Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wives and Daughters: Accessible Victorian

Like so many American public high school graduates, my knowledge of Victorian literature can basically be summed up in one word: Dickens. I have nothing against Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is a classic for a reason: it’s a really great story of love and lust and revenge, once you get past the archaic writing style. But one thing I remember hating about Dickens’ writing was the pathetic characterizations of women. Lucy Manette fainted at every important juncture of her life. Nell Trent’s saccharine persona induced nausea. The female villains were more interesting: both Madame DeFarge and Miss Havisham are iconic baddies, but only Miss Havisham can claim any kind of complexity. So when I saw SRC task 20.3, which required reading a Victorian era novel, I decided that expanding my definition of “Victorian literature” might be the key to actually enjoying the task.

Enter Elizabeth Gaskell, like her friend Dickens a writer who was originally published in serial format. Looking through the reviews, I settled on her last novel, Wives and Daughters, because I liked the descriptions of the female characters – words like “feisty,” “scandalous,” “conniving,” and “imperious” sounded promising. Again, by going outside of my comfort zone I have been rewarded.

Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson, the motherless daughter of a well-respected country doctor. When Molly becomes the object of affection of one of her father’s medical students, her father decides that he needs a woman in the house to manage the proprieties. So he marries Hyacinth (Clare) Fitzpatrick, a widow who was once the governess of the local lord’s children. Mr. Gibson considers her a very good match because she has a daughter, Cynthia, who is just a bit older than Molly. However, Molly’s one previous interaction with the doctor’s new wife indicates that her character is less caring and generous than it appears on first glance.

Gaskell puts the day-to-day life of women at the forefront of Wives and Daughters, and the detailed descriptions of their routines, chores and meetings provide a kind of social history of the period. A tremendous amount of time was spent on chores; even more seems to have been spent on communications, either in person or by letter. It’s clear from the book that people considered making visits and providing interesting conversation both a virtue and a duty. But what really struck me was how the detailing of those daily routines could say so much about the power structure of Victorian society. For example, I was surprised by the complete lack of independence that young women had within the family structure. Molly’s new stepmother could keep her from paying a visit to a desperately sick friend, just so that she didn’t have to go unaccompanied on one of her visits. I can’t even imagine asking my daughter to change plans unless an emergency presented itself – my how times have changed.

Molly’s interactions with other characters illustrate her position within the hierarchical structure of the town. Being a Victorian novel, a lot of this information comes in discussions of the suitability of potential mates. Squire Hamley and his wife initially consider Molly an unsuitable match for their treasured sons, although they come to love her like a daughter. Mr. Preston, who oversees Lord Hollingford’s properties, represents a poor match for Cynthia, despite her lack of wealth, as her social-climbing mother counts on her beauty to provide an advantageous marriage. Second son Roger Hamley cannot consider marriage to any woman until he finds employment, as the family estate is entailed to his older brother, Osborne. Osborne, for his part, keeps his marriage to a French Catholic woman of modest means a secret, to avoid being disinherited.

Boundaries are less rigid than they appear at first however – Gaskell’s characters both struggle with and reshape the boundaries, although the likeable characters do so out of virtue and the less likeable out of conceit.

Perhaps I found this book so appealing because of the well-developed and complex female characters, something I have not found in other Victorian novels I have read. Molly, the book’s heroine, is certainly virtuous, but not syrupy. Like other great female characters, she has flaws, pride and self-consciousness among them. She quickly opens her mouth to defend the people she loves, even at the risk of being rude. She knows what she should do, and Gaskell portrays her struggle to do it in a very powerful way. In contrast, her step-sister Cynthia is the most interesting and enigmatic figure in the book – she is absolutely aware of her own faults, and conscious and respectful of Molly’s sweet and na├»ve nature. She sees everyone – including herself – exactly as they are. In the hands of a clumsier writer, Cynthia might have been a “bad” character used to emphasize Molly’s “goodness.” But Gaskell exhibits a deep understanding of the pressures on women to make their way in a society designed by and for men. Through Cynthia, Gaskell provides a dispassionate look at the position of women in Victorian society, and chronicles someone who played the hand she was dealt extremely well, according to the mores of the time.

I really liked this book. One discovery of my summer reading seems to be a growing affinity for female authors, regardless of their culture or time period. I am growing more demanding in my expectations of portrayals of women, maybe because I have a better idea of how really difficult it is to be one than I did when I was younger. Another gift for expanding my reading horizons.

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