“The New Female Instructor” (1824 and 1837)

In her discussion of Wives and Daughters (see below), critic Patsy Stoneman refers to a popular handbook which Mrs. Gibson lived by and which Molly surely knew about:  The New Female Instructor – or a Young Woman’s Guide to Domestic Happiness.  The origins of the book go back to the first years of the 19th century;  the edition Stoneman quotes from was published in 1837.
 The Female Instructor Title Page
I’ve found an online facsimile of the publication that’s difficult to read but I think conveys a lot of the book’s character.  I’ve tried to tweak the opening pages so they’re easier on the eye and you can look at the resulting PDF by clicking here:

N.B.: When reading these PDF files you will probably want to use the ZOOM function in Adobe reader to increase the text size to 130% or 150%.

Addendum I:  And anyone who would really like to blow a gasket about the attitudes towards women in the 19th century might like to look further into the book.  I’ve turned the first few chapters into another PDF.  The overall file is long, but many of the chapters are short.  You might like to skim some parts.  You can see by the chapter headings that the topics covered are central to much of Wives and Daughters.

I.  Dress and Fashion – II. Behavior and Manners – III. Introduction into Company – IV. Conversation and Letter-writing – V. Visiting and Amusements – VI. Employment of Time – VII. Domestic Economy – VIII. Love and Courtship – IX. Considerations before Marriage

Addendum II:  I’ve just located a readable copy online of the 1824 edition of The New Female Instructor.  I’ve turned it into a PDF and added bookmarks for easier navigation to the book’s chapters.  (You’ll need to open the Bookmarks Panel on the left of the screen in order to “click” your way through the pages.  You may need to download and save the whole file for Adobe to read it properly.)

N.B.: This is a big file (c. 525 pages) – but it does contain delights such as cooking recipes, medical (herbal) advice, and stringent prescriptions about how to raise children.  Among the points of interest:  Rousseau’s strong belief in the social importance of breast-feeding – what the book calls “suckling.”

…[S]hould mothers again condescend to nurse their children, manners would form themselves : the sen­timents of nature would revive in our hearts … [F]rom the correction of this one abuse, will soon result a general reformation. Let wives but once again become mothers ; and the men will presently again become fathers and husbands.   — J.J. Rousseau

A feminist critique of Elizabeth Gaskell (Pt 1)

In 1987 – that is to say, at the end of the second decade of the new feminism – literary critic Patsy Stoneman wrote an important re-evaluation of Elizabeth Gaskell that helped raise “Mrs. G’s” reputation out of the ranks of charming women novelists to a position of more respect and appreciation.  Interestingly, Stoneman’s book was aimed as much at the first generation of feminist critics as at the wider academy, and in her forward to the second edition of Elizabeth Gaskell, she discusses the changing attitudes towards the writer.  I find her account most interesting and post some excerpts below.

(Stoneman’s concluding chapter focuses on Wives and Daughters and in the next post, I’ll include a link to a PDF of the passage.   — Tom).

 Elizabeth Gaskell, by Patsy Stoneman
Preface to the First Edition (1987)

One aim of the Key Women Writers series is to examine whether women writers have been accepted into the canon of Eng. Lit. at the expense of their being misread as women. Few of the women dealt with can have been misread as systematically as ‘Mrs Gaskell,’. Seen either as a ‘lady novelist,’ author of Cranford, or as a ‘social-problem novelist,’ author of Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell has never been read in a way which makes sense of her whole output. I shall argue that a feminist approach focusing on the interaction of class and gender can provide such a reading. . . .

Preface to the Second Edition (2007)

When I wrote this book in the mid-nineteen-eighties, it was in a pioneering spirit. True, ‘Mrs’ Gaskell had been revived to some extent by the Marxist critics of the nineteen-fifties, who had put Mary Barton and North and South on university syllabuses along with other ‘minor’ works such as Disraeli’s Sybil and Kingsley’s Alton Locke. The nineteen-seventies feminist revival, however, which lauded the works of the Brontës and George Eliot, had largely ignored Gaskell. Apart from her ‘social-problem’ novels, Gaskell’s image in 1987 was still much what it had been in 1934, when Lord David Cecil compared her with those other Victorians. ‘In the placid dovecotes of Victorian womanhood’, he wrote, ‘they were eagles. But we only have to look at a portrait of Mrs. Gaskell, soft-eyed, beneath her charming veil, to see that she was a dove’ (Cecil 1934: 198).  In the millennial year [2000], however, an article on Gaskell could be entitled ‘The Dove Ascending’: ‘it is now possible’, its author claimed, ‘to argue that Elizabeth Gaskell is pre-eminent among Victorian women novelists’ (Pittock 2000: 531)…

