Wives and Daughters

by Elizabeth Gaskell

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Critical Evaluation

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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 society, in which Lord and Lady Cumnor and their family represent the aristocracy; Squire Hamley, his wife, and their two sons represent the landed but not wealthy gentry; and the physician, known as Mr. Gibson, and his young daughter, Molly, represent the professional middle class. Many other characters—including servants, townspeople, and laborers—round out the picture of this society. Gaskell depicts the changes that take place in the lives of the main family groups as well as the changes in their relations with each other. The principle upon which all the members of these groups base their lives is the sanctity of the family, and the novel focuses on the duties and obligations of family members. All the action and the shortcomings, as well as the successes, of the characters are related to the overriding importance of the basic social unit, the family.

The story is told primarily through the thoughts and actions of the main character, Molly Gibson. Most of the characters reach an understanding of the truth about themselves during the course of the novel, but it is primarily Molly who facilitates this, though without intending to do so. She exercises influence over others because, although she is a simple, uneducated country girl, she is able to see things as they are and has a strong sense of how they ought to be. She represents the moral conscience of her world and acts as a mediator and source of moral strength, especially for her father, her stepmother, her stepsister Cynthia, and her friend, Osborne Hamley.

The author of Wives and Daughters makes very few authorial comments; instead, she allows her characters to reveal themselves in their conversations, their inner reflections, and their behavior toward each other. With gentle, good-humored satire, Gaskell creates a picture of rural society that can easily be seen to represent the larger human condition, regardless of time or setting. One of the many critics who have lauded the author’s works commented that Gaskell’s vision and tone provided a link between the Romantics of the nineteenth century and the psychological realists of its waning years.

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