There is nothing more satisfying to an intrepid reader such as myself than picking up a brick of a book, and working your way through it. To me, reading is as much a tactile event as a mental event, and my last read, Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell, is certainly a satisfying read in terms of heft, but not much else…
Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and the intimates in her life. Set in Regency England (think Jane Austen’s time-period), Molly is the daughter of the physician that services her village and the surrounding areas. Molly’s mother died when she was very young, and so she was raised by her father and the long-term domestic staff he employed. As she grows older, Mr. Gibson realizes he’s woefully inadequately prepared to raise a young woman, and so marries the former governess of the local Earl’s household. The story of Wives and Daughters revolves around Molly’s relationship with the new Mrs. Gibson, her friendships with the other town’s people, her relationship with her new step-sister (Cynthia), and the new sisters’ quest for love.
In a lot of ways, this book was an enjoyable read because it reminded me of the things that I love in Jane Austen’s work. The dialogue was quick-moving, the characters were a hodge-podge of the sympathetic and ridiculous, and the daily lives of Regency women were dynamically presented. And yet, this is a big book that could have used some judicious editing; while all the pieces come together, as I was reading it, I was wondering why Gaskell was taking so long in telling her story.
And the telling of that story wasn’t what I expected. For a book entitled Wives and Daughters, one would expect the plot to revolve around how the woman in the story interact with the paternalistic figure(s) in the book. To a certain extent, that dynamic existed, but it was overshadowed by the relationships between the women; a much better title would have been “Mothers and Sisters.” But I suppose that goes to the era in which Gaskell was writing – as the wife of a Reverend in Victorian England, she brought her world view to bear on how she interpreted her own work. It’s something of a shame, really.
Other than these flaws in the back-ground noise of the book, I found the characters to be dynamic, the book’s a fast read (despite the social moralizing), and the plot is interesting. My one complaint about the book is the ending – it leaves the reader hanging; Gaskell could have taken another 20 pages to round-up all her loose ends, but instead she leaves the story unsatisfyingly unfinished.
So, finally verdict? I’m not entirely sure. I enjoyed reading the book, but in retrospect (and after writing this review), I’m wondering why I enjoyed it so much. I know I’m interested in reading more of Gaskell’s works, so that’s something. But would I recommend this one? If you’re a die-hard fan of Jane Austen, then yes – I think you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re looking for a satisfying read in terms of tactile experience (which all die-hard readers enjoy occasionally, I think), then yes – this one would be for you. But if you’re looking for a light-hearted romp through Regency England, then no – I would pass on this one.