…Clearly much has happened in Gaskell studies since 1987: in the same year as my book, the Gaskell Society was founded, which, with its scholarly Journal, has done much to encourage and disseminate serious work; biographies drawing on greatly enlarged data have helped to dispel Gaskell’s purely domestic image; new approaches to narrative strategy have revealed her skill as a story-teller; and a subtler kind of feminism has recognised innovation where earlier readers saw only conformity….

A feminist critique of Elizabeth Gaskell (Pt 2) – “Wives and Daughters”

The final chapter of Patsy Stoneman’s Elizabeth Gaskell includes a reading of Wives and Daughters that I find thoughtful and stimulating. Of course, Stoneman is writing for the academy and, particularly, in the Conclusion, her prose is not always easy to follow.  But for the most part, I find her quite readable.  The PDF below contains the last chapter and the book’s Conclusion.   — Tom


Dates for some mid-19th century English novelists

Here’s a brief chronology of 19th century writers who were contemporaries, including those we’re read:
Elizabeth Gaskell born 1810  (d. 1866)
[Charles Darwin (distant cousin) born 1809  (d. 1882)]
William Makepeace Thackeray born 1811  (d. 1863)
Charles Dickens born 1812  (d. 1870)
Anthony Trollope born 1815  (d. 1882)
Charlotte Brontë born 1816  (d. 1855)
Emily Brontë born 1818  (d. 1848)
George Eliot (Mary Ann [Marian] Evans) born 1819  (d. 1880)
Thomas Hardy born 1840  (d.1928)

Novels published 1847-48:
Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights, 1847
Brontë, Charlotte, Jane Eyre, 1847
Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848
Gaskell, Mary Barton, 1848 (her first novel)

Novels published 1855-60:
Gaskell, North and South, 1855
Trollope, The Warden, 1855 (his first big success), the start of the Barsetshire Novels sequence (ending in 1866)
Eliot, Adam Bede, 1859 (her first long novel)
Dickens, Great Expectations, 1860-61
[Darwin, On the Origin of the Species, 1859]

Novels published 1865-67:
Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (not quite finished)
Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (last completed novel)
Trollope, The Last Chronicle of Barset
Eliot, Felix Holt, the Radical

Novels published after 1870:
Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 1870 (posthumous, incomplete)
Eliot, Middlemarch, 1872
Hardy, Far From the Maddening Crowd, 1874 (his first Wessex novel)
Trollope, The Way We Live Now, 1875


Henry James review (1866)

In the February 1866 issue of The Nation, Henry James wrote a review of the newly-published Wives and Daughters (which Elizabeth Gaskell died before finishing).  I’ve posted some excerpts that might be useful for our first discussion of the book.
At the end there’s a link to a PDF of the entire article – which perhaps might be read more profitably for our second or third meeting, due to its added specificity about the novel’s story.  No real plot-spoilers exactly;  but some of James opinions might be more useful if they’re encountered after you’ve read the text for yourself.  — Tom

