Wives and Daughters proved to be something of a departure for Gaskell. In many of her previous novels she had undertaken 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. From her earliest works her attention was always focused on the social and emotional problems of her women characters but in Wives and Daughters she writes a novel that is both 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, but it is also so much more than this, she also examines the theme of education for women.
This was a particularly pertinent issue at the time of writing in the 1860's. The 1850's and 60's had seen real moves pressing for the admission of women into higher education.
Higher education was extremely limited, with a mere five universities being established, none of which admitted women. The problem with this was that Britain was largely a patriarchal society and allowing women this level of education was likely to upset the status quo and that armed with this kind of knowledge it was perceived that women might start to become empowered.
However the change had already started further down the social ladder, indeed in David Wardle's book 'English Popular Education 1780-1970' he states that,
"The university extension movement of the 1870's and 1880's received much of its impetus from the demand by women for an education of genuine academic content and many of the men and women who were concerned in founding secondary schools and colleges for women who were also active in the emancipation movement"(1)
By now many middle class girls were receiving an education, however the education tended to concentrate on how to be accomplished wives and hostesses.
Gaskell, a Unitarian, had herself been educated at a boarding school in Warwickshire. The school, which taught modern subjects in a comfortable, domestic atmosphere, attracted the daughters of a number of Unitarian families. As Unitarians they did not believe that wives should be submissive to their husbands and Elizabeth certainly wasn't. Her husband, William encouraged his wife to develop her own talents and to assert herself in promoting them. In 'Wives and Daughters' Gaskell portrays a changing society, in which achievement will soon count for more than social position which confirms her belief that women should be educated to the full extent of their ability
This explains Gaskell's satirical portrayal of Gibson, who although a well educated doctor is reluctant to educate his daughter in anything but the basics of a rudimentary education. Miss Eyre, Molly's governess, had the following instructions from Gibson, "Don't teach Molly too much; she must sew, and read, and do her sums; but I'm not sure that writing is necessary. Many a good woman gets married with only a cross instead of her name." (Pg 65)
Gibson proved himself to be a good and caring parent; this was not a deliberate act of negligence or to frustrate Molly. He perceived this was his way of protecting Molly's future.
In Elizabeth Langland's, 'Nobody's Angels', she writes of Gibson that
"Fearful of spoiling his daughter, the doctor has set forth an educational plan that is primarily proscriptive, and Molly remains intellectually and socially backward" (2)
In Anna Unsworth points out in her book, 'Elizabeth Gaskell: An Independent Woman',
"Molly had enjoyed the advantages of a secure upbringing in a situation of stability in a small rural provincial town. Her education had been limited to reading, writing, arithmetic and sewing, the latter being an essential and practical skill of most women at that time. These were later supplemented by accomplishments of French, drawing and dancing and any higher education she received was achieved through her own efforts."(3)
Eventually Gibson relents and allows Molly to learn to write but her curriculum is still extremely limited, and it takes a great deal of persuasion for Molly to receive further instruction in French and Drawing. However his attempts to thwart Molly's educational progression are in vain as she is largely self- taught using the books in the library to further her knowledge.
Elizabeth Langford writes of this,
"The submerged logic of this episode reads: rigorous education of women is like social grooming, a falsification of nature" (4)
By today's standards this standard of education appears hugely inadequate but as Robin Colby points out in 'Some Appointed Work To Do',
"From childhood, the Victorian middle class girl was encouraged to prepare herself for her future role of wife and mother. During adolescence she was encouraged to remain passive, as young men made their offers and pledged their undying devotion. While occupied as he was with the practical realities of his vocation, courtship and marriage was only one part of a young man's life, for a young woman is was the central part. Most of her energies were turned inward as she engaged in a period of waiting for her destiny to work itself out. While young men were busy doing, young women were supposed to be content merely being"
She also goes on to say that,
"Mr Gibson expresses the common Victorian attitude that too much learning is dangerous for women" (5)
Gibson's approach to his daughter's education contrasts strongly with Gaskell's own ideas; her daughters received an education that far surpassed the limits of a normal middle class education. In 'Wives and Daughters' however, this bright, able student is held back simply because she is female. Molly perceptively compares herself to a, "lighted candle when they're putting the extinguisher on it" (pg 58)
Nonetheless, 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. The angel-in-the-house is an ideal commonly used to define sexual standards of the Victorian Age. Although widely considered to be the cultural "norm," the Victorian Angel, revered for her morality, domestic virtue, and dedication to the family. Molly's informal education has taught her 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 her manners grow quieter accordingly.
Langland discovers in 'Nobody's Angels' that the middle-class wife assumed a more complex and important function than has ever been recognized, despite often having only limited education. Molly certainly seems to fit this mould, and with her substantial power veiled in myth, this angel in the house mastered skills that enabled her to support a rigid class system; at the same time, however, her achievements unobtrusively set the stage for a feminist revolution.
Juxtaposed with Molly's experiences there is the education of Cynthia Kirkpatrick, daughter of Molly's stepmother Hyacinth. Here is a girl that is being educated to a high level, at her mother's insistence. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick places great importance on the value of her daughter's educational progress and works as a governess in order to finance her daughter's fees at boarding school and then at her French finishing school. This is naturally a financial burden on her as her husband; an Anglican clergyman had died leaving his widow and small child almost penniless. Hyacinth, however, believes that if Cynthia is to make a suitable marriage then this standard of education is an absolute prerequisite.
