Chapter 6 of the author's ">Growing Heroines: Elizabeth Gaskell's Women, English Literature Senior Thesis, Hartwick College, January 1997
In her final book, Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell does not undertake an examination of a social question such as the class disputes in Mary Barton or North and South, or the plight of a fallen woman and her illegitimate child in Ruth. Instead, she writes a novel that is a collection of brilliant character sketches which together form a novel about the joys and sorrows of the people of Hollingford, and the story of a young girl's growth and change.
The heroine is a little girl called Molly Gibson who lives with her father; her life is a happy one, only marred by the death of her mother "which was a jar to the whole tenour of her life but ... she had been too young to be conscious of it at the time" (36). At the beginning of the novel, Molly believes she is about to experience the most exciting day yet of her young life: a day at the Towers, the county home of the Lord and Lady Cumnor. The day is not all that Molly expects it to be: she loses herself in the gardens, misses lunch, has a headache, and after being rescued is forgotten about and left to oversleep and miss her carriage by Clare Kirkpatrick, the woman who will later be her stepmother. Molly is rightfully upset by both the events of the day and the words of Mrs. Kirkpatrick which make her feel "guilty and very unhappy" (48), and though she cries at times about the predicament she has gotten into, Molly also finds herself worrying about how her father will feel when she is not there to make his tea for him. This scene foreshadows the role Molly will play in relation to her father and stepmother. In the midst of her trouble, Molly thinks of others' feelings as well, and this trait will continue to grow in her.
Though motherless, Molly is not at a loss for people to look out for her and guide her, as Patsy Stoneman's discussion of several people's influence on Mary corroborates (Stoneman, 176-8). She shares a special bond with her father which, though taxed at times, continues to be influential as she grows. In Molly's eyes her father is a man among men, the wisest judge, and a person to be trusted and relied upon in all situations. As a doctor, Mr. Gibson is a caring and honest man, educated and respectful of life. Though Molly has acquired these important values and qualities from her father, Mr. Gibson does not appear confident that he is sufficient as a role-model and guide for his young daughter. For the mutual benefit of himself and his daughter, Mr. Gibson remarries so that Molly will have a mother again and he will have a wife to promote domestic harmony. When Mrs. Kirkpatrick becomes Mrs. Gibson, she professes to love Molly as if she were her own daughter and to have her interests at heart at all times; however, in the picture of Mrs. Gibson which Gaskell paints so clearly, what she says and what she does are two completely different things.
Molly has a temper and learning to control it is one of her first lessons as she grows from a child into a young woman. She once "flew out in such a violent passion of words in defence of her silent trembling governess" (67), that she stunned the housekeeper who had been speaking impertinently. This same governess attempted to curb Molly's temper, but it would be a long while before Molly could ignore her feelings and hold her tongue instead of giving way to her anger. We see her working towards this achievement when she learns of her beloved father's plans to remarry.
She did not answer. She could not tell what words to use. She was afraid of saying anything, lest the passion of anger, dislike, indignation - whatever it was that was boiling up in her breast - should find vent in cries and screams, or worse, in raging words that could never be forgotten. (145)
At the time of Molly's distress, she had been living with the Hamley family at Hamley Hall. Two people in particular begin to have a calming effect on Molly's temperament: Mrs. Hamley, a gentle invalid who adores Molly, and her youngest son Roger Hamley who becomes Molly's intellectual mentor. When Molly is terribly upset over this unwelcome change in her family life, i.e. her father's remarriage, Roger gives her hope by telling her the story of another girl in a similar position, and the advice "to try to think more of others than of oneself" (152). This makes a big impression on Molly, and she tries earnestly to adopt this policy, although she worries that she will lose her self and individuality by thinking only of others. Gilbert and Gubar's study addresses this issue of the death of the self.
The surrender of her [the Victorian ideal of the 'angel in the house'] self — of her personal comfort, her personal desires, or both — that is the beautiful angel-woman's key act, while it is precisely this sacrifice which dooms her both to death and to heaven. For to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead (25).
How especially true this is for Ruth, as she dies from the ultimate selfless act of nursing her tempter. Molly is a good example of the balance Gaskell achieves between the Victorian ideal of the quiet domestic angel and the more aggressive new woman: Molly learns to be silent when it is helpful to others and out-spoken when there is just cause. As an early attempt at thinking of others, Molly is afraid of distressing the delicate Mrs. Hamley, and accordingly her manners grow quieter.
It is well that Molly makes an effort to swallow her anger early on, because without good control over her emotions she surely would not be able to tolerate her new stepmother. Though Mrs. Gibson speaks as though her greatest pleasure is to know that the people she cares for are comfortable, in truth she cares mostly for her own personal comfort. By the time of her father's remarriage, Molly has mostly resigned herself to the position of second most important woman in Mr. Gibson's life, but she still finds it hard at times to give up some of that special bond with her father. As time passes, Molly also finds it difficult to ignore Mrs. Gibson's shortcomings:
At first she made herself uncomfortable with questioning herself as to how far it was right to leave unnoticed the small domestic failings — the webs, the distortions of truth which had prevailed in their household ever since her father's second marriage. She knew that very often she longed to protest, but did not do it, from the desire of sparing her father any discord ... . It was a wonder to Molly whether this silence was right or wrong. With a girl's want of toleration, and want of experience to teach her the force of circumstances, and of temptation, she had often been on the point of telling her stepmother some forcible home truths. (407)
Mr. Gibson has noticed his wife's shortcomings as well, but he puts on a brave face and attempts to ignore them as much as possible. As a doctor, Mr. Gibson has plenty of chaos in his daily life: when he comes home at night he wants to enjoy peace and contentment with his family. He wants this so much that he blinds himself to the reality that his choice of wives was perhaps not the best. Molly observes this and does her best to follow his example of silence, though at times she finds she must speak out in defence of a friend.
