Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Gaskell’

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

December 31, 2019

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.

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Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

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