Recommended Reads: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters

By Josie Billington

Mrs Gaskell’s last and finest work, Wives and Daughters, has been called ‘the most underrated novel in English’. Indeed, it seems almost to have risked being underrated in modestly announcing itself in its subtitle as ‘An Every-Day Story’. (Middlemarch – the English novel to which, for the power of its realism, Wives and Daughters most deserves to be compared – is subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, as George Eliot thus magisterially insists that, while these lives may be small and middling, the author’s ‘study’ of them requires a reader’s full and serious attention.)

Yet the relative neglect of Wives and Daughters might best be explained by the very quality which, for an admirer such as Henry James, gave it a right to the status of ‘genius’; that’s to say its subtlety and the corresponding absence of the kind of decisive life-moment or revelatory event which might compel a reader of a novel by George Eliot or by Charles Dickens. When Molly is staying at Hamley Hall as a companion to the invalid Mrs Hamley early in the novel, and seeing her father only occasionally, she newly appreciates ‘the power she possessed of fully understanding the exact value of both his words and his silence.’ A delicate concern for what it belongs to people to say, and for what cannot or need not be said, in families is what largely replaces dramatic incident in this novel. More, a tacit exactitude of understanding is implicitly demanded of its readers in the rich silences which are often the most compelling of the novel’s ‘events’. For example, here Molly struggles to adjust to the new situation created by her long-widower father’s decision to re-marry:

She was positively unhappy, and her father did not appear to see it; he was absorbed with his new plans and his new wife that was to be. But he did notice it; and was keenly sorry for his little girl; only he thought there was a greater chance for the future harmony of the household, if he did not lead Molly to define her present feelings by putting them into words.

‘But he did notice it’ is not isolated dramatically in a new paragraph as it might have been in Dickens. Instead, the father’s silent noticing exists cheek-by-jowl, in the same paragraph, with the daughter’s silent, lonely pain, imitating the simultaneous closeness and distance that happens between people in the same world, same family. They share the moment – even something of how it feels – but they share it separately nonetheless. It is the syntax of a writer quietly immersed in the rich complexity of the situation, inhabiting the undramatic space within it where, in families and in life as this writer envisions it, everything tacitly occurs. So also, when Roger Hamley endeavours to cheer up his father after the Squire receives news that his first-born and favourite son, Osborne, has failed at Cambridge:

After dinner, too, the gentlemen lingered long over their dessert, and Molly heard them laughing; and then she saw them loitering about in the twilight out of doors; Roger hatless, his hands in his pockets, lounging by his father’s side, who was now able to talk in his usual loud and cheerful way, forgetting Osborne.

The intimacy remains quietly and easily subordinate – ‘lounging by his father’s side’ – an undertone. As Roger perseveres in helping his father to relax he is starting to replace Osborne without intending to, but this huge family shift is written into a narrative of things going on as usual. The brilliant distinctiveness of Wives and Daughters as realist prose is its loyal regard for these small half-concealed happenings and its capacity, at the self-same time, to keep them small, in recognition that to insist upon the importance of such matters would be to lose the subtlety of their reality.

‘The hours given to the novel’s perusal seem like actual hours spent’ said James; and a reviewer of Andrew Davies’s 1999 BBC adaptation was right to complain that ‘one effect of the serial treatment is that the novel now appears as a series of dramatic incidents – tears, death, anger, declarations of love,’ in a mutilating distortion of the novel’s slow, fluid drift. Wives and Daughters is not a narrative of event so much as a narrative of time – the deep, subtle workings of family time above all. The novel’s apparently casual, inconsequential breaking off (Mrs Gaskell died suddenly while writing the last chapters) seems like a final moving instance of the novel’s great, quiet imitation of life.

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Josie Billington is a lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. She edited Wives and Daughters for the recent Works of Elizabeth Gaskell (Pickering and Chatto, 2006).

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