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Literature / Wives and Daughters

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Written by Elizabeth Gaskell, author of North and South and biographer of Charlotte Brontë, Wives and Daughters was originally published in serial format in Cornhill Magazine from 1864-1866. It follows the events of Molly Gibson's life when her widower father marries a widow with a grown daughter.

Provides examples of:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Averted. The Cumnors are a loving, close-knit family and are on relatively good terms with the Hollingford residents. In particular, Lord Hollingford is an adorable man of science, and Lady Harriet is a spirited young lady who helps Molly on several occasions.
  • Blue Blood: Discussed. Ironically, the Hamleys are more blue-blooded than the Cumnors, who are relative parvenus in aristocratic society. But the Hamleys are hobbled by their diminished circumstances.
  • Daddy's Girl: As a result of her Missing Mom, Molly's whole world centres around her father during childhood and adolescence. This makes his sudden decision to remarry all the more painful to her. Afterwards, even though she remains very close to her father, Molly gradually grows other attachments as well - to the Hamleys and to Cynthia in particular.
  • Doorstopper: Aww come on, it's only 624 pages in its unfinished form.
  • Double Standard: In Mr. Gibson's overprotective paternal eyes, 16-year-old Molly is still "a baby". The very idea of his 20-year-old medical intern falling in love with her is unthinkable for him. He immediately recollects that his first love Jeanie was actually younger than Molly is now. But that doesn't prevent him from making it clear to the hopeful intern that his daughter is off limits.
  • English Rose: Molly Gibson is a beloved daughter of an English country doctor. She's a kindhearted girl who loves her father, their neighbours and friends. Molly gets attached to Mrs Hamley who embraces her almost like a daughter, and later she becomes really close to her stepsister Cynthia. Molly's complexion is first described as colourless, and when she grows up, it's tanned because she loves being outdoors. Her stepmother tries to get her to use rosemary washes and creams in order to lighten her tanned skin, and later the narrator occasionally describes Molly's complexion as cream-coloured. She has plentiful curly black hair and long, almond-shaped, soft gray eyes with curling black eyelashes, and she has a shy, loving expression. She has a slight, lean figure, promising to be tall. When she dresses up, especially for balls, Molly looks really beautiful.
  • Idiot Ball: The entire plot of Wives and Daughters is the consequence of Mr. Gibson's lapse in judgment in deciding to remarry. While some positive things come out of the remarriage, such as Molly's friendship with her step-sister Cynthia, Mrs. Gibson herself is a Third Wheel in the close father-daughter relationship. She makes pretty much no positive contribution in either Molly's or Mr. Gibson's life.
  • Indifferent Beauty: Cynthia is very beautiful and well aware of it. She's so lovely that she doesn't even care about her appearance.
    Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it.
  • Jacob and Esau: Osborne Hamley is closer in temperament and appearance to the delicate, sophisticated Mrs. Hamley, while Roger resembles the ugly but good-natured Squire. This becomes one of the reasons behind the ultimately tragic conflict between the Squire and Osborne, when the Squire mistakes Osborne's languid manner for laziness. In fact, Osborne is Secretly Dying of a heart condition.
  • Lamarck Was Right: When comforting someone, Molly tends to hold that person's hand in hers and stroke it gently. This is something that her mother used to do as well, even though she died when Molly was a baby. Mr. Gibson wonders privately if this is an inherited instinct, or whether Molly has some memories of her mother.
  • Love Hurts: Molly is heartbroken when her close friend and confidant Roger falls in love with the glamorous but unaffectionate Cynthia. Later, Roger suffers similarly when Cynthia breaks off their engagement to pursue a more suitable match.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex:
    • Averted (quite surprising for a novel written during the Victorian era). Unlike Molly, Cynthia is no ingenue and is happy to use her sexual desirability to impress men]. However, even Mr. Gibson appreciates that it isn't entirely justified to call her a flirt or a jilt, since she never goes out of the way to get someone's attention. It's just that men fall for her charm. In Cynthia's own words, she is a "passive coquette".
    • Averted by Roger and Mr. Gibson, in a conversation they share when Roger realizes his love for Molly:
    Roger: What must she think of me? how she must despise me, choosing the false Duessa. note 
    Mr. Gibson: Come, come! Cynthia isn't so bad as that. She's a very fascinating, faulty creature.
    Roger: I know! I know! I will never allow any one to say a word against her. If I called her the false Duessa it was because I wanted to express my sense of the difference between her and Molly as strongly as I could. You must allow for a lover's exaggeration.
  • Missing Mom: The first Mrs. Gibson, to whose memory Molly is extremely loyal, even though she can't really remember her.
  • Noble Bigot: Squire Hamley is chock-full of prejudices, but is a genuinely sympathetic character who deeply loves his family and comes to rely on Molly as if she were his own daughter.
  • Papa Wolf: The only thing that can agitate the stoical Mr. Gibson is the possibility of Molly suffering.
  • Parental Substitute: Subverted with Hyacinth. Deconstructed with the relationship between Mr. Gibson and Cynthia.
