Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell's last novel, is regarded by many as her masterpiece. Molly Gibson is the daughter of the doctor in the small provincial town of Hollingford. Her widowed father marries a second time to give Molly the woman's presence he feels she lacks, but until the arrival of Cynthia, her dazzling stepsister, Molly finds her situation hard to accept. Intertwined with the story of the Gibsons is that of Squire Hamley and his two sons. As Molly grows up and falls in love, she learns to judge people for what they are, not what they seem. Through Molly's observations the hierarchies, social values, and social changes of early-nineteenth-century English life are made vivid in a novel that is timeless in its representation of human relationships.
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About the Author
Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) was a London-born author whose works include the novels Mary Barton, North and South, and Cranford, as well as her famous biography The Life of Charlotte Brontë.
British actress and narrator Josephine Bailey has won ten AudioFile Earphones Awards and a prestigious Audie Award, and Publishers Weekly named her Best Female Narrator in 2002.
Read an Excerpt
THE DAWN OF A GALA DAY.
To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room — a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself "as sure as clockwork," and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.
On the drawers opposite to the little white dimity bed in which Molly Gibson lay, was a primitive kind of bonnet-stand on which was hung a bonnet, carefully covered over from any chance of dust, with a large cotton handkerchief, of so heavy and serviceable a texture that if the thing underneath it had been a flimsy fabric of gauze and lace and flowers, it would have been altogether "scomfished" (again to quote from Betty's vocabulary). But the bonnet was made of solid straw, and its only trimming was a plain white ribbon put over the crown, and forming the strings. Still, there was a neat little quilling inside, every plait of which Molly knew, for had she not made it herself the evening before, with infinite pains? and was there not a little blue bow in this quilling, the very first bit of such finery Molly had ever had the prospect of wearing?
Six o'clock now! the pleasant, brisk ringing of the church bells told that; calling every one to their daily work, as they had done for hundreds of years. Up jumped Molly, and ran with her bare little feet across the room, and lifted off the handkerchief and saw once again the bonnet; the pledge of the gay bright day to come. Then to the window, and after some tugging she opened the casement, and let in the sweet morning 9,ir. The dew was already off the flowers in the garden below, but still rising from the long hay-grass in the meadows directly beyond. At one side lay the little town of Hollingford, into a street of which Mr. Gibson's front door opened; and delicate columns, and little puffs of smoke were already beginning to rise from many a cottage chimney where some housewife was already up, and preparing breakfast for the bread-winner of the family.
Molly Gibson saw all this, but all she thought about it was, "Oh! it will be a fine day! I was afraid it never, never would come; or that, if it ever came, it would be a rainy day!" Five-and-forty years ago, children's pleasures in a country town were very simple, and Molly had lived for twelve long years without the occurrence of any event so great as that which was now impending. Poor child! it is true that she had lost her mother, which was a jar to the whole tenour of her life; but that was hardly an event in the sense referred to; and besides, she had been too young to be conscious of it at the time. The pleasure she was looking forward to to-day was her first share in a kind of annual festival in Hollingford.
The little straggling town faded away into country on one side close to the entrance-lodge of a great park, where lived my Lord and Lady Cumnor: "the earl" and "the countess," as they were always called by the inhabitants of the town; where a very pretty amount of feudal feeling still lingered, and showed itself in a number of simple ways, droll enough to look back upon, but serious matters of importance at the time. It was before the passing of the Reform Bill, but a good deal of liberal talk took place occasionally between two or three of the more enlightened freeholders living in Hollingford; and there was a great Tory family in the county who, from time to time, came forward and contested the election with the rival Whig family of Cumnor. One would have thought that the above-mentioned liberal-talking inhabitants would have, at least, admitted the possibility of their voting for the Hely-Harrison, and thus trying to vindicate their independence. But no such thing. "The earl" was lord of the manor, and owner of much of the land on which Hollingford was built; he and his household were fed, and doctored, and, to a certain measure, clothed by the good people of the town; their fathers' grandfathers had always voted for the eldest son of Cumnor Towers, and following in the ancestral track, every man-jack in the place gave his vote to the liege lord, totally irrespective of such chimeras as political opinion.
