‘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’
The little girl is Molly Gibson and this opening paragraph introduces a book that uses sparkling humour to dissect the deliciously gossipy neighbours of Hollingford, a small town in the middle of England. A small town which sits in deference to Lord and Lady Cumnor of The Towers, in spite of their only arriving in the reign of Queen Anne; when there have been Hamley’s at Hamley Hall since the Romans. So Squire Hamley is keen to tell us!
Written in 1866, we’re told by the narrator that the story begins some 45 years earlier so that with lots of asides about the fashion and manners of the day, there’s a lovely cosy conspiratorial tone.
Molly’s mother died when she was three and since then she and her father, the town Doctor have lived in ‘calm monotony’. But as Molly approaches 17 it’s brought to Doctor Gibson’s attention that whilst not exactly dirty, his household linen is decidedly rumpled and Molly really needs a mother. He chooses the genteel Mrs. Kirkpatrick, the widowed ex-governess from The Towers as his bride and she brings with her her beautiful daughter Cynthia as well as concealments, secrets, blackmail and trysts.
A lot of fun is had at the expense of Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Everything she sees is more sparkly than her own and she must have it. Meals must be elaborate and at a fashionable time no matter if anyone is going to eat them, callers will only be welcomed at certain times (unless they’re from The Towers) and Anglo-Saxon is never used if there’s a French expression to hand! Appearance is everything, but the light heartedness of this comedy of manners hides a darker side to Hyacinth Kirkpatrick. She’s had to work for her living since her first husband died and feels bitterly towards those who haven’t. At The Towers, despite her outward sweetness she thinks ‘here, money is like the air they breath. No one ever asks or knows how much the washing costs, or what pink ribbon is a yard.’ She knows the price of everything , she’s had to, but there’s something greedy and grasping about the way she’s always totting up and calculating. What is the point, she says of her husband, in visiting a patient who is dying anyway: ‘does he expect a legacy, or anything of that kind? She trades relentlessly on her daughters beauty and charm, shamelessly exploiting her, with no awareness of her actions.
And what hold does the odious Mr. Preston, land agent at The Towers, have over her and Cynthia?
‘He taught young ladies to play billiards on a wet day, or went in for the game in serious earnest when required. He knew half the private theatrical plays off by heart, and was invaluable in arranging impromptu charades and tableaux.’
He has wheedled himself into all the best drawing rooms with his charms, but what’s the real story here? We’re kept guessing almost to the end.
Molly is excited for the arrival of her new sister and when Cynthia eventually arrives she finds herself completely overwhelmed by her grace and beauty, as everyone is. Cynthia is well aware of the effect she has on people and has been brought up to use her advantage, but she has a degree of self awareness that her mother lacks. She can see her mother for what she is and understands the moral code that others live by. But she knows that her mother has found her ‘an encumbrance all her life’ and doesn’t believe herself any better than to be the prize of the richest bachelor, treating men with a sort of bored scorn. Molly and Dr. Gibson are probably the only two people that she respects and the two half-sisters form a close, honest friendship and before we know it Cynthia has taken Molly into her confidence and asks her to be her go-between.
It hardly needs to be said that as soon as Molly starts with the errands the rumour mill (which is based in the bookshop) goes into overdrive and poor Molly’s reputation is at stake.
Molly Gibson is a wonderful heroine. She runs and picks berries and rips her dress and doesn’t care, she gets so angry that ‘her blood boils’, she speaks her mind and isn’t apologetic and she goes for long walks where she think and thinks about everything: Cynthia’s behaviour towards her suitors, the secrets she has to keep, how she should cope with her step mother, her father and how he should cope with her step mother, and the gorgeous Roger and Osborne Hamley, the two sons at Hamley Hall, who have their own secrets for her to keep. She has a lovely introspection that manages somehow to never seem precocious.
Anyway, when a well meaning neighbour tells Dr. Gibson of the rumours that Molly is meeting a man, he is disbelieving and then upset and angry. When he confronts her she looks him in the eye, tells him its not her secret to tell and asks him to trust her. And he does, they have a relationship based on respect, love and trust and it’s this that has given her the moral foundation that Cynthia, sent to school in France away from a mother who had no time for her, lacks.
I think what makes Wives and Daughters such a satisfying read is that Elizabeth Gaskell is able to tackle some serious subjects with such a light touch and with so much humour. Some of the conversations between Cynthia and her mother, are hilarious on the surface, but when we think about them in the context of what we know of the two women they are really sad and bitter. But this is just one example, it’s a novel full of characters and their stories that I haven’t even touched on, told with sympathy and understanding but also with an eye for the ridiculous.