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Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell was an influential nineteenth century English writer. Gaskell is particularly known for capturing the new world of the industrial revolution in her novel North and South (1855). Below you will find Elizabeth Gaskell's biography and an exploration of some of her most important works and their themes. We will also look at her significance in the canon of English Literature.

Elizabeth Gaskell's biography

Elizabeth Gaskell was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson on 29th September 1810 in Chelsea, London. Out of eight children, she was one of only two to survive along with her older brother John. Gaskell's father, William Stevenson, was a writer and held a minor position in the Treasury. He was also a devout Unitarian, which had a strong influence on Gaskell's life. Elizabeth Gaskell was named after her mother who came from a successful, well-established family.

Elizabeth Senior died in childbirth when Elizabeth Junior was only thirteen months old and she was sent to live with her mother's sister, Hannah Lumb, in Cheshire. Her time here is thought to have inspired the setting of Cranford (1853). William Stevenson remarried, but Gaskell rarely visited her father and stepmother. When she did visit, she was deeply unhappy. Her elder brother, John, joined the merchant navy in 1820.

Gaskell was educated at home until the age of eleven. From the ages of eleven to sixteen, she was sent to a school that mainly taught Unitarians and Anglicans. The school's ethos promoted female education while still maintaining that women should also have a domestic role.

Elizabeth Gaskell married William Gaskell, an assistant Unitarian minister, in August 1832. The two set up home in Manchester. Gaskell saw much of the poverty of industrial Manchester at this time. This was particularly because she was involved in charitable work as a result of William Gaskell's Unitarian ministry. This is thought to have inspired many of the themes in one of Gaskell's most important novels, North and South. Elizabeth and William Gaskell had four surviving children, all girls. Gaskell lost multiple children young which devastated her.

Gaskell had a literary education and is thought to have written sporadically throughout her early life. But she began writing seriously in the late 1840s. Her first novel Mary Barton: a Story of Manchester Life was published in 1848. Gaskell portrayed the harsh reality of industrial life in Manchester at the time and this upset some local factory owners. She gained some notoriety as a result. This allowed Gaskell to move in important literary circles. She met Charles Dickens and William Wordsworth. Gaskell was also close friends with Charlotte Brontë. She began to write for Dickens' literary magazine Household Words. Gaskell published her next novel, Ruth, in January 1853. This was just as controversial as Mary Barton because it dealt with sexual themes and illegitimate children.

One of Gaskell's most famous novels, Cranford, was published soon after in June of the same year. This had none of the controversy of her previous novels and was very successful. In 1855, Gaskell published another novel that dealt with industrial Manchester, North and South. It was originally serialised in Household Words from 1854-55. She went on to publish numerous texts and short stories. This included The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) written after Brontë's death upon the request of her father.1

Elizabeth Gaskell's Cause of Death

In 1865, Gaskell purchased a home in Hampshire without informing William Gaskell. She was unwell with stress at this point. She was rushing through writing what was to be her last work, Wives and Daughters. While in her new home with her family, Elizabeth Gaskell collapsed from a sudden heart attack. It is thought she passed away instantly. Wives and Daughters was published the next year in 1866 in two volumes, the last novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel

Gaskell's first novel, Mary Barton: a Story of Manchester Life, was published in October 1848. It follows the story of a young woman, the eponymous Mary Barton, as she battles through life in industrial Manchester and also finds love.

An eponymous character is a character whose name makes up the title of a novel. This was common in realist fiction as authors often focused on one central character and their everyday life. This was to make the story more realistic.

The themes of industrial life are dealt with mainly through the character of John Barton, Mary's father. He is a working man and involved in the trade union movement. Barton is also a single father in the wake of his wife's death. He is involved in a complex murder plot that is linked to the other central theme in this novel: love.

We see this theme through the character of Mary as she is caught in a love triangle between Jem Wilson, a working class man, and Harry Carson, the privileged son of a mill owner. Mary's true affections lie with Jem but she does not initially admit this. This is because she believes a marriage to Harry will be socially advantageous. When Harry is murdered and Jem is accused, Mary becomes heavily involved in the efforts to clear Jem's name. She eventually proves successful in this and the couple are allowed a happy ending.

Books by Elizabeth Gaskell

Below is a brief overview of some of Elizabeth Gaskell's other major novels, Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters.

