's notes. This does sound interesting.

Stacy 2/8/10, 12:38 PM  

Very interesting to hear about the ending. I have this on my tbr list for the year and I am glad to know how it was handled.

Amy 2/8/10, 12:40 PM  

I read Wives and Daughters years ago and loved it. It was a long read but very much worth it.

Julie P. 2/8/10, 12:49 PM  

I haven't read this book, but I like how they didn't rework the ending. Still holding true to what the author intended is wonderful!

S. Krishna 2/8/10, 2:15 PM  

This is a book I want to pick up. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous,  2/8/10, 5:30 PM  

I've wanted to read Wives & Daughters for awhile--I had no idea though that it was never finished!

Violet 2/8/10, 11:02 PM  

I didn't know the ending was cut short but really glad to know that it ties up the important points. I will definitely pick this book sometime.

Carrie K. 2/9/10, 6:06 PM  

I'm still making my way through this one via DailyLit - it's very good, though a bit slower-moving than an Austen, in my opinion. Still enjoying it, though - and Mrs. Gibson drives me crazy! That passive-aggressive style of manipulation is just wicked.

Lisa 2/9/10, 11:58 PM  

The narration makes such a difference in a book when it's audio. I've gotten a little leary of picking them up. Good to know that this one's well read.

Heather 2/10/10, 7:48 AM  

I've had this book on my shelf for years, waiting for me to find the time to read it. Maybe I should have bought the audio! I hope to get to it someday, you make it sound interesting.

Margot 2/10/10, 1:02 PM  

I just read my first Gaskell book (Cranford) a few months ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I'm ready for another one. You've convinced me to read Wives and Daughters, perhaps on audio.

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