Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Bookclub Edition 1: Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters" (or: 1001 Footnotes)

Guess what, people: I am able to READ again. Not that I forgot how to at any time, but finding the time to sit down with a good book was near impossible. Since December I have now been taking the bus to work, which means about 1 hour per day TO MYSELF! And since I have an awesome employer who seriously provides a library for its employees, I also have plenty of access to books of various qualities. And since my interests are also wide-spread you may look forward to interesting (or less so) book reviews. My goal would be a book a month, but honestly, I'm not holding my breath, and I'm definitely NOT stressing; so here we go!

I came across "Wives and Daughters" after finishing a similar book written by a more contemporary author and remembering having watched about 15 minutes of the BBC mini series when we still had access to Netflix. During the first 20 or so pages I seriously pondered putting it down again since I had some difficulties getting into the style of a 19th-century female author. But pressing on, I got into it, and was kind of sad when I was through. Yes, there is no big, exciting story with dramatic crises (at least not for the 21st-century reader), but Elizabeth Gaskell describes her characters in a very detailed way that still leaves enough room to identify with the main character, Molly (wishing for her to grow some serious balls) and develop a deep dislike for her selfish and egocentric stepmother, Hyacinth.

The story: The books starts with a scene when young Molly, daughter of the doctor of the village of Holligford, is invited to the annual ball at the Lord and Lady Cumnor's mansion for the first time. She suffers a heatstroke and is brought into the house by the governess, who promises to wake her in time to return home. However, she is forgotten and wakes at dark, being usered through the large house and forced to dine with the Lord's family, and possibly to spend the night had her father not showed up to "save" her. Years later, Molly is 17 now, her father, widowed since Molly was a small child, finds a love note from his apprentice to his daughter and decides to get her out of the house. Hesitantly Molly follows the invitation to stay with the wife of "squire" Hamley, an old family of land owners in Hollingford, to provide her with company; there, she also meets the family's sons, talented and handsome Osborne and slower, rather awkward Roger. During her time away from home, Dr. Gibson is convinced b ord Cumnor that it might be the best to remarry to provide Molly with a mother who would guide her during this difficult time of growing up. His choice is Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, the Cumnor's former governess, who also has a daughter, Cynthia, in Mollys age, who is going to school in France. Molly, at first devastated about the news of her father's second marriage, arranges herself with the new situation after being given advice by Roger to think about her father's happiness before her own. After the wedding, the life at the Gibson household changes dramatically with the new Mrs. Gibson taking over the household, but Molly finds a confidante in her stepsister after her arrival in Hollingford. Some time with highs and lows follows, especially after it has become clear that Mrs. Gibson wants to see her daughter married to Osborne Hamley, whose father, however, sees him marrying a rich heiress of old blood. During a futher stay at the Hamleys, during which Mrs. Hamley dies, Molly learns about Osborne's secret wife, a former French servant girl, but pledges to never mention this secret to anyone. While Osborne continues to fail in his university career and is forced to return to Hamley Hall, Roger earns all the academic honors that were expected from Osborne. During a visit back in Hollingford, Roger meets and falls in love with Cynthia, who by then is known to attract men; it is then when Molly notices her own interest in Roger, but suppresses her feelings for him in favor of Cynthia's happiness. When Roger embarks on a research quest to Africa, he leaves Cynthia with an open engagement. Short time later, Molly learns Cynthia's dark secret: she is unhappily and unwillingly engaged to Lord Hollingford's land agent, who lend her money once and offered marriage a short time later to the distressed Cynthia. Soon, he insists on her fulfilling her promise to marry him, while Cynthia tries to end the engagement by repaying him the loan and ask for her love letters back. As the agent refuses, Molly intervenes and forces him to return the letters, risking her own reputation as she is seen with him in "promiscuous" situations. As the scandal unfolds in rural Hollingford, Cynthia leaves for a longer visit with her aunt and uncle in London, returning with yet another suitor, who she finally, after long encouragement from her mother, agrees to marry. After Osborne's sudden death and the unexpected appearance of his wive and young son, the Hamley family requires once again Molly's help and intervention, which he offers until she breaks down fro exhaustion. A short time later, Roger, who by then had received the news about his broken engagement and his brother's death, returns a changed man, who, for the first time, sees Molly for the beautiful young woman she has become, but doesn't dare to propose, being ashamed of asking her after an engagement with the capricious Cynthia. Upon his return to Africa he asks her for a flower from a bouquet he brought her and promises to return to her after his researches have ended in another six month.

The story ended here, cut short by the author'S sudden death, but from conversations it is known that upon his return from Africa, Roger would present Molly with the dried flower and propose, which she would, of course, accept. Mrs. Gaskell writes in the wonderfully "antiquated" style of the period. The text is full of quotes from poems and fables as well as hints to famous characters from classical myth and history. While for today's reader (like me) it can take some time to get used to it (the many, many footnotes in my edition were mostly more disturbing than helpful), it is worth the effort, since Gaskell rewards with immaculate detail and a journey into a time the reader would want to encounter while at the same time be happy to not be entangled in all the little detail and formalities of 19th century rural England. The perfect unusual chick-flick!

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