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Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters (1866) was the final book written and published by British novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. It was never fully completed. Wives and Daughters follow the life of young Molly Gibson as she deals with love and family in 1830s England.

Below is a summary of Gaskell's novel and an explanation of its genre. You will also find an analysis of key themes and characters in Wives and Daughters.

Wives and Daughters: book summary

Wives and Daughters revolves around the life of Molly Gibson, a young English woman and an only child brought up by her widower father, Dr. Gibson. Readers first see Molly as a young girl. She and her father are visiting the home of a local aristocratic family, Lord and Lady Cumnor. Molly becomes lost, but is found and treated kindly by the family's governess, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. However, Mrs. Kirkpatrick forgets to retrieve Molly from the bedroom she has placed her in to rest. Molly is very distressed until her father can come and take her home.

Wives and Daughters moves forward chronologically. Molly is now a beautiful but somewhat naive young woman. Men are beginning to show an interest in her, which worriesries her father. Dr. Gibson sends Molly to stay with the Hamleys, friends of the Gibson family. The Hamleys are an aristocratic family who have found themselves in a difficult financial situation. In Hamley Hall, Molly meets the family's two sons, Roger and Osborne. Osborne is the eldest, and his parents have placed all their hopes upon him to marry well. Roger, the youngest Hamley, and Molly become fast friends.

While Molly is away, Dr. Gibson decides he should marry to provide his daughter with a maternal figure. He marries Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who he thinks to be a good match. Molly is apprehensive about Mrs. Kirkpatrick, but tries to get along with her for her father's sake. Mrs. Kirkpatrick has a daughter, Cynthia, who Molly soon bonds with. Cynthia is much more worldly than Molly is. However, Cynthia also has a troubled past. She is secretly committed to marry the untrustworthy gambler, Mr. Preston. He has letters that prove her promise of marriage and is blackmailing Cynthia with them.

Molly continually visits Hamley Hall. She discovers that Osborne has secretly married a French Catholic maid and she is pregnant with his child. Molly keeps this secret to herself since this secret is shameful for Osborne. Further, Osborne's relationship with his parents is already strained. Mrs. Hamley falls very ill during this time and Molly acts as a loyal companion and carer for her until her death.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick wishes to find a good marital match for Cynthia. She organises for Cynthia and Osborne to begin a relationship. However, this falls apart when Osborne becomes ill. Mrs. Kirkpatrick then tries to match up Cynthia and Roger instead. She is successful, and Roger proposes to Cynthia just before he leaves for a two year expedition to Africa. Cynthia insists the engagement is kept secret. This is very upsetting for Molly, who has fallen in love with Roger.

Cynthia is very concerned about Mr. Preston's blackmail powers over her. Molly resolves to fix this situation and does so. However, this temporarily damages her reputation. Cynthia's past situation with Mr. Preston is discovered, and she is forced to break off her engagement with Roger. She leaves for London and quickly marries a professional man named Mr. Henderson.

Osborne passes away from his illness. Molly then tells Mr. Hamley about the existence of Osborne's French wife and his son, who has now been born. Roger has also now returned from Africa. Molly convinces the Hamleys to accept Osborne's wife and child as part of their family.

Wives and Daughters: ending

Roger is soon due to return to Africa. However, he realises he has feelings for Molly. Roger is somewhat embarrassed that it has been so difficult for him to understand his own feelings. He speaks to Dr. Gibson and receives his blessing to profess his love for Molly. However, a series of events prevent Roger from speaking to Molly before departing for Africa.

It is at this point that Wives and Daughters ends. Elizabeth Gaskell passed away suddenly while writing. It is thought that Gaskell told a friend she intended to end her novel with Roger returning from Africa and confessing his deep love for Molly. However, we can never know this for certain!

Wives and Daughters: book

In analysing Gaskell's novel, it is important to consider its genre. Wives and Daughters can be classified as a bildungsroman.

A bildungsroman novel follows a typically young character as they grow into maturity. A series of challenges usually aid this. Famous examples of bildungsromans include Jane Austen's Emma (1815) and Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë.

In Wives and Daughters, Molly Gibson comes of age throughout the novel. Readers see her as a young child and a naive young woman. Her father fears for her, and this is why he sends her to Hamley Hall. Unlike her well-travelled step-sister Cynthia, Molly knows very little about the world.

Even though Gaskell could not complete Wives and Daughters, Molly is a much more well-rounded character by the end of the text. She has faced many struggles and challenges that have pushed her towards maturity. These include contending with her feelings for Roger despite his engagement to Cynthia. Molly takes the mature route of keeping how she feels private, despite the pain this causes her. She is also exposed to many adult situations in Wives and Daughters. For example, Molly must keep the secret of Osborne's wife and child. She also comes face to face with death in her role as Mrs. Hamley's dutiful carer.

Wives and Daughters: themes

Now let's look at the themes present in Wives and Daughters.

Wives and Daughters: the marriage market

As in many novels of the nineteenth century, the marriage market plays a key role in Wives and Daughters.

The marriage market was a common concept for many centuries in Britain. It was a real concern for many women and was frequently discussed in literature. The marriage market refers to the reality that women at this time had to make themselves appear to be a good match for their prospective husbands. Their society did not consider it acceptable for women to work; therefore, they needed to marry a man of good wealth to ensure they had a stable life. This particularly impacted middle and upper-class women. Women often married for money and not love.

