Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Wives and Daughters, Second and Final Post

When I first started Elizabeth Gaskell’s very long Wives and Daughters (1865-1866) a few months ago, I decided to read it in four parts, stopping every fifteen chapters to pause and reflect.  In my first of four intended posts, I wrote about my first impressions of several of the major characters, and my joy in Gaskell’s subtle wit.  I talked about it being a domestic drama, in the vein of Jane Austen’s novels, and I discussed the slow unfolding of plot and absolutely gorgeous language.  Realizing that the book was so long that I wouldn’t finish it before the library’s copy came due, I found a copy of that same great Everyman edition of my own for $1 (!) (plus shipping) online.  Huzzah!  This did, however, cause me to set it aside for a while.  I finally picked it back up again for the Victorian Celebration, but all the traveling I did in July meant that I had a lot less reading time than I expected.  When I did reach the next self-imposed stopping point, I didn’t actually feel like stopping.  The further I got into the book, the more it grabbed me.  Plot picked up, secrets were hinted at and finally revealed, and things got more and more desperate for our quiet and self-effacing heroine.

Which brings us to now: once we moved to Durham, in the midst of all of our unpacking and acclimating, I found myself devouring Gaskell’s beautiful novel.  It didn’t feel slow and ponderous anymore.  Reading Wives and Daughters in Durham suddenly felt like a breath of fresh air, a time to sit calmly, immersed in what is now one of my favorite books.  I must have gone through a good fifty to a hundred pages a day – and those are dense pages!  For several days, my husband kept hearing variations on “It’s so good, and I’m almost at the end!”  Of course, I still had about fifty pages to go…but the end was so close; I could practically taste the happy ending!  So I sped through them and realized something terrible.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before she could complete Wives and Daughters, her masterpiece.  Her death was a devastating loss to the literary world; she was only a chapter or two away from the end of possibly the most underrated classic I’ve yet encountered.  Happily, readers aren’t left at a total loss.  Conflicts have all pretty much been resolved, and it’s pretty clear what is left to come for a truly happy ending.  Concluding remarks by the editor of the magazine that was publishing Wives and Daughters serially reveal the final events yet to come; apparently Gaskell had planned out the end of her novel and shared these details.  But it’s still dreadfully disappointing to come to the end of a novel that unfolded so slowly and beautifully and be left unable to read those final touching scenes.  The whole point of Wives and Daughters, after all, isn’t a rush through plot events.  Plot moves so slowly because Gaskell has so much to say about each event, about society and its responses, about each and every character’s reactions and choices.  I was left so sad that I had to hear synopses of these final conversations, instead of reading what were sure to be Gaskell’s typically tender, clever, or gently mocking prose.

It makes me wonder how many other fantastic novels were left unfinished due to their authors’ deaths.  If it is common for an author’s last book to be his or her masterpiece, how many of these masterpieces are ever completed?  I know that Jane Austen left a book uncompleted.  Do you know of any others?  Have you read them, and are they complete enough (or just good enough) to make them worth the disappointment of being left hanging?

I kind of feel bad for not having much more to say about Wives and Daughters, especially because I loved it so much.  One day, hopefully within a few years, I’ll read it again and find myself better able to focus on recurring images, themes, or social commentary.  I’ll talk about its discussion of weakness versus wickedness, and what makes someone good or heroic.  I’ll think about what it has to say about pride and naïveté, wealth and classism.  But this time through, I didn’t take notes.  I just enjoyed Wives and Daughters as an absolutely sublime novel.  If you haven’t read it before, please put it on your list!  But be aware: it is very long, over 600 slow pages, and it takes a while for the plot to really get exciting.  It would make the perfect project for a sleepy winter break, or a vacation in a quiet spot that affords lots of reading time.  Also, although I am a total advocate for reading library books, I really think that unless you’re planning to speed-read through Wives and Daughters and thus miss a lot of its beauty, it would be worth it to find your own copy somewhere, so you can take your time to really savor it.

Books I’ve completed (reviews forthcoming):
Nectar in a Sieve, Kamala Markandaya
Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Geraldine Brooks

Books I’m currently reading:
If Minds Had Toes, Lucy Eyre
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain (audiobook)
The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
The Stripping of the Altars, Eamon Duffy
William Byrd and His Contemporaries, Philip Brett
Tricks of the Trade, Harold Becker


  1. All right, you've convinced me to read it again. I sped through it many years ago, but have been wanting to give it an honest-to-goodness re-read, taking my time. Have you seen the mini-series? I remember liking it, but I saw it so long after I sped through the book, I can't remember how faithful it is.

    1. There's a mini-series? That's so excellent! I'll have to find it, though I may wait a little while so I can enjoy it without criticizing it for changing small details from the book. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention!