Clear Conscience, Brave Heart, Can’t Lose! Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Invalid_-_Louis_Lang_-_overallA good friend of mine has been making a long, difficult recovery from not one but two concussions. You hear about these injuries all the time — or you do, at least, in a country as hockey-obsessed as Canada — but (perhaps because hockey players are rashly determined to get back on the ice a.s.a.p.?) I had never fully understood how debilitating, not to mention depressing, they can be. So I have learned a lot from my poor friend’s experience, though mostly from a distance, because one of the keys to her rehabilitation has been near-total isolation.

She recently published a superb little essay that describes her suffering in terms sure to resonate with those of us who live a lot in our heads. “My brain is not my home anymore,” she explains;

When you feel angry or sad, you might retreat to a space you know well and take for granted – a space comfortably furnished, where things are in their places. It’s as though my home has been vandalized, the furniture thrown around and the walls defaced. An alarm system rings and rings and cannot be shut off. But I have nowhere else to go. There is no shelter from this, no comfort.

She was put on the kind of “rest cure” most of us have only read about in “The Yellow Wallpaper” (which, ironically, she had not read until she was confined to her room and climbing the walls herself): she was “ordered to retreat to a cone of silence and darkness – no music, no talk, no light, no reading, no computer.” No reading! The horror. But eventually she was at least allowed to listen to books, and she credits Victorian fiction in particular with saving her: in it she “found a world not unlike my own – inhabited by invalids in dark sick rooms.”

She’s moving gradually back into the outside world and so I had the pleasure of running into her recently at work, where I complimented her on her returning health and on her essay. But, I had to ask, which Victorian novels had she been reading that were so full of invalids? I could think of plenty of characters who get ill, but I somehow couldn’t recall a novel that kept us for long in the kind of sickbed environment she described. “Well, Wives and Daughters, for one,” she replied — and that made me realize how long it had been since I’d read Gaskell’s final work. It seemed about time, plus these grim winter days I too could use some “lessons of endurance, patience in suffering and of the deep consolation of human companionship.” So I loaded it up on my trusty Sony Reader from Project Gutenberg (how can it be that I don’t own a hard copy?) and settled in — and it proved just what I needed to read this week.

wivesanddaughtersoxford If I were a publicist, I’d probably pitch Wives and Daughters as “Jane Austen meets Anthony Trollope, with a dash of George Eliot”: it has Austen’s minute attention to social behavior, and something of her stinging satirical wit, too, but it’s paced like a Trollope novel and dwells with Eliot-like interest on moral quandaries and their repercussions. Yet to package Gaskell as a composite of other writers is to do her an injustice by implying that there isn’t a voice or quality that’s distinctly her own. What is it exactly, though? Here’s what the editor of the Cornhill Magazine had to say in the “Concluding Remarks” added in lieu of a conclusion to the novel, which was unfinished at Gaskell’s death in 1865:

While you read any one of the last three books we have named [Sylvia’s LoversCousin Phyllis, and Wives and Daughters], you feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those which rot without it.

I barely remember Sylvia’s Lovers and have never read Cousin Phyllis, but this is certainly a good description of the world and the tone of Wives and Daughters. The novel is hardly full of exemplary people: there’s a great deal of pettiness, jealousy, spite, even coercion. But they are concentrated primarily in a few people less pleasant than the rest, and while the other characters have plenty of flaws and make plenty of mistakes, they are, by and large, trying to do their best to live honest, kind, “wholesome” lives, even when circumstances (personal or even historical) conspire against them.

There’s a wonderful fairy-tale quality to the novel’s opening line:

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl . . .

The rest of the novel follows this little girl, Molly Gibson, to adulthood. Molly is an extremely likable heroine. She’s honest, intelligent, sincere, loyal, and conscientious. She speaks her mind, but she couldn’t be less like sassy Elizabeth Bennet; she stands up for herself, but there’s no trace of Jane Eyre in her. In other words, she’s not in any way a rebel: rather than fighting against injustices or making demands for herself, she stands by or fights for the people she loves. She’s a strong feminine character, you could say (rather than the trendy “strong female character) which means she is a close cousin (unsurprisingly) to Margaret Hale in North and South, who also seeks to maximize the strengths she has as a woman — though Margaret presses harder than Molly against the ways her sex limits her actions.

Molly’s path is occasionally thorny, especially after her widowed father (with the best intentions) marries again. She doesn’t exactly get an evil step-mother, but the second Mrs. Gibson is passive-aggressive in ways that are mostly comical but also sometimes borderline sociopathic. Gaskell is particularly snarky about her self-serving pretensions about her relationship with the aristocratic family where she was once the governess: after one visit from Lady Harriet, “all the rest of that day her conversation had an aristocratic perfume hanging about it.” Mr. Gibson’s remarriage also brings his daughter a step-sister, Cynthia, whose vivacity and lightness of character make her a perfect foil to earnest Molly.

Wives and Daughters is another in the great catalog of what I think of, following Anita Brookner, as “tortoise literature”. “In my books,” Brookner notes,

 it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero. . . . The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. . . . In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. . . . Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically, . . . hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation.

