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Monday, December 28, 2009

Wives and Daughters--Book and BBC

Wives and Daughters (Penguin Classics) Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading this book is like finding an undiscovered treasure. It's a slow simmering concoction of 19th-century social observation, and has none of the gritty class and labor issues Gaskell was so passionate about in books like North and South and Mary Barton. But it also lacks those stories' high-Victorian melodrama and shows an artist truly reaching the height of her powers. Don't let the basic contours of the story fool you; as the excellent, excellent Penguin Classic introduction points out, there's a ton of profound struggle beneath W+D's surface, including a playful take on fairy tales, a hero who is based on Darwin and a Darwinian theme, and a serious interrogation of the gender roles its plot seems to support. The male heroes--Roger and Mr. Gibson--are supposed to be rational men of science, but they are both frequently undone by their own prejudices and irrationalities when it comes to the fairer sex. Molly and Cynthia each in their own way end up being far wiser, less sentimental and less easily alarmed then the men around them.

Simple as she is, Molly Gibson is a heroine for the ages--honest and faithful with a hot temper that keeps her from being a Mary Sue. Her stepmother Mrs. Clare Kirpatrick-Gibson is a stepmother par excellence, so busy trying to prove that she is NOT the archetypical wicked stepmum that she doesn't notice how miserable her clumsy machinations make her clan. Her creation definitely owes a debt to the redoubtable Mrs. Bennet, but she's an awful all her own. And Cynthia K, stepsister and friend, is an excellent ingenue, a careless flirt for whom Gaskell, and we, nonetheless retain some sympathy for.

The primary tragedy of the book is its unfinished ending, which leaves one quite breathless with unsatisfied anticipation.

As for the obligatory Davies-penned BBC miniseries, it's one of the greats, without a doubt. Definitely rent it if you haven't, and even Davies' typically unsultry conclusion can't stop you from loving every minute. The cast is a veritable hotbed of "Six Degrees of Austen Adaptations" British character actors. It includes Mr. Meagles from Little Dorrit as well as a number of Cranford's spinsters! Molly and Dr. G survey the rolling hills near Hollinford and Hamley Hall.

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  1. I just finished reading Cranford, thanks in large part to the recently aired BBC mini-series. Wives and Daughters is next on my reading list.

    Those who are able to stream movies via NetFlix will be delighted to discover the BBC mini-series of W &D among the offerings with its splendid acting, locations and costumes.

  2. Anonymous12:48 AM

    I just saw it via NetFlix and wasn't disappointed especially with the scenic backdrop, however, it did not seem Molly's character was as developed for the screen as it might have been - though I have not read the book. (this series has sparked my interest! Another thing, I felt there was a lot more emphasis and character interest applied to the Hamley men and their family dynamics as opposed to the Gibson/Kirpatrick clan except for the usual; stepmother with class variance is not exactly cruel but seemingly w/mal adaptive traits and nervously claiming her new position with every grasp toward social observances but not the graces.

    With the series, the title "wives and daughters" just seem to have missed the mark and I think it might have been better called; "Sons and Daughters" instead! I did not see Mr. Gibson as much of a "hero" as he was practical, yet distant when it came to Molly's feelings though a bond between them did exist.

    One other observation; Cynthia's relationship with MR. Gibson seemed cold and strained though she behaved up to the situation with the "debt" and her loss of interest in Roger's proposal, very kindly and warm to both Molly and her step-father. The impression left was he only tolerated her for the sake of his wife and the need of Molly and that in essence she had no real claim nor stable station in that household. That part made me feel badly for her.

    I wondered if that is why in several scenes Cynthia had on a rather plain, flowered dress that wasn't in the least attractive. That she had no true societal connections and no financial security except that which her mother provided through the marriage to Dr. Gibson.

    Oh, one last thing. Lady Harriett in the final scenes hair was cropped, short and bizarre looking as opposed to how had been worn it in all the previous scenes. All the womens hair were adored with pieces, jewelry, feathers or at the least, flowers. I couldn't understand and there was no explanation as to why this attractive womans hair was suddenly chopped short which was completely out of step and style not to mention socially "unfeminine" and strangely out of place. She was a LADY and of a wealthy family stature. Was she so "chic" or trendy for her time and being a free independent spirit (not to mention rich) shod the normal style for the heck of it? I must say it took away from her looks dramatically!