The Nation 1866 front page
Excerpts from the review by Henry James:
WE cannot help thinking that in “Wives and Daughters” the late Mrs. Gaskell has added to the number of those works of fiction — of which we cannot perhaps count more than a score as having been produced in our time — which will outlast the duration of their novelty and continue for years to come to be read and relished for a higher order of merits. Besides being the best of the author’s own tales — putting aside “Cranford”, that is, which as a work of quite other pretensions ought not to be weighed against it, and which seems to us manifestly destined in its modest way to become a classic — it is also one of the very best novels of its kind. So delicately, so elaborately, so artistically, so truthfully, and heartily is the story wrought out, that the hours given to its perusal seem like hours actually spent, in the flesh as well as the spirit, among the scenes and people described, in the atmosphere of their motives, feelings, traditions, associations. The gentle skill with which the reader is slowly involved in the tissue of the story; the delicacy of the handwork which has perfected every mesh of the net in which he finds himself ultimately entangled; the lightness of touch which, while he stands all unsuspicious of literary artifice, has stopped every issue into the real world; the admirable, inaudible, invisible exercise of creative power, in short, with which a new and arbitrary world is reared over his heedless head — a world insidiously inclusive of him (such is the assoupissement of his critical sense), complete in every particular, from the divine blue of the summer sky to the June-bugs in the roses, from Cynthia Kirkpatrick and her infinite revelations of human nature to old Mrs. Goodenough and her provincial bad grammar — these marvellous results, we say, are such as to compel the reader’s very warmest admiration, and to make him feel, in his gratitude for this seeming accession of social and moral knowledge, as if he made but a poor return to the author in testifying, no matter how strongly, to the fact of her genius. …
… The book is very long and of an interest so quiet that not a few of its readers will be sure to vote it dull. In the early portion especially the details are so numerous and so minute that even a very well-disposed reader will be tempted to lay down the book and ask himself of what possible concern to him are the clean frocks and the French lessons of little Molly Gibson. But if he will have patience awhile he will see. As an end these modest domestic facts are indeed valueless; but as a means to what the author would probably have called a “realization” of her central idea, i. e., Molly Gibson, a product, to a certain extent, of clean frocks and French lessons, they hold an eminently respectable place. As he gets on in the story he is thankful for them. They have educated him to a proper degree of interest in the heroine. He feels that he knows her the better and loves her the more for a certain acquaintance with the minutia of her homely bourgeois life. …

“Wives and Daughters” on audio (final update)

(I based my original reviews of these performances on my memories of them;  now that I’ve had time to audition the readings again, I can offer more accurate reviews of their strengths and weaknesses.  — T.L./18 Feb)

Audio Wives and Daughters, Scales

Of the three audiobooks with which I’m familiar, I recommend the reading by Prunella Scales, a.k.a. Mrs. Timothy West, a.k.a. Sybil Fawlty (Basil!), on Chivers/BBC Audio. Scales is a fine vocal actor:  her characters are vivid, her narrative persuasive.  She’s particularly good at evoking scenes of drama and conflict.
Scales’ performance does have some quirks:  her narrative cadences can sometimes sound dry and understated.  Her tendency to drop her voice and “get on with it” can briefly lower the energy of her reading (even though her diction is always clear).  But Scales is a highly intelligent actor and she portrays brilliantly principal characters like Molly, her (Scottish) father, Clare, Squire Hamley, and so forth… Overall, I like the quality of her voice and confess to being charmed to hear Sybil Fawlty read me a story.
This performance used to be available through our libraries, but I can no longer find it listed.  Audible still offers it.  I shall be able to loan a few copies at our first meeting.

Naxos Front Cover 03Patience Tomlinson has recorded a reading for Naxos and while some will enjoy her sensible performance, I find the flow of her narration repetitive and the “flutey” sound of her voice off-putting.  (Unlike Prunella Scales, Tomlinson can often read a sequence of sentences with exactly the same up-and-down cadences – and I find my mind wandering as I try to listen.)  I also think Tomlinson misses the mark with some of her characterizations:  for example, young Molly sounds more like a 7-year-old child than a 17-year-old young woman.

Unfortunately I can’t recommend the recording that’s most readily available: Josephine Bailey’s on Tantor. I’ve tried to listen to some of Bailey’s performances in the past, and though some of her characters are well done, I find her narration to be repetitive, a bit mechanical, and, in the end, boring.