    • The new Mrs. Gibson fails utterly in her task of being a suitable mother-figure for Molly as she makes her transition into womanhood. Molly never learns to regard her as anything other than a Third Wheel in the family.
    • Cynthia feels that if she had had Mr. Gibson for a father-figure from her childhood, she may have been a better human being. Eventually, her desire to rise in Mr. Gibson's esteem urges her to at least try to settle down in life. Mr. Gibson's feelings for her are mixed: he doesn't love her anywhere near as much as his own daughter, but nonetheless is fond of her and tries to perform his duty as her guardian.
  • Parent with New Paramour: While Mr. Gibson initially considers himself happy "for his own sake" in marrying Hyacinth Clare, he is too rational and anti-sentimental to believe himself in love. The main reason for his decision to remarry is to find a suitable mother-figure for Molly.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Lady Harriet breaches "acceptable" standards of behaviour by commanding Mr. Preston to divulge details of his (non)-relationship with Molly so that she can salvage Molly's reputation. She doesn't quite get away with it, though, since her mother Lady Cumnor is furious and lectures her on etiquette for days.
  • Secret Relationship: Several.
    • Roger falls in love with Cynthia and proposes, but he has to leave England for two years, so he doesn't want her to consider their engagement binding. Cynthia, too, insists that nobody knows about it. However, her family knows, and Mr. Gibson feels honor-bound to disclose this to Roger's father under strict confidentiality.
    • Cynthia became engaged to Mr. Preston when she was fifteen, in return for a loan he made to her. She now wishes to escape the engagement, but Mr. Preston insists on holding her to her word.
    • There is gossip in the town that Molly Gibson is in an improper relationship with Mr. Preston, since she has been seen alone with him in out-of-the-way places. In reality, Molly is simply negotiating with Mr. Preston to have Cynthia released from the engagement.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Roger only really begins keying into the fact that Molly is the girl for him once he sees her all dolled up during a house party at The Towers:
    Narrator: Now in her pretty evening dress, with her hair beautifully dressed, her delicate complexion flushed a little with timidity, yet her movements and manners bespeaking quiet ease, Roger hardly recognized her, although he acknowledged her identity. He began to feel that admiring deference which most young men experience when conversing with a very pretty girl: a sort of desire to obtain her good opinion in a manner very different to his old familiar friendliness.
This also leads to Roger suffering a Green-Eyed Epiphany, as he suddenly becomes jealous of the guy escorting Molly during the house party, although the escort couldn't care less about Molly, and is only attending her because he was asked to do so by Lady Harriet.
  • Shout-Out: A Miss Eyre, Molly's governess, in Chapter 3. Not the actual Jane Eyre, mind you.
  • Slut-Shaming: Invoked in relation to Molly (albeit unfairly, since she is innocent); deconstructed with Cynthia.
    • When Molly acknowledges that she has been seeing Mr. Preston in secret, Mr. Gibson is momentarily devastated and feels that his faith in her has been broken. He accuses her of having disregarded "the commonest rules of modesty and propriety". But of course, it is Not What It Looks Like, since Molly has simply been interceding with Mr. Preston on Cynthia's behalf to release her from an unwanted engagement.
    • Later, Mr. Gibson is doubly annoyed with Cynthia because of her callous treatment of her fiancés and for having used Molly to get herself out of trouble. He calls her a "flirt and a jilt". Immediately, he half-regrets this, knowing that this isn't entirely true either.
  • Spirited Young Lady:
    • Molly Gibson is a seventeen-year-old daughter of a respected country doctor. She's intelligent, though naive at first and slightly awkward, but she loves reading and later takes an interest in science. She loves fresh air, gardens and is often outdoors, and is not very good at needlework. She's not afraid to speak her mind even to people who are of higher social rank and she has a bit of a quick temper. She's also very feminine, domestic and caring.
    • Molly's step-sister Cynthia is more worldly than Molly (as she has been educated in France) and more rebellious (because of her over-bearing mother). She's very beautiful and fascinating, and she's described as charming, sparkling, quick, graceful and witty. She's always merry, full of pretty mockeries, and hardly ever silent. There's her "never varying sweetness of her temper" and she never refuses to do a kindness if she's asked by her family. However, it's revealed that she plays up her cheerfulness because of her dark secret.
    • Lady Harriet, the youngest daughter of Lord and Lady Cumnor. She's twenty-nine, but doesn't consider herself an Old Maid and quite openly talks about her age. She enjoys her high position, being a lady of great influence and consequence, and treats Molly with refreshing kindness and interest. She even acknowledges Molly to be her "little mentor".
  • Stalker with a Crush: In all fairness to Preston his stalking of Cynthia seems to have started as a genuinely kindly impulse towards a child but when he saw how Cynthia cleaned up he became obsessed with her and used the money he'd given her to pressure her into agreeing to an engagement.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Deconstructed. While Hyacinth Gibson nee Clare is shallow, self-centered and incapable of putting herself in Molly's shoes, she treats Molly as well as she is capable of treating anyone. She definitely does not favor her own daughter Cynthia over Molly, partly because she is jealous of Cynthia's beauty and cannot get her own way with Cynthia.