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When Elizabeth Gaskell first subtitled Wives and Daughters "An Everyday Story," she was, I believe, laughing at (or perhaps with) society and her readers. At first meeting, little twelve-year-old Molly Gibson — daughter of the village surgeon in a bygone era — is, indeed "everyday." She is a young slip of a girl fretting over and eagerly anticipating her first visit to the Towers — the local seat of political power and fashion. She looks quaint in her plain white frock and straw bonnet, only to find out how disappointing society life can be.
Then, a few pages pass for years and Molly is nearly seventeen, with an everyday education, everyday interests, and (at first glance) everyday beauty; unwittingly attracting the "calf love" of an everyday young man (much to her father's perplexed dismay) during the long absence of her governess.
A few pages more, and Gaskell deftly turns Molly's everyday life topsy-turvey when her loving, companionable father and protector remarries a mindlessly frivolous, selfishly jealous school marm, complete with a winningly elegant daughter, Cynthia, who is just returning from a French education and a misguided past. Added to Molly's everyday story are two young men whose father is the local landed squire — a gruff, good-hearted master whose resources are failing and whose old-fashioned prejudices are firm. Molly's intimacy with the Squire's wife, Mrs. Hamley, further expands and complicates Molly's mundane world to include family quarrels to appease, secrets to keep (and try to forget) and, over time, love to cherish (and conceal) for the younger Hamley son, Roger — a young man whose own everyday experiences get him honors at Cambridge, engage him to Molly's step-sister, and take him a world away to conduct scientific research in Africa at the behest of the Geographical Society.
And so, Wives and Daughters is really a book about the exceptional in the everyday. Molly rises above her heartbreaking early-life encounters with death and loss, unwelcomed change, unrequited love, and brutal village slander to become an "everyday" heroine of extraordinary character. And her hero, Roger, is not a whit behind. Between the two stars of the story, Gaskell weaves a tale that demonstrates the way in which everyday courage and goodness transform life into the truly exceptional.
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell is featured in Vol 5 No 6 of The Storybook Home Journal.