“And she (Molly) had found her way into the library, and used to undo the heavy bars of the shutters if the housemaid had forgotten this duty, and mount the ladder, sitting on the steps, for an hour at a time, deep in some book of old English classics. The summer days were very short to this happy girl of seventeen.”
A coming of age story of sorts, we follow the life of Molly Gibson, young and happy living with her widowed father, Dr. Gibson. She’s cared for by longtime house cook, Betty and Molly’s governess, Miss Eyre (wonder if this was a homage of sorts to Gaskell’s friend Charlotte Brontë). A brief glimpse into Molly’s past at age 12 and fast forward to the coming of age portion of the story, when Gibson realizes a young apprentice, Coxe, has fallen in love with his dear Molly. Determined to discourage any intentions of marriage, Gibson sends Molly to stay with some friends, the Hamleys (the squire and his sickly wife) where Molly can be protected from a lover.
Molly’s mother died when she was young so she’s especially close to her father so we can imagine his desire to keep her close. During this time however, Gibson decides the best way he can help his Molly is to marry again, widowed governess, Hyacinth “Clare” Kirkpatrick. Molly is devastated at such news. Momentarily I felt some sympathy for Clare, but quickly her evil stepmother personality surfaces and we see Clare as a self centered and selfish woman.
Molly, genuine and kind hearted, is a loveable young lady. She’s been the center of her father’s life for so long but once Clare comes into the picture, poor Molly is vexed and in the face of this trial, life seems unbearable.
“It will be very dull when I shall have killed myself, as it were, and live only in trying to do, and to be, as other people like. I don’t see any end to it. I might as well never have lived. And as for the happiness you speak of, I shall never be happy again.”
Roger Hamley, the youngest son of the Hamleys, has befriended Molly and tries to comfort her. Molly takes the advice of Roger and does her best to think of her father’s happiness ahead of her own. Roger’s kindness and concern for Molly are well developed throughout the book. The Hamleys have two sons and a deceased daughter and they have come to view Molly as a sister and a daughter.
Clare, her stepmother, is insensitive to Molly’s feelings and seems to only be interested in appearances and buying pretty things now that she’s married, it’s a most natural thing, since she no longer has to worry about money. Having a husband who can earn a living to take care of a family, Clare is content to think of herself. She complains that Gibson runs about taking care of the sick, and in some instances, deceased patients. Clare doesn’t have much sympathy or fellow feeling for anyone. I was appalled by her attitude when Gibson would go see his patients; she does realize she married a doctor right?
Cynthia, Molly’s new stepsister arrives and I’m surprised at how well they get along. Cynthia admits that she’s never been loved or shown mush affection by her mother, who was and still seems to be interested in what other people think. Cynthia acts selfishly at times but I believe her relationship with her mother has impacted Cynthia’s outlook on life, her impulsive decisions and the way she treats others. But this scene between the two stepsisters is touching and one I’ve remembered long after finishing the book.
“The fire was growing very low, and the lights were waning. Cynthia came softly in, and taking Molly’s listless hand, that hung down by her side, sat at her feet on the rug, chafing her chilly fingers without speaking. The tender action thawed the tears that had been gathering heavily at Molly’s heart, and they came dropping down her cheeks.”
“Oh, how good you are Molly. I wonder, if I had been brought up like you, if I should have been as good. But I’ve been tossed about so.”
I enjoyed this book very much. Elizabeth Gaskell brings us into the everyday lives of the characters. Class, coming of age, marriage, life and love, the everyday happenings in families is brilliantly depicted. Wives and Daughters is another reminder of why Gaskell has become a favorite author for me.