Cranford (1853)

Cranford is perhaps Gaskell's most famous novel because it was originally serialised in Household Words, thus making it episodic. Cranford centres on a community of mostly middle-aged and older women in the fictional rural town of Cranford. They live by a very strict set of old-fashioned social conventions. It is also important that there are mainly women in this community and they are not shown to need men as was often thought at the time. The story is narrated retrospectively in the first person by Mary Smith. She is both an insider and outsider to Cranford culture. She is a former resident of the town but now lives in Drumble (a fictional Manchester). Mary is also much younger than most of the inhabitants of Cranford. She can understand the culture while providing an outside perspective.

There is not necessarily a traditional plot in Cranford. Instead, there are series of small happenings and stories, connected by the characters that reoccur. We meet the Jenkyns sisters, the gossip Miss Pole, and the Honourable Mrs Jamieson, to name a few. Cranford covers every aspect of everyday life for a close rural community at this time, from marriages to deaths. Gaskell focuses on these women as they navigate their lives with their strict set of ideals. It is thought she was capturing a Victorian world that was quickly disappearing.

We were so afraid of being caught in the vulgarity of making any noise in a place of public amusement.- Mary Smith (Cranford, Chp. 9)

North and South (1855)

North and South is another key novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. It touches on many of the same themes of industrial life that Mary Barton does. North and South follows eighteen year old Margaret Hale as she moves from her rural Southern English world to an industrial one in the Northern town of Milton. Again, this is a fictionalised Manchester. We see Margaret come of age and gain maturity in Milton. She loses many of her middle class prejudices. Some of this is through her, at first difficult, relationship with a local factory owner, John Thornton. Thornton has built himself up from poverty which was becoming more common in the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution was a period in Great Britain that lasted from the mid 18th to the mid 19th century. During this time, British industry changed permanently. It moved from largely agricultural to largely industrial and mechanical. The impact of this is still felt today.

Though Mary and John agree on little, her interactions with him teach Mary to respects others' opinions and world views. She also learns much by spending time with Milton's poor who are suffering because of the new industry surrounding them. It is thought that Margaret represents the traditional South in Gaskell's novel whereas John represents the modern North. It could be said that Gaskell is trying to find a balance between the two ways of life in North and South as the two eventually start a relationship. But, it is also possible she is representing life realistically without trying to find any easy solutions.

If you have read North and South, what do you think Elizabeth Gaskell is representing in Margaret and John's relationship?

Wives and Daughters (1866)

This was the last novel Elizabeth Gaskell wrote before her death and it remains unfinished. Once again originally serialised, it was published in two volumes, posthumously. Wives and Daughters centres on Molly Gibson, a young and somewhat vulnerable woman. Her life changes drastically when her father, Dr. Gibson, marries an ex-governess, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. This was so that Molly has a positive maternal influence, but it has the opposite effect. We see Molly navigate the world of love and the nineteenth century marriage market.

The Marriage Market refers to a common theme in nineteenth century literature. This was when writers, often female, explored the conditions for marriage at the time. Because women did not typically work, they were dependant on marrying a man of good income to get by. This was particularly the case for middle and upper class women. As a result, women often married for money and not for love as they had no other option. This is why it was referred to as a market.

Molly is in love with Roger Hamley, the youngest son of an aristocratic family, but he does not initially feel the same. He, instead, comes close to marrying Cynthia, the daughter of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but Cynthia only wants to marry him for his social status. This is an example of the marriage market's influence. Gaskell's novel follows the complex lives of Molly and the other young people she interacts with as they negotiate family and marriage. This is while being subject to very strict societal rules. It is thought that if Gaskell had finished the story, Molly and Roger would have married but she passed away before she could do this.

Major themes in Elizabeth Gaskell's works

We will now explore some of the main themes that appear in Gaskell's work: the Industrial Revolution and Love and Marriage.

The Industrial Revolution

Many of Gaskell's novels explore the revolution of industry that was occurring at the time. This can be seen in Mary Barton and North and South. It is also referenced by the fact that Mary lives in a fictionalised Manchester, a key industrial town, in Cranford.

Industrial towns were relatively new in Gaskell's lifetime. She was writing about the issues these towns were raising in Great Britain. This is obvious in her exploration of trade unions and factory owner's treatment of workers. Gaskell's novels are realist. They explore realistic situations with believable characters doing everyday things.