Cynthia is every bit the hare, but Wives and Daughters is Molly’s book from start to finish. Because reticence is one of her virtues, at times it is as painful as Persuasion as she keeps her own feelings to herself while becoming the faithful confidante of pretty much everyone else. Early on, in fact, she is troubled by the moral pressure she feels to suppress herself:

Thinking more of others’ happiness than of her own was very fine; but did it not mean giving up her very individuality, quenching all the warm love, the true desires, that made her herself? Yet in this deadness lay her only comfort; or so it seemed.

This quandary puts her in good literary company, but it’s more likely in Gaskell’s world than in Eliot’s that patient altruism will be rewarded eventually, so the overall atmosphere is less fraught. Still, Molly needs plenty of stoicism. She faces loss and even scandal:

Every one was civil to her, but no one was cordial; there was a very perceptible film of difference in their behaviour to her from what it was formerly; nothing that had outlines and could be defined. But Molly, for all her clear conscience and her brave heart, felt acutely that she was only tolerated, not welcomed. She caught the buzzing whispers of the two Miss Oakes’s, who, when they first met the heroine of the prevailing scandal, looked at her askance . . .

There’s not much suspense in following Molly’s progress towards the inevitable happy ending, but there’s a great deal of satisfaction in watching her make her steadfast way along and knowing that she will finally earn the recognition and love she deserves.

Wives and Daughters seems to me a very accomplished novel. The various family and romantic entanglements of the plot are deftly handled, and there’s plenty of humor and pathos in them. There’s also plenty of interest in the novel’s historical setting, and in the way the characters embody different forces of social change or stasis — the Hamley brothers, for instance, with one a languidly ailing aristocrat and the other a rugged scientist who earns, rather than inherits, his place in the world. Though in this way it is at least implicitly political, Wives and Daughters is a much subtler book than North and South, one that takes more time just to enjoy the scenery:

It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging-pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short—not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge’s wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind.

Oh, and there are indeed lots of invalids in Wives and Daughters. From kind Mrs. Hamley to crusty Lady Cumnor — and even, on occasion, Molly herself — my friend had plenty of fellow sufferers. I’m so glad that she found at least this comfort during her darkest days — and I hope her recovery continues!

3 thoughts on “Clear Conscience, Brave Heart, Can’t Lose! Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters

  1. Jessica February 15, 2015 / 11:13 am

    Rohan, you have impossibly hit three of my areas of interest with this post! First, thank you to the Globe and Mail link. I plan to share that essay with my ethics committee colleagues at the hospital.

    Second, having recently been ill, but too sick to hold up a book, I watched Wives and Daughters on your recommendation. I really liked it but I was a bit detached and I wonder whether it was the book or the adaptation. For example, the romance left me at best lukewarm. You say there is not much suspense, and I agree, but there was almost no energy in the romance either. Good Eyre and Austen film adaptations both illuminate how so much was at stake in such seemingly small events for women at the time, but also give a 21st century viewer a sense of urgency. I felt this was lacking.

    That said, your post made me interested in the book. I just happened to be teaching Susan Wolf’s classic essay, “Moral Saints” on Friday. Wolf describes the “loving saint” in just the terms Molly uses. Wolf rejects the ideal of the loving saint and any moral theory that requires it. She quotes Orwell: “Many people generally do not wish to be saints, and it is probably that those who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings.” The tension between being a good moral agent and being a fully developed, unique human being can be a tough one to finesse for some moral theories.

    Finally, it is always wonderful to see a FNL reference!


    • Rohan Maitzen February 15, 2015 / 12:41 pm

      I’ll have to watch the adaptation again now with that question of urgency in mind. I think there is some real emotional intensity in the novel: we’re (or, I was) pretty caught up in Molly’s yearning and it’s hard to watch Cynthia and Roger with her — worse than Anne Elliot watching Louisa and Wentworth, almost! But the stakes are more narrowly personal than they are in North & South, where the courtship is so bound up in really fraught political and class issues.

      I’ll have to look up the Wolf essay: it sounds like it would be relevant to my thinking about Middlemarch too. One thing I think Gaskell does very well is show how difficult it is to sustain the kind of self-effacing goodness her heroines manage. Both Margaret and Molly find their good feminine lives pretty burdensome — a part of North & South I find very interesting is when Margaret is finally alone in the house for a bit and she feels such enormous relief at not having to help or even listen to anyone else, just for a while. And Molly struggles hard to keep her frequent anger and frustration, as well as her own needs, to herself. In that respect Gaskell seems rather less essentialist about gender than you’d kind of expect: it’s clear that these women are performing their roles as women, not finding them entirely natural.


  2. Karen Bourrier February 16, 2015 / 11:53 pm

    Thanks for this post–working in disability studies, I think I see invalidism and sickroom scenes everywhere in the Victorian novel. My favourite study on the subject is Miriam Bailin’s Life in the Sickroom: the Art of Being Ill.


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