Friday, February 08, 2008
Wives and Daughters
Gaskell, Elizabeth. 1866. Wives and Daughters.
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.
This first chapter introduces us to a young Molly Gibson. She's around twelve at the time give or take a little. And she is most eager to go to her 'first' 'real' social event: a tea hosted by the Lord and Lady of the region--Lord and Lady Cumnor. The Cumnor's estate--they have several--in the region was called The Towers. (Usually they reside elsewhere. This is definitely just their country vacation home.) At this grand party, the young girl gets bored wanders into the gardens, falls asleep, is later discovered by the former-governess-then widow, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. (The family STILL calls her Miss Clare.) This discovery ruins the day for her. It's not that the family treats her poorly, it's just that when Mrs. Kirkpatrick tells the young girl to rest from being out in the sun (or some such notion) in her room, the girl falls asleep and misses her ride home. So she awakens hours later alone and confused and wanting to go home and be with her dad. (Her mother died when she was just a wee thing.) Her dad, the doctor, a somewhat dignified, genuinely respected doctor, comes to her rescue, however, and she's saved the embarrassment of having to sleep over.
A few chapters later Molly has grown from twelve to sixteen. She's becoming a young lady, an attractive young lady. And her father is noticing the transition. Feeling overwhelmed by the thought of raising her alone, he decides to remarry. It's not that he decides this overnight. At first he resists the notion. But as the idea sits with him, it grows on him more and more. When he discovers that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is once again visiting The Towers (after quite a few years absence from the region) he decides to call on the family and see if she might not do as a wife. He knows or vaguely remembers that she has a daughter around Molly's age. He hopes that the idea of raising a daughter without a father will seem equally daunting to her as raising a daughter without a mother.
Molly is SO NOT HAPPY with the idea of a stepmother and stepsister.
And here my summary must stop. The book is long 648 pages. But it is good in a steady kind of way. It is slow; It is steady; It is good; It improves with each bit. (What do I mean by "bit"? Well, the descriptions seem heavy and largely unnecessary--very weighty--at the very beginning. But towards the middle and especially at the end, it begins to make sense. These descriptive bits which you take for fluff at first, are meant to pad the resulting pages. In other words, they help explain or fill out or give substance to the rest. It's not that you'll desperately need that information, but it will make more sense and be a better read if you resist the urge to skip and skim. Gaskell has a HUGE task. She brings to life a whole community. From the Gibsons to the Kirkpatricks to the Cumnors to the Hamleys to the town busybodies. A real panoramic, sweeping view or portrait of life.