Tuesday, 22 October 2002

Wives and daughters

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 10.

Just read:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters.

This is a big fat nineteenth century novel. It’s not even finished (Gaskell died before she could finish it), and my edition was still over 600 pages long. (It was obviously pretty close to finished at this point, so I wasn't too put out by having it suddenly stop on me.) W&D is principally the story of Molly Gibson’s coming of age, starting with a couple of chapters with her at 12, and then jumping forward to her as a 17 and 18 year old. It’s a romance set in a small village, but that is not to say that the rest of the world is ignored, or that the setting feels constricted. One character even goes off on an expedition as a naturalist (emulating Darwin, who Gaskell knew), and there’s quite a bit about becoming Senior Wrangler, and a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The characters make or break a novel like this, and Gaskell does well here. The central characters are all drawn believably, and they’re all interesting individuals. Molly Gibson is fairly mild in behaviour most of the time, but possesses definite opinions, which the reader is party to. Her immediate family and the Hamley family all feel like real people too. Importantly, they're almost all portrayed sympathetically, which means that you care about what happens to them.

It would be a gross lie to claim that the plot zips along, but it keeps to a steady pace, and kept me engrossed. Some aspects of it reflect a different era, and can make appreciation a little difficult. For example, various characters are forever getting sick, and convalescence is a major activity. The importance of a young girl’s reputation is also slightly hard to believe, as is the idea of letter passing and secret tête-à-têtes being worthy of scandal. Just as in Pride and Prejudice the heroine is the last to realise the identity of her true love, but this plotting convention, and the other aspects mentioned above, are no obstacle to a very enjoyable read.

Now reading:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing, a collection of short stories.