Along with a new mother, the marriage provides Molly with a sister called Cynthia. A nuisance to her widowed mother, Cynthia was sent away to school in France at a young age. Consequently she did not develop a strong attachment to her remaining parent and is much more independent than Molly. In this case, however, independence comes with the loss of good parental guidance and Cynthia, who calls herself "a moral kangaroo" (258), finds herself entangled in an unwanted engagement to Mr. Preston, a local land agent. Unable to free herself from the situation of deceit and shame in which she finds herself, Cynthia enlists the help of innocent Molly to retrieve her love letters. Upon hearing the story, Molly becomes Cynthia's champion,
rising up in her indignation, and standing before Cynthia almost as resolutely fierce as if she were in the very presence of Mr. Preston himself. 'I am not afraid of him. He dare not insult me, or if he does I don't care. I will ask him for those letters, and see if he will dare to refuse me.' (523)
Molly has a strong sense of duty to the people who she cares about and when their happiness is threatened, she will do all that is in her power to help and comfort them. This is a reminder of the way Mary Barton took on the role of Jem's savior at any cost, while treading carefully to keep her father out of suspicion. Molly has also acquired the recognition of what is good and proper from her father; however, "she began to be afraid that she herself might be led into the practice [of deceit]. But she would try and walk in a straight path; and if she did wander out of it, it should only be to save pain to those whom she loved" (525). Because Molly cares so much for her new sister, she is resigned to the fact that she may have to be secretive and deceptive in order to help her.
Though Molly does not swerve far from her moral code, the women of the town learn certain particulars of her activities and conclude falsely that Molly has "disregarded the commonest rules of modesty and propriety" (568). While still invited to the social gatherings out of respect to her parents, Molly is treated as a pariah. However, she shows that she is above the pettiness of the town ladies by ignoring their slights as much as possible.
She never told her father how she felt these perpetual small slights: she had chosen to bear the burden of her own free will; nay, more, she had insisted on being allowed to do so; and it was not for her to grieve him now by showing that she shrank from the consequences of her own act. (573)
From this example it is apparent that Roger Hamley's early words to Molly have remained a guiding influence on her: she keeps silent about her treatment in order not to disturb her father's peace and confidence in her.
An ongoing test of Molly's strength of character has been the relationship between her old friend Roger Hamley and Cynthia. We are sure that Molly loves Roger, whether she is always aware of it or not, and because she cares so much for both of them, "she would have been willing to cut off her right hand, if need were, to forward his attachment to Cynthia; and the sacrifice would have added a strange zest to a happy crisis" (390). By comparing this willingness to sacrifice herself for the happiness of others to Molly's earlier reaction at the announcement of her father's proposed remarriage, we can see how far Molly's character has grown as she gets older.
Furthermore, Molly becomes a foundation of strength and hope to her elders as well as her peers as shown in her loving care to the old Squire Hamley after the loss of his eldest son, Osborne. The Squire's grief is so great that Molly's gentle presence is the only thing that will reach him. When she must go back home for a few hours to fetch a paper, he is like a little lost child as he asks of her father, "She'll come back again? ... You - she won't leave me to myself?" (614). The Squire also wishes Molly to face Osborne's mysterious wife for him because he can not do it. When Mrs. Osborne Hamley falls ill, Molly is again the provider of strength and comfort.
No one seemed to think of Molly's leaving the Hall during the woeful illness that befell Mrs Osborne Hamley...He [the Squire] needed someone to listen to his incontinence of language, both when his passionate regret for his dead son came uppermost, and also when he had discovered some extraordinary charm in that son's child; and again when he was oppressed with the uncertainty of Aimee's long-continued illness. Molly was not so good or so bewitching a listener to ordinary conversation as Cynthia; but where her heart was interested her sympathy was deep and unfailing. (634)
Molly pays the price for her selfless behavior once the initial scare is over: she enters into a long slow illness which takes away any remaining physical strength left to her after her time of care at Hamley Hall.
Molly's health is brought back by time spent with Cynthia, who allows her to talk of the troubles at Hamley Hall which Mrs. Gibson has dismissed. She is soon well enough to go visiting at the Towers and has her old spark back again. The last test of Molly's will is to help things settle at the Hall between the Squire and Mrs. Osborne Hamley, and she uses her gentle power to help the two people unite in the mutual love of Osborne's baby.
"The introduction of Aimee and her child suggests...that the novel which started with a critique of Molly's various mother-substitutes was to end with some comment on alternative modes of motherhood" (Stoneman, 197). By the example of Mrs. Osborne Hamley, Molly learns that determination is a powerful tool: the mother is determined that she will not be sent away from her child and anyone opposing her will have to give way. This shows that there are times when one must think of oneself before others, teaching Molly that she need not crush her spirit to be a good woman. On the contrary, it is her spirit which will continue to endear her to people and allow her to form strong relationships based on cooperation and respect, not petty alliances for purely self-serving purposes as her stepmother does. Elizabeth Gaskell introduces us to Molly when she is a motherless little girl who is good-natured but whose temper sometimes gets in the way and shows us the people and experiences which mold her into a gentle, caring, loving young woman.
Last modified 24 May 2022