Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell


Goodreads: Wives and Daughters
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 1864-1866


Molly Gibson lives a comfortable live with her father until the day he remarries.  Dr. Gibson had hoped for a sensible woman of integrity to watch over his daughter as she grows.  His new wife, however, proves to be of questionable character, as does her daughter Cynthia, who flirts dreadfully and seems to harboring secrets.


Elizabeth Gaskell once again brings a small town to life, showing that a limited cast of characters engaged in everyday activities can prove just as absorbing as any fantasy quest.  Wives and Daughters focuses on the contrast between two young women–Molly Gibson and her stepsister Cynthia Kirkpatrick–as they grow up and discover love.  Their hopes and fears may be centered around seemingly ordinary things–a visit from a friend, the prospect of a ball–but Gaskell reminds us that such things take on extreme importance to the young.  In the process, she makes her readers sympathetic onlookers.

Wives and Daughters is true Gaskell.  As is common in her works, the beautiful and charming woman initially ensnares our worthy hero, who is far too susceptible to looks over character.  Meanwhile, the quiet and good-hearted beauty goes unnoticed.  However, rather than censure the men for being so easily lead astray, Gaskell seems to save her barbs for the women.  The flirt, though depicted as sympathetic, is still roundly criticized for her actions, which not only hurt the men but also drag down other women.  The moral of  the story is clear: virtue is to be valued over charm and is indeed a charming attribute for women in its own right.  Live for others, Gaskell reminds her readers.  Virtue is its own reward.

Still, the book does not feel didactic, possibly because Gaskell seems to believe so earnestly in her own message.  The little lessons are naturally entwined in the story and readers can see for themselves the contrast in character between Molly and Cynthia and between Molly and her stepmother.  Molly comes across as a sweet young thing, not saccharine or unrealistic.  Readers will want to cheer for her and hope that she ends up happy.

My one complaint lies with the ending of the novel, which feels a little like a betrayal.  When I read hundreds of pages of a story that is tending in one direction, I fully expect that story to go where it has been heading–not somewhere else.  My understanding is, however, that Gaskell died before the work was finished and that Frederick Greenwood wrote the ending.  So I suppose her and not Gaskell must be blamed.

Overall, Wives and Daughters is an engrossing and a satisfying story.  North and South and Cranford may be Gaskell’s most well-known works.  But, so far, this one is my favorite.

4 stars

7 thoughts on “Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

  1. Sandi says:

    Years ago, I saw an excellent BBC version of Wives and Daughters; the casting was excellent. I then read the book. Your review makes me want to pull it off the shelf for a re-read.


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