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Tremendously popular in her lifetime, Elizabeth Gaskell has often been overshadowed by her contemporaries the Brontës and George Eliot. Yet the reputation of her long-neglected masterpiece Wives and Daughters continues to grow, fulfilling Henry James’s prophecy that the novel would “continue for years to come to be read and relished . . .so delicately, so elaborately, so artistically, so truthfully, and heartily is the story wrought out.”
An enchanting tale of romance, scandal, and intrigue in the gossipy English town of Hollingford around the 1830s, Wives and Daughters tells the story of Molly Gibson, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a widowed country doctor. When her father remarries, she forms a close friendship with her new stepsister—the beautiful and worldly Cynthia—until they become love rivals for the affections of Squire Hamley’s sons, Osbourne and Roger. When sudden illness and death reveal some secrets while shrouding others in even deeper mystery, Molly feels that the world is out of joint and it is up to her—trusted by all but listened to by none—to set it right.
Amy M. King is Assistant Professor of English at St. John’s University in New York City and the author of Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel (Oxford University Press, 2003).
About the Author
Tremendously popular in her lifetime, the books of the English author Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) have often been overshadowed by her contemporaries the Brontës and George Eliot. Yet the reputation of her long-neglected masterpiece Wives and Daughters continues to grow. Gaskell wrote six novels in all — of which North and South and Cranford remain two of the best known — as well as numerous short stories, novellas, and a biography of her great friend Charlotte Brontё.
Read an Excerpt
From Amy M. King’s Introduction to Wives and Daughters
The novelist Henry James, in his review of Wives and Daughters (1866) written in the wake of Elizabeth Gaskell’s death, praises Gaskell’s “genius” and pronounces that the novel is “one of the very best novels of its kind” (“Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell,” pp. 1019–1020; see “For Further Reading”). In the review, quoted above, James mingles praise with warnings to his imaginary readers that they might at first find the book dull, but that which was dull would soon enough prove to be the foundation of a strong investment in—even love for—the novel’s heroine. James’s mingled but nevertheless high praise seems to have emerged from his belief that although Gaskell’s novels displayed “a minimum of head,” describing her writing style this way was a compliment to Gaskell’s “personal character,” rather than an indictment of her “intellect.” Whether one chooses on Gaskell’s behalf to be affronted or flattered by James’s review is less important, I would suggest, than parsing the review to better understand how Victorian novels known to be written by women were received by their readers. One thing we learn from James’s review is that the register for praise (and not just criticism) is related to gender. Even though James thinks highly of Wives and Daughters, he cannot forget that it is written by a woman, and would likely not think to try—which may not so much detract from his reading of the novel as condition his reading of the novel. And so with James’s emphasis on Gaskell’s facility with “domestic facts,” her adeptness with “minutiae,” and her evocation of a reader’s feelings rather than the promotion of understanding, each skill that is singled out is in some sense a stereotype of women’s interests and talents. The praise, that is, emphasizes the author’s femininity. James mentions the “gentle skill” Gaskell uses to slowly involve the reader “in the tissue of the story,” her “lightness of touch,” and the “delicacy of the handwork” she uses to perfect the “net” that ultimately entangles the reader in the novel.
James’s review may emphasize that the author is female, but, unlike our own contemporary obsession with the target demographics for various art forms—“chick-lit” and “chick-flicks,” to name two current monikers—it does not assume or even believe that the audience of the novel is necessarily female. If anything, James projects a male reader, one who will feel what he calls an “almost fraternal relation” to the heroine Molly Gibson. Elizabeth Gaskell was, as Henry James allows, a “lady-novelist,” but one who excites every “reader’s very warmest admiration.” Our contemporary concern for deemphasizing an author’s gender when evaluating art, while often simultaneously emphasizing who is meant to consume it, was not shared by the mid-Victorians. James’s review reflects this, as does the considerable attention Gaskell gave to what we now call the “packaging” of her first novel. Like her good friend Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell had sought a male pseudonym to use for her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), even though her publisher had suggested that the novel would be more popular if it was known to be the work of “a lady” (Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, p. 183). The account that Jenny Uglow, one of Gaskell’s biographers, gives of the publishing process suggests that Gaskell was invested in the commercial presentation of the novel; Uglow speculates that Gaskell “may have felt that a man’s name (like the proposed title, “John Barton”) would make the readers take the politics of the book more seriously.” Gaskell agonized about the choice of the male pseudonym until she chose—too late—the name “Stephen Berwick” (Uglow, pp. 187–188). In the end, Mary Barton was published anonymously, but, having caused considerable controversy, the identity of its author was soon known and celebrated. Henceforth, Elizabeth Gaskell would publish her novels, if not quite in her own name, under her married appellation of “Mrs. Gaskell.”
To read Wives and Daughters today is to forget perhaps the extraordinary opportunity that writing fiction presented to Victorian women. The book trade during the period was a profoundly commercial enterprise. And unlike in earlier periods, the arts were divorced from either university ties or elite patronage, which particularly benefited women writers. Writing literature was one of the very few professional pursuits open to women in Victorian society. Elizabeth Gaskell was connected to a broad literary community of women, many of whom were her friends and some of whom she actively promoted with her own connections. This circle, which included Charlotte Brontë, Geraldine Jewsbury, Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Caroline Clive, reads like a list of the most popular and important female literary figures of the day. And yet it would be a mistake to assume that a novel such as Wives and Daughters is solely the province of the female reader. Our contemporary perspective might look to the title Wives and Daughters and think the book is directed to the female reader, even though the title was most likely influenced by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862). The conventional assumption about novels, and romance plots and domestic narratives in particular, is that women make up their primary audience; indeed, the stereotype of the woman who reads too many novels, and becomes sick from “gorging” on too many delicious reads, originated in the eighteenth century and circulated widely in the Victorian period. And yet a host of descriptions, anecdotal evidence, figures from circulating libraries, and surveys about book ownership and reading habits suggest that men were as avid novel readers as women. And indeed what, exactly, in the novel marks it out for the female reader? As will become apparent as you read the novel and the following discussion, the work of Elizabeth Gaskell cannot be slotted into contemporary demographic readerships, but rather is inviting—as Henry James himself said—to anyone interested in an “‘everyday story’ . . . in an everyday style.”