Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives & DaughtersI’ve been inching slowly through this long Victorian novel for the past three months, a few chapters at a time, as part of the Read-Along for Unputdownables online book club. After so many weeks, the earlier parts of the book seem far away, like a book I once read a long time ago. Exact details have blurred. If I were back in school writing an essay for English class, with an expectation that I be specific in references and quotations, I’d be struggling.

At the same time, so many weeks spent in the company of these characters has left a cumulative effect in my mind which stays with me, details or no details. This is how we live life outside of books, isn’t it? As the years pass, we lose hold of specific details, no longer sure of what was said or the exact chronology of events. But our memory is rich with the accumulated impressions of months, years, decades, spent with people and places that have grown so familiar that we no longer need factual details to build impressions on. We “know” a person or place more directly than that. So why shouldn’t we experience the books we’ve read the same way we experience everything else? The books I’ve taken into my own life are remembered like any other lived experiences. I remember Molly and Cynthia and the Squire and the Miss Brownings as I might remember people I’ve met this summer around the neighborhood.

Early in the Unputdownables’ discussions of Wives and Daughters, there seemed to be a lot of judging and pigeonholing going on, beginning in the first couple of chapters. Mr. Gibson was a great dad when he fetched Molly home from the Towers, but a hateful one when he sent Molly away to the Hamleys and dispatched the hapless suitor Mr. Coxe. The same with other characters, as they made their entrances in the book. The readers piled on to approve or disapprove, to divide the cast into good and bad. The Squire, Lady Harriet, Mr. Preston, Cynthia, were all pulled apart vigorously whereever they failed to live up to the mark. This was particularly true of the vain and silly Mrs Gibson. From her first appearance as the widow Kirkpatrick, she was snowed under by a tsunami of vituperation which took me utterly aback. I admit I’d find her exasperating if I had to be in her constant company, but I simply couldn’t understand why everyone took to attacking her so violently.

As the weeks went by, and as we readers spent more time in the company of these characters, something changed in the nature and mood of the discussion. The way the company discussed the characters became less judgmental, less critical. It wasn’t that the group arrived at any deliberate decision to handle them less roughly, or to judge them more favorably. Rather, there seemed to be less judgment of any sort, favorable or unfavorable, going on at all. It seemed irrelevant to weigh and measure them. They were no longer literary symbols of good and bad, but people we were coming to know, with the same mixture of quirks, gifts, humor, temper, blindness and humanity, that we find in ourselves and each other. We accepted them for what they were, as we do real people. Mr Gibson made some wise decisions and some foolish ones. Mrs Gibson could be sometimes selfish and sometimes hospitable. The Squire’s emotional roller-coaster sometimes brought warm hugs and sometimes hasty prejudices. If people are never all good or all bad, then how are we to judge? We certainly may be interested in learning more about them, discerning their unique combinations of weaknesses and strengths, but no longer interested in deciding what it all means in terms of good or bad.

There are a series of chapters in the middle of this book which highlight the corrosive effect of judgmental gossip. I don’t think all gossip falls into this category. There is also a sharing of information which makes us more friendly or more understanding: — “Be nice to so-and-so today, she’s had a rough week; had a wisdom tooth out, hit a deer on the road. See if you can get her off work early.” — “How’s whosit these days? Haven’t seen him in ages. Three grandkids now? Retired last fall? Tell him I asked about him.” — When we condemn gossip as damaging and sinful, it’s not this sort of gentle gossip we have in mind.

But there’s another way of discussing people which rips apart the fabric of communal life, lacerates the folks we talk about, and hardens our own hearts to others. It’s a basically judgmental gossip, whether the judgments are pronounced explicitly or insinuated snidely. It’s the kind of talk which leads to bullying in school cafeterias and ostracism in workplace break rooms. It begins with the hasty pigeonholing of people about whom we really know almost nothing, when we assume the worst about them instead of the best. Then it grows when others’ desire to be part of the popular opinion draws them to jump onto the pile. These late-arrivers don’t even have the minimal facts which were the basis of the original judgments, but accept as true whatever they hear going around. Next thing you know, it has snowballed into an avalanche.

In Wives and Daughters, both these factors, negative judgments and following the crowd’s lead, played a part in the growth of the gossip. Even people who actually liked Molly and Cynthia got sucked into the easy trap of agreeing and tongue-wagging and head-nodding. I felt like cheering when Miss Phoebe, usually such a mouse, declared her independence from prevailing opinion and refused to be budged. When Lady Harriet, definitely not a mouse, joined the skeptics, the gossip ground to a halt. Such forthright mavericks, when there are enough of them, are the only way to stop the snowball in its tracks.

Meanwhile, for those who are the victims of gossip, forthright directness seems also to be their the best recourse. Mr Gibson, shaken by the gossip about his daughter, confronted her directly with exactly what he had heard, withholding hasty judgment until he had listened to her explanation. Molly replied as plainly and fully as her promise to Cynthia permitted, — and where she felt bound to confidentiality, she simply said so, instead of being mysterious or making up lies.

Gossip thrives on secrecy and show, enticing us to imagine what is going on behind the scenes. These elements of secrecy and show seemed to run all through the book, too. Cynthia and Mrs Gibson live for the sake of show, calculating how to look good before others, until their true selves are so far hidden that it’s impossible to find them. Molly, Mr Gibson, and Roger Hamley are not putting on performances. They are who they are, with a transparent honesty in how they present themselves. Out of all the impressions this book left on my mind, it’s this contrast between Cynthia and Molly, between public performance and honest openness, that struck me most.

It’s so easy in my own day-to-day life to slip into falseness, not by telling flat-out lies, but in the way I present myself. It’s easy to slide into performance mode without thinking about what I’m doing, to find myself acting a part, presenting something that isn’t really me. We all seek to please others, but we have to do this honestly, by giving our real selves. When I remember Cynthia, even long after I’ve forgotten the details of her story, I’ll remember that I don’t want to become like her, and I’ll pull myself up short and shut off the performance. That’s a good thing to have gained from this book.