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Wives and Daughters is Mrs Gaskell's last novel (doesn't the name Mrs Gaskell make her sound a little different from JANE Austen, or CHARLOTTE Bronte?!) and is in fact unfinished. But don't let that put you off as only the final chapter is missing. The story follows Molly Gibson, a young, contemplative and slightly 'worthy' young girl. Her father remarries, bringing a new step-mother and -sister to Molly. The book concentrates (as with many Gaskell books) on the relationships of the three women. Molly's step-mother is a painfully weak and manipulative woman, but by far the most interesting character is the step-sister Cynthia. With Cynthia, Gaskell walks the line between an often likeable character and someone who seems at heart selfish. This intriguing characterisation makes the book, because it removes the predictability there might otherwise have been. Elizabeth Gaskell died before finishing the novel, but only the tying up of ends remains and she communicated her plans to her editor and these are included in the book. This story has depth and deft charactisation and is a joy to devour!
Wives and Daughters is set in the mid-19th century in the small village of Hollingford, in rural England. The Industrial Revolution hasn't yet thrown the country into turmoil, and the railway is just beginning to cut a swathe through the land. It sounds old-fashioned, (and there are themes in the novel which date it) but Gaskell's witty, warm tale of love and longing is surprisingly contemporary. Much of the fun in Wives And Daughters comes from Gaskell's sprightly characterisation, and willful insistence on the unconventional hero and heroine, both worthy, principled, and a little tedious. Molly Gibson, the doctor's daughter, is intelligent, spiritedly dutiful and given to much silent endurance. The object of her affections is Squire Hamley's younger son Good Roger! Kind Roger! Dear Roger!, a sort of duller Darwin. The course of true love doesn't run smooth, thanks in the main, to the scintillating Cynthia, Molly's step sister. Cynthia is a glorious creation, willful, sinful and incredibly attractive, who, with her French education, strolls through the novel with the free stately step of some wild animal of the forest--moving almost, as it were, to the continual sound of music. Cynthia's mother, the epitome of snobbery and self-deceit, whose words were ready-made clothes, and never fitted individual thoughts adds to the piquant entertainment. The novel revolves around the trails and tribulations, the questionable reputations of the inhabitants of Hollingford. It was Gaskell's last and most mature work, powerful and engrossing in structure and unfinished. As her daughter reported, in January 1866, Elizabeth Gaskell died: quite suddenly, without a moments warning, in the midst of a sentence leaving the last chapter incomplete. Wives and Daughters is just a few pages short of an all embracing happy ending.