Mar. 8th, 2017

sartorias: (handwritten books)
Saturday is my Jane Austen book group's next meeting, the topic Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, so I started to reread it, and as usual got sucked right in.

I still think it one of the best novels of the Victorian period, maybe of the century. If that publisher who is hiring people to rewrite the plots of classics into contemporary novels lands on this one, my guess is they'll call it Sex Lives of Wives and Daughters because at heart, it's about sex. Though all in g-rated language. I can imagine teens listening to it being read aloud during the 1860s and resonating with the passions of the younger girls in it, while the eyes of their elders met over their heads at such passages as:

"And yet he thinks he loves you!"

"It is his way of loving. He says often enough he does not care what he does so that he gets me to be his wife, and that after that he is sure that he can make me love him. . ."


Gaskell illustrates, with sympathy, the dangers of keeping girls ignorant. And even then, some are incapable of constancy--serial monogamy--but the narrative voice doesn't hammer them as evil, or consign them to the Victorian Death By Consumption that so many heroines who step out of line suffer.

The book is quiet, though rife with humor, compassion, and sharp insight. By this period of her life, Gaskell had finally rid her writings of standard Victorian tropes (long deathbed speeches being one). She'd reached the age of 55, she'd honed her talent--but alas, dropped dead suddenly a chapter before finishing this novel. You know where it's going (and the publisher confirms it in an afterword), but still, it's a dash of cold water to suddenly lose that warm, intimate immersion and be told what happened. (Actually, pretty much akin to the feeling one gets at reading the end of Mansfield Park, wherein Austen's narrative voice steps out onto the stage and tells us the ending.)

I wonder if it was sparked by response to Trollope, who was busy publishing right around that time, one of his favorite themes being how "sullied" girls were who dared to fall in love with the wrong guy before the right one comes along and in essence shows his interest enough to cause her to fall in love with him. Thus retaining her mysterious purity. I love reading Trollope, but that particular trope was so very pernicious in so many ways.

Anyway, whatever its inspiration, there it is, and one can see certain of its themes reflected in George Eliot's Middlemarch, most obviously in the doctor and his awful wife. Another is that consistently-met setting: so many mid and later Victorian novels are set a generation earlier, before railroads. Eliot takes on a number of contemporary themes--her novel is bigger in reach--but much as I love parts, and I think the ending is one of the best written in the English language, I think that Gaskell's quiet insights resonate more.

Though Wives and Daughters is set in a pastoral village before railroads mucked up the landscape and the air, by no means is it backward-looking. The hero is a scientist--really, he's a geek. He gives the heroine a wasp's nest, and his letters are full of descriptions of creatures he's found and examined under his microscope. This aspect, too, Eliot developed, the tensions between the safety of the old ways and the chance of improvement in the new.

It's difficult to know how much influence such a deceptively quiet novel had at the time. But every reading I give it gets better, firmly numbering it among those I consider truly great.

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