About the BBC-TV Adaptation

Production photo
In 1999, BBC-TV produced a five-hour, four-episode serial version of Wives and Daughters.  The cast is splendid, including Masterpiece-Theater favorites Francesca Annis (Madame Bovary, Lilli Langtree), Michael Gambon (The Singing Detective), and Scotsman Bill Patterson (Lauder Strickland in Smiley’s People with Alex Guinness).  Justine Waddell and Tom Hollander also give superlative performances.  The production is sumptuous and authentic.
The adaptation by Andrew Davies is as faithful to the text as his scripts usual are – which means he compresses a lot of plot and character development to make room for swirling camera-work, fast cuts, fast pace and fast dialogue.  (I remain a fan of the BBC’s older, more theatrical approach to literary adaptation, and so am probably overly critical of the newer production values.)  Of course, Davies’ biggest compromise with the original text occurs at the end of the book. Since Gaskell died before writing the final chapter(s), Davies’ is justified in supplying his own conclusion;  but some of his choices are controversial and have prompted discussion among critics.
Given the liberties Davies’ takes with Wives and Daughters – however well-done they may be – it’s perhaps more important than usual to read the book before you check out the DVD.    — Tom

Information from The Gaskell Society (UK)


Biographical information and photographs about Elizabeth Gaskell are available at the website of The Gaskell Society, a Manchester-based organization.  Here are some excerpts:

english_novelist_elizabeth_gaskellElizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell (1810-65) was born on 29 September 1810 in Lindsey Row, Chelsea, at the house which is now 93 Cheyne Walk. She was the daughter of William Stevenson – a treasury official and journalist – and his wife Elizabeth Stevenson (née Holland). Mrs Stevenson died on 29 October 1811, and so at the age of just 13 months, the baby Elizabeth (later known as Lily) was sent to Knutsford in Cheshire to spend her childhood with her mother’s sister, Aunt Hannah Lumb, whom she was later to describe as her ‘more than mother’. . . .

The Gaskells’ Manchester was a great cultural and intellectual centre, boasting institutions like the Literary and Philosophical Society, the Mechanics Institute and the Athenaeum. It was at the forefront of the new industrial age, but this rapid growth, as well as generating much wealth, also led to uncontrolled urban development and appalling squalor. In 1844, Friedrich Engels described the homes of the factory operatives in The Conditions of the Working Class in England: ‘The workers dwellings of Manchester are dirty, miserable and wholly lacking in comforts. In such houses only inhuman, degraded and unhealthy creatures would feel at home.’ . . .
In the preface to Mary Barton (subtitled A Tale of Manchester Life), published anonymously in 1848, Elizabeth says that she was inspired by thinking, ‘How deep might be the romance in the lives of some of those who elbowed me daily in the busy streets of the town in which I resided. I had always felt a deep sympathy with the careworn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.’

With its sensational plot and social realism, Mary Barton attracted the attention of Charles Dickens. It was at his invitation that much of her work was first published in the periodicals he edited: Household Words and All the Year Round. Elizabeth became a popular author, writing numbers of stories for Dickens. These stories (which include Cranford) are very varied and are quite distinct in style from her industrial fiction. . . .

Despite her occasional tendency towards melodrama, Elizabeth had a natural gift for storytelling and Dickens referred to her as his ‘dear Scheherazade’. She originally published anonymously but, according to Victorian conventions, her readers came to know her as ‘Mrs Gaskell’ a name which made her sound matronly and safe. Elizabeth Gaskell (as we prefer to call her) was actually courageous and progressive in her style and subject matter, and often framed her stories as critiques of Victorian attitudes (particularly those towards women). . . .

She was, at the same time, a caring wife and mother, attractive and well-liked. At ease in any company, she was chatty, sociable and a prolific writer of letters. She had a wide circle of friends, which included Charlotte Brontë, John Ruskin, the Carlyles, Charles Kingsley and Florence Nightingale. LTCD1047, Charles Dickens, 1843Although they shared many artistic concerns, Elizabeth had a difficult working relationship with Charles Dickens who, as editor, often wanted to alter what she wrote. On one occasion, exasperated by her perceived waywardness as a contributor, he exclaimed to his sub- editor, ‘Oh! Mrs Gaskell-fearful-fearful! If I were Mr G. Oh heavens how I would beat her!’ ?It’s easy to see why they didn’t always get on. . . .

Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly on 12 November 1865 at The Lawn, a house in Holybourne in Hampshire that she was secretly buying as a post-retirement surprise for her husband and family.
Wives and Daughters was being published in the Cornhill Magazine, a high quality literary periodical specialising in the serialisation of novels. It appeared posthumously in volume form in 1866.