This was no unusual instance of the influence of the great landowners over humbler neighbours in those days before railways, and it was well for a place where the powerful family, who thus overshadowed it, were of so respectable a character as the Cumnors. They expected to be submitted to, and obeyed; the simple worship of the townspeople was accepted by the earl and countess as a right; and they would have stood still in amazement, and with a horrid memory of the French sansculottes who were the bugbears of their youth, had any inhabitant of Hollingford ventured to set his will or opinions in opposition to those of the earl. But, yielded all that obeisance, they did a good deal for the town, and were generally condescending, and often thoughtful and kind in their treatment of their vassals. Lord Cumnor was a forbearing landlord; putting his steward a little on one side sometimes, and taking the reins into his own hands now and then, much to the annoyance of the agent, who was, in fact, too rich and independent to care greatly for preserving a post where his decisions might any day be overturned by my lord's taking a fancy to go "pottering" (as the agent irreverently expressed it in the sanctuary of his own home), which, being interpreted, meant that occasionally the earl asked his own questions of his own tenants, and used his own eyes and ears in the management of the smaller details of his property. But his tenants liked my lord all the better for this habit of his. Lord Cumnor had certainly a little time for gossip, which he contrived to combine with the failing of personal intervention between the old land-steward and the tenantry. But, then, the countess made up by her unapproachable dignity for this weakness of the earl's. Once a year she was condescending. She and the ladies, her daughters, had set up a school; not a school after the manner of schools now-a-days, where far better intellectual teaching is given to the boys and girls of labourers and workpeople than often falls to the lot of their betters in worldly estate; but a school of the kind we should call "industrial," where girls are taught to sew beautifully, to be capital housemaids, and pretty fair cooks, and, above all, to dress neatly in a kind of charity uniform devised by the ladies of Cumnor Towers; — white caps, white tippets, check aprons, blue gowns, and ready curtseys, and "please, ma'ams," being de rigueur.
Now, as the countess was absent from the Towers for a considerable part of the year, she was glad to enlist the sympathy of the Hollingford ladies in this school, with a view to obtaining their aid as visitors during the many months that she and her daughters were away. And the various unoccupied gentlewomen of the town responded to the call of their liege lady, and gave her their service as required; and along with it, a great deal of whispered and fussy admiration. "How good of the countess! So like the dear countess — always thinking of others!" and so on; while it was always supposed that no strangers had seen Hollingford properly, unless they had been taken to the countess's school, and been duly impressed by .the neat little pupils, and the still neater needlework there to be inspected. In return, there was a day of honour set apart every summer, when with much gracious and stately hospitality, Lady Cumnor and her daughters received all the school visitors at the Towers, the great family mansion standing in aristocratic seclusion in the centre of the large park, of which one of the lodges was close to the little town. The order of this annual festivity was this. About ten o'clock one of the Towers' carriages rolled through the lodge, and drove to different houses, wherein dwelt a woman to be honoured; picking them up by ones or twos, till the loaded carriage drove back again through the ready portals, bowled along the smooth tree-shaded road, and deposited its covey of smartly-dressed ladies on the great flight of steps leading to the ponderous doors of Cumnor Towers. Back again to the town; another picking up of womankind in their best clothes, and another return, and so on till the whole party were assembled either in the house or in the really beautiful gardens. After the proper amount of exhibition on the one part, and admiration on the other, had been done, there was a collation for the visitors, and some more display and admiration of the treasures inside the house. Towards four o'clock, coffee was brought round; and this was a signal of the approaching carriage that was to take them back to their own homes; whither they returned with the happy consciousness of a well-spent day, but with some fatigue at the long-continued exertion of behaving their best, and talking on stilts for so many hours. Nor were Lady Cumnor and her daughters free from something of the same self-approbation, and something, too, of the same fatigue; the fatigue that always follows on conscious efforts to behave as will best please the society you are in.
