Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters is a novel set in England in the late 1820s and early 1830s when the only role for middle-class and upper-class women was to be somebody’s wife or somebody’s daughter.  Lower-class women, of course, were “free” to make their own way as servants.

It was published in incomplete form in 1866 after Mrs. Gaskell’s death.  The main plot thread is the progress of step-sisters Molly Gibson and Cynthia Kirkpatrick from being daughters to being wives.  I read it as part of a reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.

It’s very readable, with likable believable characters and a moderately intriguing plot.  It’s also interesting as a portrait of a vanished way of life.

It is very different from North and South, which is the only other Gaskell novel I have read. While North and South is written in primary colors, so to speak, Wives and Daughters has many subtly different shades.

North and South is a report on the conflict between workers and factory owners in industrial Manchester, which is presented as a social problem that needs to be solved.

Wives and Daughters is full of shrewd observations about men and women and the different social classes relate to each other, but this is presented as an interesting and amusing reality, not as a problem.

Molly Gibson is the daughter of Dr. Gibson, a widower.  He is a good man, who is devoted to his patients.  He loves his daughter dearly and would do anything to make her happy, but he doesn’t make an effort to understand her.  He regards her desire for an education as silly, and unnecessary for a women.

Molly, on the other hand, devotes a lot of thought to understanding her dad.  Like Margaret Hale in North and South, she takes on adult responsibility at a young age and, in some ways, is more of a parent to her father than he is to her.

Early in the novel Dr. Gibson marries a widow, Clare Kirkpatrick.  She is a schoolmistress with a daughter, Cynthia, who is Molly’s age.  Being a schoolmistress or governess was the only profession open to respectable women in those days, and even that involved a step down in social rank, so she regards marriage as an escape.

Their courtship is very quick, and the two of them hardly know each other when they marry.  Because of their social position, they had few choices of marriage partners.  They wouldn’t marry down into the laboring class and they couldn’t marry up into the monied landowning class.

Their expectations are different.  Dr. Gibson wants a wife who will be a mother to Molly and keep house, but otherwise allow him to go on living as before.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick wants the perquisites of a higher social position and a household that upholds that position.

She is not cruel or malicious, but she is self-centered and never thinks about what other people think or want.  In her blindness to what others think or want, she is an example of how extreme selfishness makes you stupid.  She loves no-one, including her daughter.

Cynthia has grown up without experiencing a mother’s love.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick sent her away to school at a young age and treated her as a nuisance when she was at home.

She is exceedingly beautiful and charming.  She has the superpower of being effortlessly fascinating to men.  I’ve known women like that in my life, and so have most men.  So, interestingly, have the women in our reading group.

She is, like her mother, without an emotional core.  But unlike her mother, she is aware of what she lacks.  She regrets it and yet feels powerless to change.  She cares about what others think of her, but feels no true affection for anyone—except her stepsister Molly.

The most desirable male in the novel is Roger Hamley, the younger son of Squire Hamley, who is a step up in the social scale from the Gibsons.  Squire Hamley, like Dr. Gibson, is a widower who suffers from the lack of his late wife’s superior emotional intelligence.

Molly and Roger have been friends since childhood.  They are like a younger sister and older brother.  She is devoted to him, but she doesn’t think of marriage.

As a younger son, he will not inherit the Hamley estate, and it is assumed by all that he therefore will have to marry for money.

Roger is a scientist—an amateur scientist, to be sure, but so was Charles Darwin in that era.  Organized science as we know it did not then exist.  Molly is fascinated by his work, but he falls under the spell of Cynthia and becomes engaged to her just before he sets sail for a scientific expedition to Africa.

Cynthia’s superficial and indifferent responses to his letters cause Roger to become disillusioned with her, but, having become engaged, he feels obligated to marry.  Jilting someone to whom you’re engaged was a bigger disgrace in that era than ending a marriage would be today.

Cynthia is the one who breaks off the engagement.  She tells Molly that she couldn’t stand being married to someone who sees through her.   “I have a fine instinct for reading the thoughts of others when they refer to me,” she says.

Instead Cynthia marries a rich, amiable, undiscerning lawyer named Mr. Henderson, leaving the field clear to Molly.  The uncompleted novel breaks off there.  Presumably Mrs. Gaskell intended Roger and Molly to marry.

There are other plot elements as well, including the secret life of Osborne Hamley, Roger’s sickly, misfit elder brother, and a varied array of characters high and low.



Elizabeth Gaskell’s fictional Hollingford is a literal patriarchy.  Respectable women could not vote nor have careers, except as governesses and schoolmistresses, which was a step down in social rank.

Single women were under the control of their fathers.  Married women were under the control of their husbands, who had control of their property and income.  They had no recourse against abusive husbands.

In Wives and Daughters, all three patriarchs—in descending order of rank, Lord Cunmor, Squire Hamley and Dr. Gibson, are decent men, who mean well by their women-folk and children, even if they don’t always understand them well.  So the question of abuse does not arise.

But Gaskell’s novel shows the other evil of patriarchy, which is that the only outlets for women with a will to power are to manipulate their husbands and sons or to bully their daughters and daughters-in-law.

You see this to a certain extent with the self-centered Lady Cunmor and the second Mrs. Gibson (formerly Kirkpatrick).

The two characters who are really discerning, Molly Gibson and the Cunmor daughter Lady Harriet, have to operate by hints and suggestions.


Nineteenth century English country life, as depicted in Victorian novels, is appealing.  For one thing, they are set in a beautiful landscape that has been cherished and cultivated for centuries.

A world of fixed social rank and fixed rules of etiquette would be a relief, compared with the 21st century USA, where social class and rules of etiquette are ever-changing, but still all too real.

Dr. Gibson doesn’t feel like a failure because he’s of a lower rank than Squire Hamley, and Squire Hamley doesn’t aspire to be a titled nobleman like Lord Cunmor.  They are content with what they are.  There are minor characters who are upstarts, but they only make themselves unhappy.

Again, what makes all this tolerable is a basic reciprocal good will.  Also, the focus is on people who can afford to hire servants.  The servants themselves are not treated seriously as characters.

You have to go to Thomas Hardy novels, such as Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure, for a view of lower-class life in that era.


Squire Hamley struggled with debts and worried about his ability to keep his land together and pass it on to an heir.  This is a common theme in Victorian English novels.  Hamley and Lord Cunmor represented a dying way of life.

England in that era was going through a population explosion.  Mrs. Gaskell herself had six children, including four daughters who lived to adulthood, and she was not unusual.

In order to feed its population, England had to import food.  In order to pay for imports, it had to industrialize.  Investments in industry generated greater gains in productivity than investments in agricultural improvements.

The British government did lend money to landowners such as Squire Hamley to drain swamps and bring more land into cultivation, but they still fell behind.

That era is over.  The English fertility rate is below the replacement rate, and England is a land of immigration, not emigration.

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