Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: Wives and Daughters; Part I of IV

First Impressions

This is possibly the longest book I’ve ever attempted, clocking in at 620 pages.  Of course, some of the Harry Potter books are equally long, but there is a vast difference between that kind of light reading and more literary fare – which is not to disparage HP at all, as it remains one of my favorite series of all time!  Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is long; so long, in fact, that I have chosen to divide its 60 chapters into four parts, and review it piece by piece.  In addition, it is a slow read: these first fifteen chapters (170 pages) have taken me about three weeks.  Now, I’m a fast reader, so this is really unusual.  It will probably take me several months to finish.  Yet despite its length, reading this book is not a slog or a struggle, but a joy.

This is a book that unfolds slowly.  Not very much happened in these 170 pages, but ah! the language is beautiful and the characterization sublime.  There is a nice mix of “telling” and “showing,” and at this point in the novel, I have begun to get an idea of the major characters’ personalities, as well as see room for change and growth.  The prose (and, of course, characters’ speech) is quaint and old-fashioned by today’s standards, but this contributes to the immersive quality of the reading.  And this novel is clever.  Its wittiness is subtle and understated, so I’m sure I missed many of the jokes – but those I picked up on left me utterly delighted.  For example:

“There was Mr Ashton, the vicar, who had succeeded Mr Browning, a thoroughly good and kind-hearted man, but one without an original though in him; whose habitual courtesy and indolent mind led him to agree to every opinion not palpably heterodox, and to utter platitudes in the most gentlemanly manner.  Mr Gibson had once or twice amused himself by leading the vicar on in his agreeable admissions of arguments ‘as perfectly convincing’, and of statements as ‘curious but undoubted’, till he had planted the poor clergyman in a bog of heretical bewilderment.  But then Mr Ashton’s pain and suffering at suddenly finding out into what a theological predicament he had been brought, his real self-reproach at his previous admissions, were so great that Mr Gibson lost all sense of fun, and hastened back to the Thirty-nine Articles with all the good-will in life, as the only means of soothing the vicar’s conscience.” (36)

There is, so far, a rather large cast of characters, and at times it was hard to keep a few of the minor characters straight.  The novel centers around Molly Gibson, who is seventeen when the book begins.  She is relatively uneducated and lacking in the social graces she would need to move in higher society.  Molly has moments of rebelliousness and impetulance, due to her strong sense of right and wrong and her willingness to speak out when she feels a friend has been slighted.  Her father, Mr Gibson, is a community doctor, the sort who travels to his patients, and her mother died when Molly was very small.  Molly and her father are extremely close, and the drama of this first quarter of the book comes from Molly’s distress when her father decides to remarry one Mrs Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, the former governess of the local noble family, the Cumnors.  Hyacinth has a daughter of Molly’s age, whom we have not yet met, as her mother decided not to recall Cynthia from school in Europe for the wedding.  There is much natural awkwardness between Molly and her new stepmother, but Hyacinth shows signs of causing much future distress.  Hyacinth is lazy and jealous and, having spent so much time with the Cumnors, has grown accustomed to their expensive lifestyle.  Her desire to live well and expectation that Mr Gibson will provide everything she desires may foreshadow disastrous delusions of grandeur or perhaps the ruin of the family.

Like an Austen novel, this book is concerned largely with domestic affairs.  Molly’s living arrangements and her occasional visits to other households formed most of the plot for this first section.  Molly visits the Cumnors’ estate for the first time, finding herself overwhelmed by the grandness of the place and her own social shortcomings.  Mr Gibson then sends her to live with Squire Hamley and his wife for the dual purpose of removing his daughter from the vicinity of his love-struck pupil and providing a companion for Mrs Hamley, who is weak and frail.  In the days leading up to the wedding, Molly stays with the Misses Browning, friends of her father, who have an entertaining (though surely annoying to Molly) tendency to gossip and fawn over the nobility.  The other two characters that I suspect I shall need to keep an eye on are the two Hamley sons, Osborne and Roger.  Squire Hamley is terribly frightened that Osborne, his eldest son and heir, may meet Molly and fall in love with her.  Molly, in his opinion, is lowborn and unworthy (despite the Squire’s obvious pleasure in Molly’s company).  Class issues are likely to remain a major theme of this novel.  The younger son, Roger, does become acquainted with Molly and I daresay they have struck up a meaningful friendship.  His advice to “try to think more of others than of oneself” (111) changes Molly profoundly.  Neither is interested in the other romantically, though I wonder how long that will last.  He also, and this made me laugh, brings her a wasps’-nest as a present – how romantic!

Things to consider:
How far do the similarities to Jane Austen's writing extend?  How will this book unfold?  I'm largely concerned that Molly's new goal of thinking of others first will mean that her own needs are left unaddressed.  The book is titled "Wives and Daughters" - does Molly ever receive the chance to move into the former category?

Things I'm reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed

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