For the first time in her life, Molly Gibson was to be included among the guests at the Towers. She was much too young to be a visitor at the school, so it was not on that account that she was to go; but it had so happened that one day when Lord Cumnor was on a "pottering" expedition, he had met Mr. Gibson, the doctor of the neighbourhood, coming out of the farm-house my lord was entering; and having some small question to ask the surgeon (Lord Cumnor seldom passed any one of his acquaintance without asking a question of some sort — not always attending to the answer; it was his mode of conversation), he accompanied Mr. Gibson to the out-building, to a ring in the wall of which the surgeon's horse was fastened. Molly was there too, sitting square and quiet on her rough little pony, waiting for her father. Her grave eyes opened large and wide at the close neighbourhood and evident advance of "the earl;" for to her little imagination the grey-haired, red-faced" somewhat clumsy man, was a cross between an archangel and a king.
"Your daughter, eh, Gibson? — nice little girl, how old? Pony wants grooming though," patting it as he talked. "What's your name, my dear? He's sadly behindhand with his rent, as I was saying, but if he's really ill, I must see, after Sheepshanks, who is a hardish man of business. What's his complaint? You'll come to our school-scrimmage on Thursday, little girl — what's-your-name? Mind you send her, or bring her, Gibson; and just give a word to your groom, for I'm sure that pony wasn't singed last year, now, was he? Don't forget Thursday, little girl — what's-your-name? — it's a promise between us, is it not?" And off the earl trotted, attracted by the sight of the farmer's eldest son on the other side of the yard.
Mr. Gibson mounted, and he and Molly rode off. They did not speak for some time. Then she said, "May I go, papa?" in rather an anxious little tone of voice.
"Where, my dear?" said he, wakening up out of his own professional thoughts.
"To the Towers — on Thursday, you know. That gentleman" (she was shy of calling him by his title) "asked me."
"Would you like it, my dear? It has always seemed to me rather a tiresome piece of gaiety — rather a tiring day, I mean — beginning so early — and the heat, and all that."
"Oh, papa!" said Molly reproachfully.
"You'd like to go then, would you?"
"Yes; if I may! — He asked me, you know. Don't you think I may? — he asked me twice over."
"Well! we'll see — yes! I think we can manage it, if you wish it so much, Molly."
Then they were silent again. By-and-by, Molly said —
"Please, papa — I do wish to go — but I don't care about it."
"That's rather a puzzling speech. But I suppose you mean you don't care to go, if it will be any trouble to get you there. I can easily manage it, however, so you may consider it settled. You'll want a white frock, remember; you'd better tell Betty you're going, and she'll see after making you tidy."
Now, there were two or three things to be done by Mr. Gibson, before he could feel quite comfortable about Molly's going to the festival at the Towers, and each of them involved a little trouble on his part. But he was very willing to gratify his little girl; so the next day he rode over to the Towers, ostensibly to visit some sick housemaid, but, in reality, to throw himself in my lady's way, and get her to ratify Lord Cumnor's invitation to Molly. He chose his time, with a little natural diplomacy; which, indeed, he had often to exercise in his intercourse with the great family. He rode into the stable-yard about twelve o'clock, a little before luncheon-time, and yet after the worry of opening the post-bag and discussing its contents was over. After he had put up his horse, he went in by the back-way to the house; the " House" on this side, the "Towers" at the front. He saw his patient, gave his directions to the housekeeper, and then went out, with a rare wild-flower in his hand, to find one of the ladies Tranmere in the garden, where, according to his hope and calculation, he came upon Lady Cumnor too, — now talking to her daughter about the contents of an open letter which she held in her hand, now directing a gardener about certain bedding-out plants.
"I was calling to see Nanny, and I took the opportunity of bringing Lady Agnes the plant I was telling her about as growing on Cumnor Moss."
"Thank you so much, Mr. Gibson. Mamma, look! this is the Drosera rotundifolia I have been wanting so long."
"Ah! yes; very pretty I daresay, only I am no botanist. Nanny is better, I hope? We can't have any one laid up next week, for the house will be quite full of people, — and here are the Danbys waiting to offer themselves as well. One comes down for a fortnight of quiet, at Whitsuntide, and leaves half one's establishment in town, and as soon as people know of our being here, we get letters without end, longing for a breath of country air, or saying how lovely the Towers must look in spring; and I must own, Lord Cumnor is a great deal to blame for it all, for as soon as ever we are down here, he rides about to all the neighbours, and invites them to come over and spend a few days."
