For long I've heard Elizabeth Gaskell mentioned in the same hall of fame as Jane Austen: female writers with an uncanny ability to bring to life the society of their times. Now that I have finally experienced the delight of a Gaskell novel, I can see why. At 60 chapters and 650 odd pages, Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is a sprawling read written with seemingly effortless ease. A little patience is always mandatory while reading big fat books and Gaskell rewards patience with some of the most unforgettable characters I've read in a while.
First published in eighteen monthly parts in the Cornhill Magazine from August 1864 to January 1866, Wives and Daughters is an unfinished novel; Gaskell died before adding the final touches to her masterpiece. The story of the charming community of Hollingford, with its gossiping ladies, snobby yet revered Lords and Ladies and most importantly, our sensible, warm-hearted, loving protagonist Molly Gibson and her father, the much respected doctor.
Mr.Gibson decides to remarry and seventeen year old Molly is faced with a new stepmother and a stepsister Cynthia, who is charming, unpredictable and eternally irresistible to the menfolk. Molly's beautiful relationship with the Hamley family, her love for Squire Hamley and his wonderful wife, and the friendship between her and the two sons of the family - Osborne and Roger, form the crux of the book.
Like all great novels, Wives and Daughters is very memorable because of a cast of characters, each of whom are masterfully crafted. The new Mrs.Gibson is an absolute delight of a character that Jane Austen would be proud of. Silly, vain, shockingly and embarrassingly insensitive, determined to remove herself from the stereotype of the evil stepmother, Mrs.Gibson and her comic proclamations are bound to keep you entertained. Indeed in an alternate literary universe, I do wish Mrs. Bennet would meet Mrs. Gibson and they would discuss about their daughters.
Mr.Gibson is a loving father and a sarcastic foil to his new wife. Molly is too straight forward a character, but some of the passages where she confronts her feelings about the man she might love, are beautifully written. Cynthia, on the other hand, is such a brilliantly complex character. Many a time you intend to hate her, her ego and vanity, her 'inconstancy' too, but she more than redeems herself through the affection she shows towards those she loves.
The Hamley brothers are fascinating, and I'd say it is hard not to fall in love with Roger Hamley. He is a literary character who is strong, sensible, kind, intelligent, passionate, with a habit of talking of books and recommending the right ones to to the right people, which, needless to say, I find very charming.
Gaskell's writing is deceptively simple, filled with vivid and witty observations and an eye for irony that doesn't mind mocking societal norms and follies. Some of the several quotes I loved:
'A man' smiled Cynthia. 'And therefore, if you won't let me call him changeable, I'll coin a word and call him consolable."
The text is peppered with several cultural and historical references that would be lost to a reader if not for helpful notes (provided in my excellent Penguin Classics edition). Gaskell's greatest strength is her ability to captivate the reader and transport them to the world of Hollingford, making them emotionally bonded to the characters. Indeed it is quite magical that just at the moment I told myself it was getting dreary without Mr.Roger Hamley appearing often, two characters in the book say the same thing!
The world Gaskell creates is one which any reader can relate to, brilliantly realistic in its depiction of timeless themes such as friendship, tragedy, debts and money, marriage, love, mother-daughter relationships. That is probably why there is more than a twinge of sadness that Mrs.Gaskell did not live to tie the ends and provide a fitting finale that would satisfy readers. But that, in no way, takes away the fact that Gaskell has given the world a classic that captures human nature in a witty, poignant fashion.
It has to be a special book if after being treated to 650 pages of the story, one still wishes it would go on. If you're an Austen fan and love books set in 19th century England, you are almost certain to enjoy reading Wives and Daughters. There are a lot of characters, relationships and themes that are worth discussing, making this book a great choice for readalongs or book clubs.
There is also the pleasure of knowing that a BBC adaptation is awaiting the reader who has just finished a classic. I'm looking forward to it.