She uses this to help her explore the realities of life in the new industrial North of England. For example, the poverty and illness of the Higgins family in North and South. It is evident this has been caused by the industrial world they inhabit. This is also tied to the fact that Gaskell often compares the traditional rural world that England is leaving behind to the new modern industrial one that they are adopting, which is most clearly seen in North and South.

Love and marriage

There are few Gaskell novels that don't include some kind of romance or love story. Many of her stories have young women as their protagonist and they are often growing into maturity. This usually involved falling in love in nineteenth century literature.

As we have said, the marriage market was important for middle and upper class women in Gaskell's time. But in her writing, Elizabeth Gaskell tended to allow her heroines to eventually marry for love. Love and marriage often serves the purpose of teaching a lesson in Gaskell's work.

In North and South, Margaret learns to accept others' worldviews in her relationship with John Thornton. In Wives and Daughters, Cynthia is punished when she attempts to marry Roger merely for his high social status. To teach her a lesson, shameful secrets about her past are revealed.

Elizabeth Gaskell portrays many different kinds of relationships in her work but what they often have in common is their happy endings. It is also relevant that some think Gaskell used these love stories to explore more complex social issues.

Remember these marriage plots aren't in all of her work! For example, Cranford is known for its lack of male characters and married women. It subverts typical tropes. Why do you think Gaskell chose to do this?

Facts about Elizabeth Gaskell

  • Charles Dickens came up with the title North and South. Gaskell had wanted to simply call it Margaret Hale.
  • Gaskell often struggled with deadlines when submitting the serialised versions of her work to Household Words and would frequently be late.
  • Gaskell also found it hard to accept Dickens' edits when writing for Household Words and the two often had a difficult relationship!
  • Letters Gaskell wrote to friends show that she struggled to be a traditional mother and wife while also living her life as a writer. She found it hard to find a balance.
  • Gaskell also wrote a large amount of short stories in her life.
  • Mary Barton proved so controversial that members of Gaskell's husband's own congregation burnt copies of it in protest.
  • There have been many film and television adaptations of Elizabeth Gaskell's work. The BBC in particular aired an adaptation of North and South in 2004 starring Richard Armitage and a five part series of Cranford in 2007.
  • Gaskell travelled often, spending a great deal of time in France in particular.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell's letters to friends showcase how much she valued community and connections between people above all else. When she met her, Gaskell even found it hard to understand how Florence Nightingale could put causes above her relationships with others!

Can you think of any examples in Gaskell's work where she prioritises community and human connection?

The importance of Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell is very significant in the canon of English Literature. The majority of her novels are realist fiction. They capture realistic characters doing everyday things with a plausible plot. Her exploration of realism helped Gaskell to capture whatever world she set out to write about, and it is one of the things she is best known for.

Her novels are thought to have accurately tapped into relevant issues at the time. This made them relatable for contemporary audiences. Gaskell addressed the issues of the Industrial Revolution as Britain changed around her and was honest about what she saw.

Her position as a female writer is also important. Gaskell's novels tend to on female characters and the issues they faced. We have said that, as a female writer, Gaskell had her own difficulties. She often prioritised women's stories and gave them a voice. This is perhaps most obvious in Cranford where we see a community of mostly single women who seem to have no need for men.

Elizabeth Gaskell - Key takeaways

  • Elizabeth Gaskell was born on 29th September 1810 in Chelsea.
  • She lost her mother young and spent much of her childhood with her mother's sister, Hannah.
  • Gaskell published many novels and other works in her lifetime, including Mary Barton, Cranford, North and South, and Wives and Daughters.
  • These novels were often first serialised in Charles Dickens's literary magazine, Household Words.
  • Two key themes in Gaskell's writing are the Industrial Revolution and Love and Marriage.
  • Gaskell was known for her realism and ability to capture both social and women's issues in her fiction.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell died in 1865 after a sudden heart attack.

Jenny Uglow, 'Gaskell [née Stevenson], Elizabeth Cleghorn (1810-1865)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004.

Frequently Asked Questions about Elizabeth Gaskell

Elizabeth Gaskell was a nineteenth century English writer. She is best known for her novels that captured social and women's issues in the England of the Industrial Revolution.

Gaskell died of a sudden heart attack in 1865.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote about the themes of the Industrial Revolution and love and marriage.

Elizabeth Gaskell is important because she used her experiences to write realist fiction about the world she was living in. She captured the social issues of the Industrial Revolution very accurately as well as women's issues.

