Author: Mrs Gaskell
Details: Originally published 1864-1866; Pub Wordsworth Editions Ltd 1999; ISBN 1-84022-416-9; Gutenberg text
Verdict: Wives and Daughters is a readable, engaging character piece.
Reasons for reading it: My mother has been raving about it for a while, and cheap paperback editions of thick nineteenth century novels are the best value for weight when travelling. It covered me quite nicely for the bits of the 36-hour trip from Oz when I wasn't asleep.
Mrs Gaskell does characterization and social observation, and both these are as excellent as expected in Wives and Daughters. There isn't really a lot of plot; various obstacles are overcome to allow the heroine to get together with the hero, basically. But it's very readable if you like that kind of thing.
I found the depiction of country town society in the early nineteenth century really interesting. The intense social stratification and its impact on people's lives come across very clearly. Mrs Gaskell's characters are people, not just representatives of their class or gender or whatever, but they do experience social expectations and interpretations of their actions depending on all this background.
Molly is perhaps a little too wonderful to be true, but she's also very plausbly seventeen and it's very easy to sympathize with her. And all the other characters (there's a huge cast) are very well drawn, even the ones who are comic or unpleasant. Hyacinth, as Molly's stepmother, is an irritating anti-heroine worthy of Mrs Bennett, but she still manages to be sympathetic.
I also enjoyed the rather ironic sense of humour. It's not quite at the Jane Austen level, but it's not at all bad.