"We shall go back to town on Friday the 18th," said Lady Agnes, in a consolatory tone.
"Ah, yes! as soon as we have got over the school visitors' affair. But it is a week to that happy day."
"By the way!" said Mr. Gibson, availing himself of the good opening thus presented, " I met my lord at the Cross-trees Farm yesterday, and he was kind enough to ask my little daughter, who was with me, to be one of the party here on Thursday; it would give the lassie great pleasure, I believe." He paused for Lady Cumnor to speak.
"Oh, well! if my lord asked her, I suppose she must come, but I wish he was not so amazingly hospitable! Not but what the little girl will be quite welcome; only, you see, he met a younger Miss Browning the other day, of whose existence I had never heard."
Excerpted from "Wives and Daughters"
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Table of Contents
I. THE DAWN OF A GALA DAY
II. A NOVICE AMONGST THE GREAT FOLK
III. MOLLY GIBSON'S CHILDHOOD
IV. MR. GIBSON'S NEIGHBOURS
VI. A VISIT TO THE HAMLEYS
VII. FORESHADOWS OF LOVE PERILS
VIII. DRIFTING INTO DANGER
IX. THE WIDOWER AND THE WIDOW
X. A CRISIS
XI. MAKING FRIENDSHIP
XII. PREPARING FOR THE WEDDING
XIII. MOLLY GIBSON'S NEW FRIENDS
XIV. MOLLY FINDS HERSELF PATRONISED
XV. THE NEW MAMMA
XVI. THE BRIDE AT HOME
XVII. TROUBLE AT HAMLEY HALL
XVIII. MR. OSBORNE'S SECRET
XIX. CYNTHIA'S ARRIVAL
XX. MRS. GIBSON'S VISITORS
XXI. THE HALF-SISTERS
XXII. THE OLD SQUIRE'S TROUBLES
XXIII. OSBORNE HAMLEY REVIEWS HIS POSITION
XXIV. MRS. GIBSON'S LITTLE DINNER
XXV. HOLLINGFORD IN A BUSTLE
XXVI. A CHARITY BALL
XXVII. FATHER AND SONS
XXX. OLD WAYS AND NEW WAYS
XXXI. A PASSIVE COQUETTE
XXXII. COMING EVENTS
XXXIII. BRIGHTENING PROSPECTS
XXXIV. A LOVER'S MISTAKE
XXXV. THE MOTHER'S MANŒUVRE
XXXVI. DOMESTIC DIPLOMACY
XXXVII. A FLUKE, AND WHAT CAME OF IT
XXXVIII. MR. KIRKPATRICK, Q.C.
XXXIX. SECRET THOUGHTS OOZE OUT
XL. MOLLY GIBSON BREATHES FREELY
XLI. GATHERING CLOUDS
XLII. THE STORM BURSTS
XLIII. CYNTHIA'S CONFESSION
XLIV. MOLLY GIBSON TO THE RESCUE
XLVI. HOLLINGFORD GOSSIPS
XLVII. SCANDAL AND ITS VICTIMS
XLVIII. AN INNOCENT CULPRIT
XLIX. MOLLY GIBSON FINDS A CHAMPION
L. CYNTHIA AT BAY
LI. "TROUBLES NEVER COME ALONE"
LII. SQUIRE HAMLEY'S SORROW
LIII. UNLOOKED-FOR ARRIVALS
LIV. MOLLY GIBSON'S WORTH IS DISCOVERED
LV. AN ABSENT LOVER RETURNS
LVI. "OFF WITH THE OLD LOVE, AND ON WITH THE NEW"
LVII. BRIDAL VISITS AND ADIEUX
LVIII. REVIVING HOPES AND BRIGHTENING PROSPECTS
LIX. MOLLY GIBSON AT HAMLEY HALL
LX. ROGER HAMLEY'S CONFESSION
CONCLUDING REMARKS [By the Editor of the "Cornhill Magazine."]
What People are Saying About This
"No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority."