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Monday, December 28, 2009

Wives and Daughters, Book and BBC

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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