I try to stay away from spoilers. Well, when it comes to books anyway. Of course, there area some instances where a little more information comes in handy. For example, reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s final novel, Wives and Daughters. Going in, I didn’t know it was her last novel let alone that she died before she could finish it.
In Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell centers her novel around Molly Gibson. Molly’s world changes when her widower father, prompted by the power of suggestion country gossip generates, marries a local widow with a daughter of her own. The match, meant to give Molly a responsible mothering influence as she reaches adulthood, involves more trials and moral dilemmas as Molly’s new sister, Cynthia, and her striving mother put pressure on Molly’s relationship with her father. The changes to their household make-up also change the way they interact with their local society.
Gaskell’s writing style and her approach to plot and characters are very similar to that of Jane Austen, though more understated in their execution. The marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Gibson is definitely reminiscent of the Bennets’ marriage in Pride and Prejudice but with more evident malice. Where Jane Austen’s novels follow their characters as they travel around England, Gaskell’s characters’ journeys beyond the neighborhood and society of Hollingford are limited to accounts and descriptions through letters. But at the same time, there is a greater sense of the world beyond England.
Though the plot and characters are predictable, they manage to hold the reader’s attention and interest. Molly Gibson is very naive and self-conscious when it comes to social gossip and morality but has the right amount of charm and she loses her temper when frustrated enough to be endearing rather than maddening. Cynthia’s manipulative nature is balanced by her sincere desire for Mr. Gibson’s approval. And there’s a sense of satisfaction each time Mrs. Gibson is put in her place by Lady Harriet.
The novel’s default ending is abrupt but there is a clear indication of exactly how it would end. In fact, just as you know within the first few chapters of a Jane Austen novel who will marry who among the central characters, it is long apparent just who Molly will one day marry, even though the final chapter with it’s neatly tied loose ends is absent. The afterword to the Barnes & Noble edition includes a few references to Gaskell’s intentions for the final chapter and lament more that the world will never be able to read it in her words rather than that we will never know how the novel would end.
Once I moved past the shock of unexpected enlightenment, I realized that I actually liked this unintended conclusion better. It has a modern feel in its openended-ness. Time isn’t rushed to force the resolution everyone knows is coming; instead the novel’s final note is another of Mrs. Gibson’s petty, unnecessary and self-pitying moments that will be just another way to measure the passage of time before Molly reaches her inevitable but much deserved happiness. I look forward to picking North and South up from my shelf and tracking down a copy of Cranford to get a feel for some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s completed works.