Monday, January 25, 2016

What I Read in May 2015 Part V

What I Read in May 2015 Part V ...

Wives and Daughters-by Elizabeth Gaskell- Historical Fiction Classic

It's impossible to summarize the plot of this book. It's not quite a romance and it doesn't have the grand political statement of North and South but it does have some romance, some drama, some comedy and the backdrop of the idyllic English countryside. Sue Birdwhistle, the producer of the mini series sums up the story well : "[It's about] where love comes from, how it grows, how it can break our hearts, how it can bring happiness and fulfillment. It's about the mistakes we make and the secrets we have to keep."

I had a hard time getting into the book at first, having seen the miniseries. It was difficult to go forward knowing what would happen but there were subtle differences and things I didn't remember which made me want to read on. The prose is mostly very modern. The book doesn't read like a typical 19th century domestic novel at all. Some of the language and situations places the book in the 19th century but the overall narrative and the characters exist anywhere. There are some subtle messages here about class consciousness, trying to be someone you're not, the worth of a man, and the downside of having too much pride and extreme (unfounded) prejudices. Gaskell doesn't spell it out and hit you on the head with her messages but allows her characters to slowly change and grow over time to accept changes in their lives. There's a good deal of subtle humor in the story too. The minor characters, the Misses Browning are the types of spinster ladies who populate Gaskell's famous Cranford chronicles. Also Lady Cumnor is (unintentionally on her part) funny. Her husband is intentionally funny, at least he thinks he is. The humor adds a lot to the story and delivers a message without a punch. It's a testament to Gaskell's writing that she could pull it all off. Though she died before she finished the novel completely, she left notes on what happens in the next and final chapter.

Molly Gibson, a country doctor's daughter, is a bit too noble and good for my tastes. Occasionally she shows bursts of temper but she never completely loses her cool. She does deliberately disobey when the occasion requires it. She's sort of like a priest, being the peacemaker and privy to everyone's secrets. Despite her goodness, she is a sympathetic character and I wanted her to be happy.

Molly's father, Gibson, was not my idea of a good father. He was in some ways close to his daughter yet he never really stopped to think about her feelings. He let her be raised in innocence and ignorance by others and continually has his head in the sand when it comes to Molly. He does not want to get involved in domestic relations and he does not want Molly to grow up. He mishandles all his domestic affairs and it all falls on Molly's shoulders to bear the burdens alone.

Osborne and Roger Hamley are about as different as brothers can be. I wasn't crazy about Osborne. He's more of a typical Victorian town gentleman and his manners are too polished. Yet, he's very realistic because he feels the weight of his parents' expectations and the burden of keeping a big secret. Roger is the typical younger son. He better fits the country squire mold than his brother but his parents do not have high hopes for him. He's quiet and kind and too good. He makes one mistake, one most men do and that makes him a bit more human. I found him endearing though, for the most part.

The Kirkpatrick women are complex characters. Hyacinth is horrible and completely unfeeling yet at one point I felt a little sorry for her because she's not too bright and the thought never occurred to her that others don't have the same lack of moral code she does. Her daughter Cynthia is more complicated. On the surface she seems a lot like her mother but fortunately she was shunted off to school at a young age and didn't see her mother very often. She has more depth of feeling and consciousness than her mother. She recognizes her mother's faults and I enjoyed her quick witty barbs directed at her mother. Cynthia wants to be good like Molly but she can't because she wasn't brought up to feel the way Molly does about things. I have mixed feelings about her. I want to like her and I do but I don't fully trust her or embrace her as a loved character.

Besides Hyacinth, the villain of the piece (if there is one) is really a nasty sort of man. Gaskell intended him to be three-dimensional and probably thought we should have sympathy for him but he just is not a nice person.

The one character I loved the most was Squire Hamley. My heart went out to him and broke with his. I loved his relationship with Molly. Their friendship is so beautiful and loving. He's sort of a second father to Molly and she feels comfortable with the Hamleys. I also loved how he has to experience a lot of negative change in order to grow as a person. He's gruff yet loving, proud yet kind. His limited life experiences fill him with negative prejudices. He has the biggest change to go through and the most at stake. It helps that he was played so amazingly by Michael Gambon (who I did NOT like as Dumbledore but loved in Wives and Daughters and Cranford).

My other favorite character is Lady Harriet. The daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor, she enjoys a hearty horseback ride and isn't snobbish in visiting with the locals. She recognizes the faults of others with a self-satisfied smugness but I enjoyed her wit. I also loved that she was Molly's friend and champion.

The secondary characters are the best. Gaskell truly excels at creating quirky village inhabitants.

This is a classic novel that's not well known but if you love Jane Austen, you should definitely read this book.

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