Wives and Daughters – Gaskell’s and Austen’s

Cynthia is like Zippy from British children’s cult TV show Rainbow – the naughty one is definitely the most lovable

Wives and Daughters is more akin to being penned by the friend of Jane Austen than Charlotte Bronte. It is without the gothic supernatural brooding harshness of the Bronte’s books. Like Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell has an ironic, satirical, witty eye for her society – largely that of the various ranks gentlefolk and aristocracy. It is surprising that Gaskell wrote Wives and Daughters and North and South which, with its political northern setting and convention defying, makes it clear to see why Gaskell and Charlotte were kindred spirits. Bronte is quoted to have disliked Austen’s work, yet her biographer and friend has written something very much of its ilk.

The plight of the heirless widow – a central theme in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility – is there in Wives and Daughters, as is that of a gentleman loving a woman of a lesser family. Reputations and honour are key to both Austen and Wives and Daughters; a lady’s public opinion is so easily made into a scandal, and as such forms a major part of the dramatic narrative.

Like Pride and Prejudice, there is a strong father-daughter affection in contrast to a foolish mother and wayward sister (the last is also found in Sense and Sensibility). The heroine of Wives and Daughters, Molly, is a high moraled, near perfect woman who suppresses her own love so not to betray the confidence of another’s long term secret engagement. In that way, she is much like Elinor from Sense and Sensibility. Despite both Molly and Elinor being the heroines, their wayward sisters are more interesting.

Yet in Pride and Prejudice, the placid good sister is not the heroine. The real excesses are given to Lydia, but Elizabeth has the mixture of passion and decorum which makes her so popular with readers. She too falls for the villainous man – Wickham – who is instrumental in the near ruin of her sister; but Austen’s other heroines (and Molly) fall for the good, kind, brotherly character (Mr Knightly in Emma, Edmund in Mansfield Park; Edward in Sense and Sensibility).

Eliza Bennett has not only family connections but a passionate dislike to overcome  in her romance. In Wives and Daughters, the ultimate match between Roger and Molly is merely two boringly good people finding each other at last. Roger and Molly are not the stuff of literary fantasy like Elizabeth and Darcy (or Jane Eyre and Rochester). More flawed than Eliza Bennett, Cynthia Kirkpatrick has our understanding and sympathy.

One of my favourite things about Wives and Daughters is that it’s about dysfunctional families – a diachronic phenomenon – with real, rounded, flawed yet lovable characters. Mrs Gibson continues that pantomime dame-like quality found in adaptations of Austen, but she has more rationale than Austen’s dames. She is a widow whose poverty forces her into work. She struggles with being a single working mother (again, a suitably modern theme) and put respectability before all else. So she hastily marries a handsome widower who is strict on professional secrets but relaxed on how his household should be run, whereas she is the reverse. The new Mrs Gibson finds her daughter being contrasted with her step child – homely, obedient stay-at-home Molly and the beautiful, accomplished, travelled, secretive Cynthia. Mrs Gibson realises her own neglect to her daughter through the close relationship that her new husband enjoys with Molly.

I am not sure how we are meant to view Molly’s father: as she does, almost perfect? My own view is that he is far from it. Dr Gibson’s work comes before family; although this may be his method for compensating for the loss of his first wife, it comes between him and his new wife immediately. He has a tendency to be severe on the women in his life. He is overprotective, surly to his daughter’s suitors, and often chauvinistic and unreasonable – even unkind – and needs to learn to let go. Twice, he reveals a temper problem.

Molly’s misery is brought on herself because her so called virtue of keeping her feelings for Roger secret were her choice to repress. As Cynthia says several times that her love for Molly is superlative, I believe Cynthia would have given Roger up if she had realised the feelings of her friend for him.

Cynthia is as good for Molly as the reverse. Cynthia’s opening speech is that she is not a very good person. But there are several occasions when despite what she believes and others reinforce, she shows that she has many qualities. Molly rushes to meet Cynthia for the fist time, but it is Cynthia who simply hugs her new sister and insists on ceasing the polite civilities to acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation. Unlike her mother, Cynthia comforts Molly at the death of Mrs Hamley, simply holding her friend’s hand. Cynthia speaks her mind to her mother when her mother has behaved dreadfully. She breaks off the engagement to Roger of her own volition when she feels it is no longer fair to him to remain so. She immediately tells Mr Cox that she’s already engaged when he proposes. Dr Gibson calls her callous but it is the men falling for her and proposing on so little an acquaintance or encouragement which led to that pain and embarrassment – as much for Cynthia as for the rejected suitor. As she says, her manner is one which men fall for, whether she intends to encourage them or not. To know Cynthia is to love her. Molly tells father she does, although confesses she doesn’t understand her.

It is Cynthia and Molly’s relationship which is central to the story, not the romances. Cynthia frequently proclaims that she has not the gift of loving as some people, and that she has never fallen head over heels for anyone. But she often states her affection for Molly – although that is not in love feeling, she qualifies, although it is the nearest we see to passion in the story – the physical contact, the murmurings of love, the rush to return to Molly’s sickbed and the love that restores her. Could Cynthia’s lack of enthusiasm for men be because she prefers women? Someone who is independent, strong willed, flirtatious and loves to be adored seems unlikely to be incapable of passion. Can someone who excites such wild admiration in others be incapable of feeling the same for anyone else?

If I had finished off Gaskell’s book, it would have not been hurriedly tied up as in the Andrew Davies 1999 television script; nor letting the important friendship tail off after Cynthia’s hasty marriage to an attorney whom we know nothing about. The Cornhill Editor’s postscript presumes that we know that Roger and Molly will marry, and that this is the reader’s chief interest. This editor did not anticipate me!

I had thought that the novel ends on a cliffhanger, but now I am content without further chapters. Roger is not to allowed to speak to Molly as she is in quarantine; he is about to go to dangerous Africa, and has not yet declared his love for Molly. Roger tells Molly’s father than if he does not come back alive to propose that his ghost will haunt Dr Gibson. The 1999 TV adaptation has Molly chase the coach (Gaskell has her content with her friend’s wave) and Roger disembark it. But what if he wrote to her from Africa, and they exchange their love by letter – but it is the last that Roger sends? What if that ghost has cause to haunt? And what if Molly goes to Cynthia for comfort…? Perhaps this is a tale of how overprotection and high morals and sacrifice lead to misery.

Worse is that the TV series misses out Cynthia’s restoration by rushing home to seriously ill Molly which helps Molly recover, and earning the sparing praise of her stepfather.

Cynthia says: ‘I am not good, but I may be the heroine of this story yet’.

It is my intention to make her so.

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