Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wives and Daughters - Remembrance of things past

A George du Maurier illustration for Wives and Daughters
when it was published in "The Cornhill" in 1865. From Project Gutenberg

Chapter 23 - "Osborne Hamley Reviews His Position"
I earmarked the two pages containing Osborne musing over the vagaries of life...
'...If -- how I hate "ifs." "If me no ifs." My life has been based on "whens;" and first they have turned to "ifs," and then they have vanished away. It was "when Osborne gets honours," and then "if Osborne," and then a failure altogether. I said to Aimée, "When my mother sees you," and now it is "If my father saw her," with a very faint prospect of its ever coming to pass'

I can't forget that this is Gaskell's final work--she died when she was almost finished writing it. These words are poignant coming from Osborne, and heartbreaking coming from Gaskell. I disputed awhile ago the assertion that she had a premonition of her own death based on a letter that recently came to light in which she declared she wouldn't live out the year. I'm not changing my mind, but there are many passages within W&D that are imbued with the sense that time is slipping away before dreams are realized.

Later in the same chapter, I earmarked this passage for the same reason as that above. Squire Hamley is talking with Roger after his wife has died...
'...I used to be reckoned a good master, but that is past now! Osborne was once a little boy, and she was once alive -- and I was once a good master -- a good master -- yes! It is all past now.'

I've also been struck by the richness of Gaskell's prose. Much as I loved North and South, some passages are downright clunky. W&D is truly Gaskell's masterpiece. I often lament and wonder at the obscurity into which she has, until recently, fallen. Had she lived and continued to write at the caliber of W&D...but now I'm starting to sound like Osborne. Here's a passage I marked as characteristic of her prose in W&D, from Chapter 31, "A Passive Coquette" in which Mr. Gibson is thinking about his step-daughter Cynthia.
'She is in a mental fever of some kind,' thought he to himself. 'She is very fascinating, but I don't quite understand her.' If Molly had not been so entirely loyal to her friend, she might have thought this constant brilliancy a little tiresome when brought into every-day life; it was not the sunshiny rest of a placid lake, it was rather the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders, Cynthia would not talk quietly about anything now; subjects of thought or conversation seemed to have lost their relative value. There were exceptions to this mood of hers, when she sank into deep fits of silence, that would have been gloomy had it not been for the never varying sweetness of her temper. If there was a little kindness to be done to either Mr Gibson or Molly, Cynthia was just as ready as ever to do it; nor did she refuse to do anything her mother wished, however, fidgety might be the humour that prompted the wish. But in this latter case Cynthia's eyes were not quickened by her heart.

The psychological insight and instinct of this passage--both the words of Mr Gibson's and that of the narrator--regarding Cynthia just blow me away. The fever, the mood swings, the eyes (mirroring the soul, remember)--this passage shows Gaskell to be a keen observer (she had four daughters of her own, plus many close female friends) and a compassionate portrait painter. Much as Cynthia frustrates me, I feel for the girl.


  1. Wasn't George du Maurier Daphne's father? Or maybe her grandfather? How interesting. I've yet to read Elizabeth Gaskell, but I have a few of her books waiting for me to pick them up. I've wanted to read Sylvia's Lovers for ages--I wonder if that's the best place to start?

  2. Hi Danielle - George du Maurier was Daphne's grandfather. Her father, Gerald, was a very popular actor. Margaret Forster's bio on Daphne is quite good, if you're interested in her life.

    Here a link to my posting, "Reading Gaskell for the First Time":

    At the time I hadn't read Cousin Phillis, which I ended up enjoying quite a bit. Sylvia's Lovers, which I've blogged on a fair amount, can be challenging in that all the dialogue is in dialect, which can be daunting at times and tiresome. I also never really warmed to Sylvia or either of her lovers all that much, but the story itself is interesting.

    Personally, I would recommend starting with either North and South or Wives and Daughters.