I have read quite a lot of feminist text, but this one had oneof the most brilliant lines in it from a feminist point of view.
Mrs. Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good. She gave up her visits to London; she gave up er sociable pleasure in the company of her fellows in education and position. Her husband, owing to the deficiencies of his early years, disliked association with those to whom he ought to have been an equal; he was too proud to mingle with his inferiors.
He loved his wife all the more dearly for her sacrifices for him; deprives of all her strong interests, she sank into ill-health; nothing definite; only she never was well. (Wives and daughters – chapter 4)
Being a stay-at-home wife with nothing to do is making her sick. She isn’t locked in a room or something, but having nothing to do is physically making her sick. That’s such a brilliant statement in a time where wo
men of that rank was seen as porcelain dolls and needed to be “protected”, not realising that the “protection” was just as as harmful.
How women were allowed to be was set by rules set by men, but often reinforced by women. Very often that is the case today as well. Prude and slut-shaming are just as much used as weapons by girls and women, for whatever reason. In Wives and Daughters this is shown by the varied female cast. Gaskell is great at showing the reason behind why they do the things they do, even if we aren’t supposed to like them.
In the centre of the story you have the step-sisters Molly and Cynthia. Wives and Daughters was Gaskell’s last story, and she never finished it. The ending is a recap by the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, where the story had been published in bulks as was common in the Victorian age. The ending was as much a eulogy, and here the editor brought out Cynthia as the unique character. Molly is kind and clever and all that, but it is Cynthia that breaks the mould.
“Do you think it easier to be a heroine?” [said Molly]
“As far as one knows of heroines from history. I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation—but steady every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!” [said Cynthia] (Wives and Daughters – chapter 19)
Cynthia is a character that is very pretty and charming, which make men fall in love with her. She has experienced emotional abuse in the form of neglect, from her mother, and while she claims she doesn’t care for anyone she is clearly deeply connected emotionally to Molly and Mr. Gibson (Molly’s father and Cynthia’s step-father). Cynthia does things that in Victorian age was considered scandalous, she gets engaged several times, men keep proposing to her and she keeps rejecting them and she is rude to her mother. But we are never meant to dislike her. She isn’t there to make Molly look better. Molly and her are simply sisters, with their pros and cons and deep love for one another. Molly goes out of her way to help Cynthia when she is in trouble, and Cynthia drops everything she has to come help Molly when she learns she is sick. Molly and Cynthia is a prime example of a story passing the Bechdel test and why the Bechdel test is important. Female companionship can be so varied, it can be so many different things and this isn’t shown as much as the variation of male companionship. This is especially amazing since there is a love triangle here, with Molly being in love with a man in love with Cynthia, and it works. For anyone who say they have never read a good love triangle, this is a good love triangle. While it might be obvious for some (this isn’t Bronté), you still have a small doubt because none of the girls are painted as bad. For Molly, our main heroine, both outcomes will be positive, because even if Cynthia ends up with the guy it would still mean Cynthia and the guy is happy and that is enough for Molly. They aren’t rivals, but friends and sisters who just happen to be in a love triangle together.
Wives and Daughters isn’t a good feminist text just because it points out to double standards regarding women (which it does), how women suffer if they aren’t challenged the way men get to be challenged (which it does), or how women are forced to view their life based on what pleases men and are scrutinized when they don’t have men as their main focus (which it does). Wives and Daughters is a brilliant book because it is a good example of literature that we lack. You can have romance, heck you can even have two woman in love with the same man, but this books writes about real people with flaws as well as strengths. It shows female characters on the bases of being humans first, women second and the consequences of that. Wives and Daughters is a good feminist text because it’s just a really, really good story.
At the end here I want to talk a little about why I love Gaskell more than Austen by comparing the love story in Wives and Daughters and Mansfield Park. There will be spoilers in regarding who ends up with who. If you don’t want to be spoiled go read Wives and Daughters (and Mansfield Park) come back and continue reading. If you want to read on, you have been warned.
Gutenberg Wives and Daughters http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/4274
Librivox Wives and Daughters https://librivox.org/search?q=wives%20and%20daughters&search_form=advanced
Gutenberg Mansfield Park http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/141
Librivox Mansfield Park https://librivox.org/search?q=mansfield%20park&search_form=advanced
I did mention this in my North and South review, but I want to mention it again because Wives and Daughters and Mansfield Park has a very similar love story, so it’s very difficult not to compare the two.
In both stories the main character falls in love with someone they have known for years, but who are in love with someone else. In Mansfield Park that the couple (Edmund and Fanny) end up together is described like this
Edmund had greatly the advantage of her in this respect. He had not to wait and wish with vacant affection for an object worthy to succeed her in them. Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love. (Mansfield Park – Chapter 48)
I really liked Mansfield Park as a whole, but it does read as if Edmund is just settling for Fanny in stead of loving her romantically. Especially since
“Fanny’s friendship was all that he had to cling to.” (Mansfield Park– chapter 47).
In Wives and Daughters, the main interest Roger goes out to work for two years abroad. During the time he has to come home for reasons. He comes home and meets the main character Molly, whom he has known for years and has been sick while he has been away. Roger is, at this time, still in love with someone else.
Molly felt herself colour all over with the consciousness of his regard. To do something to put and end to it, she looked up, and showed him her beautiful soft grey eyes, which he never remembered to have noticed before. (Wives and Daughters – chapter 55)
By placing us in Roger’s head and letting us know this Gaskell is showing us how his feelings towards her are changing. Roger isn’t in love with Molly at this time, but we see how love will be a natural result of it. We understand it, not just because Molly is a great character, but because we see the change. This isn’t the last time we see Roger’s thoughts, and having this does so much. Gaskell is one of the best romance writers I know, because of this.