We can never know for sure why an author wrote something. But it is likely Gaskell wrote North and South because she wanted to capture the issues of the new industrial world in England and also deal with the more rural way of life being left behind.

Final Elizabeth Gaskell Quiz

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Who wrote North and South?

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Elizabeth Gaskell

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Who chose the title North and South?

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Charles Dickens

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What is the main conflict in North and South?

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The industrial North versus the rural South

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What does Margaret Hale have to learn in North and South?

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To move past her middle class prejudices

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Why do the Hale family move to Milton?

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Because Mr. Hale gives up his vicarage due to loss of faith

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What are some of the important themes in North and South?

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North vs. South, Love, and Class

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What genres does North and South fall under?

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Social realism and bildungsroman

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Does Gaskell come to a resolution by the end of the novel?

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No, she does not provide easy solutions to difficult issues. Instead she represents them with nuance.

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What does John Thornton represent?

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The industrial North

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What time period in history is North and South set?

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The Industrial Revolution

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What year was Elizabeth Gaskell born?

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1810

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Who did Gaskell spend much of her childhood with?

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Her mother's sister, Hannah Lumb

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What was Gaskell's first novel?

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Mary Barton

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What are two important themes in Elizabeth Gaskell's work?

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The Industrial Revolution and Love and Marriage

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Where were most of Gaskell's novels first published?

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In Charles Dickens's literary magazine, Household Words

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Who did Gaskell write a biography of?

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Charlotte Bronte

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Why was Elizabeth Gaskell an important writer?

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Because she used realism to accurately show the social and women's issues of her day

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Why is Cranford somewhat different to Gaskell's other novels?

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It shows a female only community with little focus on men or marriage

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When did Elizabeth Gaskell die?

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1865

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What was Gaskell's husband's profession?

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Unitarian minister

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What genres does North and South fall under?

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Social realism and bildungsroman

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What are two important themes in North and South?

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Past vs. Present and Social Class

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How does Margaret Hale go against Victorian stereotypes?

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She is an opinionated and influential character that often contradicts the men around her.

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What era was Elizabeth Gaskell representing in North and South?

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The Industrial Revolution

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What is a bildungsroman?

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A genre in which a young character gains maturity by going through many challenges.

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What does Nicholas Higgins represent?

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The new industrial working class and the rise of trade unions

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Who helps Margaret gain maturity?

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John Thornton and Bessy Higgins

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Does Gaskell prioritise either North or South in her novel?

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No, she shows that both have flaws but change is inevitable.

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What class does John Thornton represent?

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Those that have been able to build themselves up from poverty in the new industrial world.

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What positive influence does Margaret have on John Thornton?

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She convinces him to be more humane to his workers and work with Nicholas Higgins to aid this.

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When was Wives and Daughters published?

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1866.

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What genre is Wives and Daughters?

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A bildungsroman.

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Can you remember the definition of a bildungsroman?

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A bildungsroman is a novel that follows a young character as they mature, aided by various challenges.

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What are two important themes in Wives and Daughters?

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The marriage market and maturity.

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What secret from her past is Cynthia hiding?

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That she has promised to marry the unscrupulous Mr. Preston and he has proof of this.

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What was Mrs. Gibson's name before marriage?

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Kirkpatrick.

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Which character significantly matures throughout the novel?

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Molly.

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What is the marriage market?

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The idea that women must make themselves acceptable wives so as to ensure a husband that can support them.

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In Wives and Daughters, which character's story exemplifies the marriage market?

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Cynthia's.

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What three traits can be used to describe Osborne Hamley?

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Unreliable, struggling, loving.

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How does Osborne prove to be a disappointment to his parents?

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He is not successful at university and accrues large debts.

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Why does Cynthia break off her engagement with Roger?

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Because her past with Mr. Preston has been discovered.

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How can we see Molly's immaturity as a child?

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Molly has a violent outburst against her governess that leaves her scared.

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What does Molly often do for those she loves?

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She puts her feelings aside and prioritises her loved ones instead.

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What time period is Wives and Daughters set in?

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The 1830s.

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When was Wives and Daughters published?

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1866.

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What genre is Wives and Daughters?

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A bildungsroman.

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What are two key themes in Wives and Daughters?

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Class and family. 

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What are two relevant aspects of historical context to remember for Wives and Daughters?

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The marriage market and British imperialism.

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What is the modern day name for Abyssinia?

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Ethiopia. 

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