Cynthia's story exemplifies the marriage market. Her mother, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, or at this stage in the novel Mrs. Gibson, does everything she can to ensure that Cynthia finds a good husband. At first, she attempts to match her with Osborne Hamley. This falls apart when Osborne's illness becomes apparent. She then moves on to arrange for Cynthia to spend a great deal of time with Roger. It is obvious that Roger is an intelligent and capable man with good prospects, making him an advantageous husband for Cynthia.

Molly has fallen in love with Roger by this point in Wives and Daughters. Molly's love for Roger is contrasted with Cynthia's lack of strong feelings for him. Molly also becomes increasingly uncomfortable with Mrs. Gibson's efforts to orchestrate scenarios in which Cynthia and Roger can be together.

Mrs. Gibson was constantly making projects for throwing Roger and Cynthia together, with so evident a betrayal of her wish to bring about an engagement, that Molly chafed at the net spread so evidently, and at Roger's blindness in coming so willingly to be entrapped. (Chp. 31)

Molly feels uneasy about Mrs. Gibson's actions, but Gaskell is showing the reality of the marriage market in Wives and Daughters.

Wives and Daughters: maturity

Wives and Daughters is a bildungsroman, so the theme of maturity is key. As we have briefly explored, Molly significantly matures throughout this story. She learns how to process and deal with her emotions maturely and measuredly.

As a young girl, Molly is often angry and engages in outbursts. She once erupted into a 'violent passion' because the actions of her governess upset her. This left Molly's governess scared and unsettled. Molly has strong feelings and wants to express them.

By the time she is a young woman, these impulses have begun to change. Molly regulates her feelings and often keeps them to herself. Gaskell shows that, for adults, it is often necessary to bite one's tongue to avoid unpleasant situations. When her father marries Mrs. Kirkpatrick, Molly does not voice her reservations about her for her father's sake. She also keeps quiet regarding her love for Roger while he is engaged to Cynthia. Molly frequently puts her feelings aside to prioritise those she cares about.

Wives and Daughters: characters

We will now take a look at some key characters in Wives and Daughters.

CharacterExplanationTraits
Molly GibsonThe central character of the text. Daughter of Mr. Gibson, step-sister to Cynthia. Readers often see things from Molly's perspective, but Gaskell uses a third person narrator. Molly significantly matures throughout Wives and Daughters. She learns how to control and regulate her emotions. Molly feels strongly and often does things for the sake of those she cares about. She is deeply in love with Roger Hamley who eventually returns her feelings.Emotional. Selfless. Loyal. Intelligent.
Cynthia KirkpatrickThe daughter of Mrs. Gibson, step-sister to Molly, and step-daughter to Mr. Gibson. Cynthia is a well-travelled and worldly young woman. She is also in the unfortunate situation of being blackmailed by Mr. Preston. She comes close to marrying both Osborne and Roger Hamley due to her mother's matchmaking. Cynthia eventually marries Mr. Henderson.Kind. Frivolous. Beautiful. Wild.
Roger HamleyThe youngest son of the Hamley family. He is a love interest for both Molly and Cynthia. Despite his parents placing all their hopes on Osborne, Roger proves to be the more successful of the two brothers. He is intelligent and capable, gaining great success in university. Roger is in love with Cynthia until she breaks their engagement off. He then realises he has loved Molly deeply all along.Capable. Successful. Intelligent. Romantic.
Osborne HamleyThe eldest Hamley brother. Osborne's parents have high hopes for him. These are dashed as he does poorly in university and racks up high debts. Osborne has secretly fallen in love with a French maid and married her. They have also had a son together. This is kept secret from his father until Osborne's death due to illness.Unreliable. Struggling. Loving.
Mrs. Gibson (née Kirkpatrick)Cynthia's mother and Mr. Gibson's wife. Mrs. Gibson was previously a governess before she married Mr. Gibson. While not a fundamentally bad person, she can be selfish and uncaring at times. She also cares deeply about social status. Mrs. Gibson sees her marriage as an opportunity to move up in the world. She wants her daughter to engage in a marriage that will do the same for her.Self-centred. Ambitious. Determined.

Wives and Daughters - Key takeaways

  • Wives and Daughters is an 1866 novel by British novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
  • The novel was Gaskell's last to be written and published. It remains unfinished.
  • It follows young Molly Gibson as she matures and contends with love, family, and friendship in 1830s England.
  • Wives and Daughters is a bildungsroman.
  • Two key themes in the novel are the marriage market and maturity.

Frequently Asked Questions about Wives and Daughters

Elizabeth Gaskell.

The novel was never completed as Gaskell passed away before this was possible. It is thought that she intended to give Molly and Roger a happy ending.

This book follows young Molly Gibson as she falls in love in 1830s England with a man who is already engaged to her step-sister.

In the 1830s.

Although it was never completed, Wives and Daughters is today considered Gaskell's most sophisticated work. The book contains expertly crafted characters dealing with realistic situations.

Final Wives and Daughters Quiz

Question

When was Wives and Daughters published?

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Answer

1866.

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What genre is Wives and Daughters?

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Answer

A bildungsroman.

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Question

Can you remember the definition of a bildungsroman?

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Answer

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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Answer

The marriage market and maturity.

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What secret from her past is Cynthia hiding?

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Answer

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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Answer

Kirkpatrick.

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Which character significantly matures throughout the novel?

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Answer

Molly.

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What is the marriage market?

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Answer

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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Answer

Cynthia's.

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What three traits can be used to describe Osborne Hamley?

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Answer

Unreliable, struggling, loving.

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

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Answer

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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Question

What time period is Wives and Daughters set in?

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Answer

The 1830s.

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