Although Cranford (1851-1853), Elizabeth Gaskell’s idyll of village life, was probably her most popular work, scholars and critics as well as many serious readers of fiction consider Wives and Daughters her greatest novel. This work, too, concerns provincial life in the first half of nineteenth century England, but it is more complex in scope and deals with broader social and moral issues. It was Gaskell’s last novel, and it was not quite complete at the time of her death. The romantic, satisfying conclusion toward which she was working, however, was clear.
Born on September 29, 1810, in London, Gaskell was the daughter of a Unitarian minister, and she grew up in her aunt’s household after the death of her mother in 1811. She was educated in a school for young ladies and was well read in literature and in philosophy. She married a Unitarian minister and was active in working with the poor and the sick, but after her only son died, she fell into a depression. With the encouragement of her husband, she became a professional writer and eventually attained an international reputation, a distinction earned by only a handful of other female writers of her time. She was the author of five novels, a biography of Charlotte Brontë, and numerous short stories.
The title Wives and Daughters indicates the only two recognized roles for women in the society that Gaskell describes. She presents a cross section of provincial...
(The entire section is 593 words.)