rating: 3 of 5 stars
I knew I was undertaking a possibly futile adventure when I began reading Elizabeth Gaskell's unfinished novel. Writing it in serialized form from 1864-1866, Gaskell died almost literally before the last 20 pages were completed. So you have the entire story except the resolution (kind of important). But that in itself felt like a fun experiment, and in fact, it was. Instead of finding a neatly wrapped up ending, you suddenly encounter a 150 fifty year old editor's note explain the sad loss of Elizabeth Gaskell. This lovely little article succeeds both in laying out the remaining story elements based on Gaskell's notes, while also serving as a tender eulogy to a beloved woman and author (a not too common combo in 1860). This uniqueness of this story interrupted over a century ago, makes the ending almost more enjoyable. It feels quite a bit like time travel, sort of a "this just in!" breaking news announcement that reaches out right from 1866 to you on your sofa.
The unique nature of the book's ending turned out to be worth the read. In many ways, its hard to imagine the book's original ending being much more interesting anyway. The story is simple and charming and in no way builds towards anything climactic, so not much is lost in the missing pages, except to read Gaskell's own words of course.
But the book is charming, and I don't mean that as an insult. There's not much in the way of passion, intrigue or even really plot, but I think "Wives and Daughters" has an amazing portrait of a mother/daughter duo bound by one's narcissism and the other's sarcastic refusal to be consumed by the other. I've never really encountered true sarcasm in Victorian novels, and certainly not in simple village stories. The character of Cynthia is a remarkable capturing of truth- a girl who seems both caustically oblivious and insensitive to deep emotions, while also being acutely critical of facade and shallowness in others. I loved how she ignored her mother and the mother never understood Cynthia's insults. A character like Cynthia (if she exists at all) would typically be a "bad" character, but Gaskell gives her almost equal footing with the heroine Molly, and clearly tends to be on Cynthia's side more than her mother's. For all I've heard of Gaskell being a conservative female author of the period (she was a friend and biographer of Charlotte Bronte who was often shocked by Bronte's "wild" beliefs and manners) I was delighted to see some real language and psychological battles going on between characters.
All in all, "Wives and Daughters" is kind of like a sunny day that you spend inside watching movies. You enjoy your time, but also have part of you always aware you're missing something out there. Read, but expect to be quietly amused, not blown away.
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