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Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.


Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

An Exceptional Everyday Story

An Exceptional Everyday Story

No doubt I’m entering cliché-land now, but it truly does feel like saying goodbye to a dear friend when you finish a great novel—several friends, in fact, beginning in this case with Molly Gibson, the main character of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story. What a woman! Molly is a rare gift, both from a personality perspective (she is as steady and persevering as they come) and from a literary standpoint (her characterization is nuanced and true to life, unlike some Victorian heroines who, no matter how lovely, sometimes seem a little flat or overly sentimentalized). She has all the virtues of a Victorian heroine, yet she also has flaws, such as an impatient temper, which come to the surface when taxed by her superficial, saccharinely self-indulgent stepmother.

Wives and Daughters takes place during the late 1830s and early1840s in England. The entire plot hinges upon Mr. Gibson, a physician/widower, marrying a woman he hardly knows, a widow by the name of Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, for the sake of providing his teenage daughter with a maternal presence at home. At least, that’s his long-term goal; in the short term, he just wants to have someone else in the house to act as a deterrent to his apprentice, Mr. Coxe, who has taken a fancy to Miss Gibson. Mr. Gibson does all of this in a rather secretive way and without consulting Molly, whose entire life so far has centered on her close-knit relationship with her father. Of course, Molly’s happiness immediately shatters once she finds out she’s to have a stepmother, and for a while, her only consolation is her new friendship with the Hamley family, particularly Roger Hamley.

Just as earthly happiness is a precarious thing, so are young men’s affections. Roger quickly falls for Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Molly’s new stepsister, once she takes her place in the Gibson household. Molly must suffer not only a stepmother she doesn’t like, but now she must watch as the man she secretly loves becomes bewitched by her beautiful stepsister. Cynthia, in the words of Mr. Gibson, is “a very fascinating, faulty creature.”[1] She’s neither remarkably virtuous like Molly, nor is she exceptionally bad. And though her faults, primarily inconstancy and a vain, proud personality that thrives off the good opinion of others, make her less likeable than Molly, Cynthia still manages to gain the reader’s affection. Little by little, we come to sympathize with Cynthia for her mother’s neglect of her and appreciate her for at least trying to be good. If we have any doubts about that kernel of virtue waiting to sprout into something more within Cynthia’s breast, they are completely dispelled in the last act of the book when she shows her one true loyalty to Molly in a touching scene that almost made me cry.

I dare not say anymore about the story, except that the reader should be prepared to finish an unfinished book. Mrs. Gaskell unfortunately died before completing the last chapter or two, so the ending is slightly unsatisfactory. Thankfully, the reader can conjecture what will happen based on the trajectory of the final chapters, and if that isn’t enough, we can learn Gaskell’s intentions for at least some of the main characters as detailed in an editor’s postscript (if you have such an edition).

Gaskell infuses such ordinariness and relatability into all of her characters that they shine for precisely that reason. In Molly’s case, it is her rather domestic, St. Thérèse-like brand of virtue that makes her unique. For example, Molly’s selflessness comes through clearly when she doesn’t voice the tumult she feels in her heart when faced with the prospect of her father remarrying. By not voicing her displeasure, she allows a great deal of suffering to enter her life. Knowing that she could put a stop to the marriage if she wanted, Molly instead tries to think of her father’s happiness first, rather than her own. Molly feels things deeply, and while to some this can come across as being babyish or over-the-top, she’s certainly not immature or melodramatic. Rather, her sensitive, tenderhearted nature makes up for the deficiencies of those who take things too lightly or are careless in their dealings with others. Her greatest strength lies in the fact that though she is easily affected, she can still think of others and their feelings more than her own.

In addition, Molly’s truthfulness, her unconscious honesty that borders on bluntness at times, is utterly charming and familiar in a ‘kids say the darndest things’ kind of way. Here is a woman who knows no guile, it would seem (unlike her stepmother and stepsister), and whose childlike purity ought to refresh the reader’s soul in these cynical, postmodern times. Though Molly sometimes ‘puts her foot in it,’ this happens most often when she’s innocently unaware of social etiquette. Other times, her bluntness stems from a momentary lack of prudence. While Molly isn’t always perfectly truthful or charitable, this too makes her immensely relatable and loveable.

Besides excellent characterization, Gaskell also demonstrates mastery of narration, subtly switching between characters’ perspectives and giving us insight into their thoughts and feelings. We even find ourselves occasionally sympathizing with Molly’s stepmother as we see how some of her selfishness is due to the long years of being a poor, working widow who just wants a break in life.

Yet the heart of the novel lies in the contrast between Molly and her stepsister and the two models of virtue they represent. I’ve already hinted that Molly’s style of virtue closely resembles that of the Little Flower—hers is a life of silent suffering and steady goodness marked by some failures but always a readiness to begin again. What about Cynthia? Let’s look at a couple passages to dissect the differences between these young ladies. The first quote is from a conversation between Cynthia and Molly:

“Nonsense, Molly! You are good. At least, if you’re not good, what am I? There’s a rule-of-three sum for you to do! But it’s no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”

“Do you think it easier to be a heroine?”

“Yes, 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!”[2]

The second quote comes from a heartfelt monologue by Cynthia in which she explains her relationship with Mr. Preston:

“[O]nce or twice I have thought I would marry Mr. Preston out of pure revenge, and have him forever in my power—only I think I should have the worst of it; for he is cruel in his very soul—tigerish, with his beautiful striped skin and relentless heart. I have so begged and begged him to let me go without exposure.”[3]

These passages reveal some of the biggest differences between Molly and Cynthia, such as Molly’s plodding attempts at goodness versus the stop-and-start, somewhat cynical nature of Cynthia’s attempts at the same.  Molly’s innocence and simplicity prevent her from fully understanding why Cynthia does what she does since the latter’s motives arise so much from knowing she is naturally beautiful and charming and desiring to be liked and admired for it. Molly, though beautiful and charming in her own way, is unaware of it and is used to being good as a matter of habit.  She is also very meek, whereas Cynthia in her pride cannot stand the prospect of being brought low, of being “exposed” in the eyes of others, even when it comes to slight misunderstandings and mistakes.  Thus, Molly can more easily weather the storms that occasionally prove too much for her stepsister.

Wives and Daughters displays a very thorough understanding of human nature, relationships, and our struggles to persevere in goodness. Gaskell proposes Molly as a model of steady virtue for us, yet she also empathizes with those of us who, at times, are more like Cynthia with her concentrated efforts and intermittent lapses. In true classic fashion, while times have changed since Gaskell penned her last and finest story, many of the topics and themes she wrote about are still as relevant as ever. We still tend towards gossip. We still misjudge others. We still misplace our affections. We still experience heartache of all sorts.

And we still must answer the call to live a life of virtue, even if it’s the seemingly boring, everyday kind—especially the boring, everyday kind. As Christ tells us in the Gospel and as Molly Gibson demonstrates, “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”[4]


[1] Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 642.
[2] Ibid., 221.
[3] Ibid., 473.
[4] Luke 16:10

 

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