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Wives and Daughters (Penguin Classics) Revised ed. Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 233 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0140434781
ISBN-10: 014043478X
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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Amy M. King’s Introduction to Wives and Daughters

The novelist Henry James, in his review of Wives and Daughters (1866) written in the wake of Elizabeth Gaskell’s death, praises Gaskell’s “genius” and pronounces that the novel is “one of the very best novels of its kind” (“Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell,” pp. 1019–1020; see “For Further Reading”). In the review, quoted above, James mingles praise with warnings to his imaginary readers that they might at first find the book dull, but that which was dull would soon enough prove to be the foundation of a strong investment in—even love for—the novel’s heroine. James’s mingled but nevertheless high praise seems to have emerged from his belief that although Gaskell’s novels displayed “a minimum of head,” describing her writing style this way was a compliment to Gaskell’s “personal character,” rather than an indictment of her “intellect.” Whether one chooses on Gaskell’s behalf to be affronted or flattered by James’s review is less important, I would suggest, than parsing the review to better understand how Victorian novels known to be written by women were received by their readers. One thing we learn from James’s review is that the register for praise (and not just criticism) is related to gender. Even though James thinks highly of Wives and Daughters, he cannot forget that it is written by a woman, and would likely not think to try—which may not so much detract from his reading of the novel as condition his reading of the novel. And so with James’s emphasis on Gaskell’s facility with “domestic facts,” her adeptness with “minutiae,” and her evocation of a reader’s feelings rather than the promotion of understanding, each skill that is singled out is in some sense a stereotype of women’s interests and talents. The praise, that is, emphasizes the author’s femininity. James mentions the “gentle skill” Gaskell uses to slowly involve the reader “in the tissue of the story,” her “lightness of touch,” and the “delicacy of the handwork” she uses to perfect the “net” that ultimately entangles the reader in the novel.

James’s review may emphasize that the author is female, but, unlike our own contemporary obsession with the target demographics for various art forms—“chick-lit” and “chick-flicks,” to name two current monikers—it does not assume or even believe that the audience of the novel is necessarily female. If anything, James projects a male reader, one who will feel what he calls an “almost fraternal relation” to the heroine Molly Gibson. Elizabeth Gaskell was, as Henry James allows, a “lady-novelist,” but one who excites every “reader’s very warmest admiration.” Our contemporary concern for deemphasizing an author’s gender when evaluating art, while often simultaneously emphasizing who is meant to consume it, was not shared by the mid-Victorians. James’s review reflects this, as does the considerable attention Gaskell gave to what we now call the “packaging” of her first novel. Like her good friend Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell had sought a male pseudonym to use for her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848), even though her publisher had suggested that the novel would be more popular if it was known to be the work of “a lady” (Uglow, Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, p. 183). The account that Jenny Uglow, one of Gaskell’s biographers, gives of the publishing process suggests that Gaskell was invested in the commercial presentation of the novel; Uglow speculates that Gaskell “may have felt that a man’s name (like the proposed title, “John Barton”) would make the readers take the politics of the book more seriously.” Gaskell agonized about the choice of the male pseudonym until she chose—too late—the name “Stephen Berwick” (Uglow, pp. 187–188). In the end, Mary Barton was published anonymously, but, having caused considerable controversy, the identity of its author was soon known and celebrated. Henceforth, Elizabeth Gaskell would publish her novels, if not quite in her own name, under her married appellation of “Mrs. Gaskell.”

To read Wives and Daughters today is to forget perhaps the extraordinary opportunity that writing fiction presented to Victorian women. The book trade during the period was a profoundly commercial enterprise. And unlike in earlier periods, the arts were divorced from either university ties or elite patronage, which particularly benefited women writers. Writing literature was one of the very few professional pursuits open to women in Victorian society. Elizabeth Gaskell was connected to a broad literary community of women, many of whom were her friends and some of whom she actively promoted with her own connections. This circle, which included Charlotte Brontë, Geraldine Jewsbury, Harriet Martineau, Anna Jameson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Caroline Clive, reads like a list of the most popular and important female literary figures of the day. And yet it would be a mistake to assume that a novel such as Wives and Daughters is solely the province of the female reader. Our contemporary perspective might look to the title Wives and Daughters and think the book is directed to the female reader, even though the title was most likely influenced by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862). The conventional assumption about novels, and romance plots and domestic narratives in particular, is that women make up their primary audience; indeed, the stereotype of the woman who reads too many novels, and becomes sick from “gorging” on too many delicious reads, originated in the eighteenth century and circulated widely in the Victorian period. And yet a host of descriptions, anecdotal evidence, figures from circulating libraries, and surveys about book ownership and reading habits suggest that men were as avid novel readers as women. And indeed what, exactly, in the novel marks it out for the female reader? As will become apparent as you read the novel and the following discussion, the work of Elizabeth Gaskell cannot be slotted into contemporary demographic readerships, but rather is inviting—as Henry James himself said—to anyone interested in an “‘everyday story’ . . . in an everyday style.”

--This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition.

From the Back Cover

Set in English society before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters centres on the story of youthful Molly Gibson, brought up from childhood by her father. When he remarries, a new step-sister enters Molly's quiet life - loveable, but worldly and troubling, Cynthia. The narrative traces the development of the two girls into womanhood within the gossiping and watchful society of Hollingford. Wives and Daughters is far more than a nostalgic evocation of village life; it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society. 'No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority', writes Pam Morris in her introduction to this new edition, in which she explores the novel's main themes - the role of women, Darwinism and the concept of Englishness - and its literary and social context.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Revised ed. edition (January 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014043478X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140434781
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.3 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (233 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
What is up with all the reviews that compare Mrs. Gaskell unfavorably to Jane Austen? Jane Austen is wonderful, but she works in miniature, and even her major characters are often one-dimensional. Who can really visualize Mr. Darcy? It is true that Mrs. Gaskell can be as satirical as Austen when she wants to be, but even her most vain or vicious characters are human beings, with complex feelings and good impulses as well as bad. And then there's the incredible sweep of this novel, the way in which Gaskell manages to portray an entire community without losing her lightness of touch. The only novel I can think of to compare this to is Eliot's Middlemarch, and I'm still not sure which I think is better.

There are so many instances in which Gaskell could have taken the easy way out and didn't. Take the two pairs of characters, Molly and Cynthia and Roger and Osborne. Osborne is thought to be more brilliant than Roger; Cynthia is more beautiful and less moral than Molly. It would be so easy for Gaskell to make Cynthia the evil stepsister, and Osborne the dissolute brother you love to hate. Yet Cynthia and Osborne are both sympathetic despite their faults, and both are even more complex, more finely drawn, than Roger and Molly. There are plenty of novels in which a character exerts a fascination over everyone he/she meets, and usually the fascination is completely lost on the reader. Cynthia has this fascination, and for once it is completely convincing. We understand why Molly can't help loving Cynthia, even while Cynthia is blithely taking Roger away from her. And Cynthia is self-aware; she knows that she can't bear to have people not think well of her, and she knows this is a fault.
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By A Customer on June 13, 1999
Format: Paperback
In her last novel, Gaskell avoided her usual urban milieu to concentrate instead on the wonderful parochial doings of a country village in the mid-Victorian period. Although she left the novel without its very last chapter before she died, this should not dissuade you from reading the novel: you'll know by the end exactly where Gaskell was going to finish the book and what would've happened to all the characters.
WIVES AND DAUGHTERS is frequently compared to Austen, but it is very different; the comedy and social observation is marvelous, but there's a greater sense of despair here more akin to MIDDLEMARCH. Hyacinth is without question the single most complex and engrossing character Gaskell ever created, and despite her menadacity and her manipulativeness you can't help but feel fond of her in spite of her less attractive qualities. Her daughter Cynthia is nearly as fine a character, and the others are also topnotch. A delightful read.
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Format: Paperback
Having read and reread Austen and the Bronte sisters, and looking to branch out to new authors while still staying in the general time period and genre, my sister recommended Wives and Daughters. I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell---but what a treasure to discover! My husband bought me the book for my birthday, worried that because it was an unfinished novel I would be disappointed. Hardly! I couldn't put the book down. I fell in love with all of Hollingford and its people, especially young Molly Gibson, as constant in her character as Cynthia is changeable but both equally likeable and more importantly, believable. Mrs. Gaskell was able to show us where the novel was headed or, I should say, where Molly was headed matrimonially, and though it is something to mourn that the conclusion could not be written in Mrs. Gaskell's own words, I would still recommend the read. AND the DVD which is so true to the book (Justine Waddell makes a perfect Molly), even while leaving out Molly's extended illness toward the end. Definitely one I recommend.
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Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed reading this book and I highly recommend it to any one who wants to read a well written and sweet novel. The principal character is Molly Gibson who is the daughter of a small town doctor. The story is mainly about what happens with Molly and those she loves when her father remarries and his new wife and stepdaughter come to live with him and Molly. The story is simple, but at the same time enchanting. Mrs. Gaskell's excellent writing will keep you reading even though some parts of the story are full with details and past stories of the characters. But at the same time, it is these background stories and details which allow the reader to really understand who each character is in the story and how they feel. So I don't don't agree with those who sugget that the book needs editing.

The novel is full with very interesting characters and all are presented in a way you'll end up feeling close to them, and caring for them. Even Mrs. Gibson and Lady Cumnor, who are mean and selfish, will claim your sympathy at some point because the author has the ability to present her characters not as good or bad, but just as human. She has an incredible way of describing regular people. And only this characteristic makes the book very enjoyable.

The book is long and does not have an ending... nonetheless, it is so beautiful!!!... I really recommend this novel because you'll never get bored. Even more, you'll learn to enjoy each of the things and stories that are going on in Hollingford (the little town where Molly lives)!. And although this is not an "addictive" reading, there are some parts in the novel where you cannot stop reading and for a hundred pages you won't be able to put it down. I think this is a novel to enjoy, not to read in an afternoon.
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