Hyacinth's determination for her daughter to be educated appears to be a reaction against her own experiences. Hyacinth whilst manipulative and occasionally charming is not hugely academic, but her circumstances have been such that she has had to work as a governess and run a school in order to survive. When Molly asks Hyacinth is Cynthia 'clever and accomplished', Hyacinth replies, "She ought to be; I've paid ever so much money to have her taught by the best masters"(115)
Her desires for her daughter's future are altogether more ambitious than her own life. This is why she has worked so hard to have Cynthia educated, this is not simply education for education's sake but so that she has all the refinements that are necessary to secure a suitable husband. Whilst most accounts of Hyacinth Clare tend toward her being
"Vain, foolish, shallow and self-interested" (6)
However, such scathing indictments do not give her credit for her foresight with regards to her daughter's education. Nor it seems do they take into account her background or remember the condescension she receives from the likes of the Cumnors. Elizabeth Langford writes, "Mrs Gibson is ambitious for her daughtersÃ¢ÂÂ¦she actually succeeds in furthering their interests"
"When critics "read" Mrs Gibson they often dismiss her...as a "neat satire" of "human deficiency". Laurence Lerner pinpoints her in the "little cleverness of a mind that lacks the imagination to understand what she ahs really done wrong". Even feminist critics have found a negative value in her portrayal: that is, she reveals the "deficiencies of female education and dependency on men" But Gaskell's triumph of presentation, her demystification of domestic ideology depends on simultaneously inscribing Mrs Gibson within two different scripts- the patriarchal and bourgeois- and foregrounding their contradictions"(7)
As Alison Booth notes in her review of Elizabeth Langland, Nobody's Angels,
"Mrs. Kirkpatrick, Molly Gibson's manipulative stepmother in Wives and Daughters, gets here perhaps her first, well-deserved defence for adapting so cleverly to circumstances" (8)
In comparison to her husband Hyacinth seems positively forward thinking with regard to women's education. She, like Gaskell, has recognised that to have knowledge from education is to be empowered and to have choices. So whilst Hyacinth Kirkpatrick may seem like an unlikely feminist heroine there are certainly elements of this in her aims and aspirations for daughter.
These two women do go some way to convincing us that Gaskell had faith in her sex as more than just the Victorian ideal of the "angel in the house" and was determined to show that her heroines would not pale in the face of adversity but change and adapt and become stronger for the challenge, Molly's commonsense equips her with the necessary skills to look after hers and other interests. Again with Cynthia the knowledge that she is an educated woman makes her more of a rounded individual than just a flighty attractive girl.
A further contrast to Molly and Cynthia is seen in Lady Harriet Cumnor is also extremely well educated by the standard of the time, and also fiercely independent. Harriet is still single, and whilst this is of her own choosing one can't help wondering if this may be Gaskell's warning- that whilst women's education is to be encouraged, Harriet's independence and education do not make her endearing to any potential suitors.
Robin Colby writes that,
"Lady Harriet represents a very different model of womanhood. Wendy Craik says approvingly that Lady Harriet is "remarkable and wholly convincing as an independent-minded, mature woman with no impulse towards marriage, witty, intelligent and outspoken" (9)
However, Harriet unlike Molly and Cynthia is in a privileged position of wealth and therefore, it is of little consequence to her whether she marries or not. It is therefore, her financial situation that affords her this level of liberty from the constraints of the Victorian marriage and her education simply seems to bolster this choice. Unfortunately for both Cynthia and Molly, unless they were to follow Hyacinth's lead and take up employment as a governess, or another similarly lowly role, it is an absolute economic necessity that they both find a suitable match.
Whilst Gaskell is arguing the case for women's education, whether this burden sits easily on her shoulders is debatable. It is well documented that she was a supporter of the women's movement, and that not only 'Wives and Daughters' but her other works embody a rational and radical social critique. A rather brave move for women of this period.
Colby examines this in 'Some Appointed Work To Do' by seemingly describing Gaskell's works as an elaborate meditation on women's vocation, a serial negotiation of the tensions among duty, choice, and necessity that structured Victorian women's lives.
Gaskell certainly seems to promote the idealistic notion that education gives women choices, but this only seems to apply to the likes of educated women like Harriet Cumnor who has this freedom of choice, but this is largely due to her wealthy position. Cynthia although well educated, does not have the same freedom of choice regarding her future. Jane Spencer in 'Elizabeth Gaskell' argues that,
"Feminist critics re-reading her presentation of gender relations have found herÃ¢ÂÂ¦deeply critical of the power structures of her society" (10)
Gaskell's limitation lie in the fact that she is essentially a product of the age she lived in, and as such she was bound to some extent by the thinking and the moral constraints of that era. So whilst she does argue the case for women's education it often appears that she does so out of the belief that it promotes social mobility.
In questioning how, or if indeed, Gaskell did indeed argue the case for women's education it is easy to fall in the trap of judging her efforts by modern standards but one must remember that the moral climate was such that her husband's own congregation were so outraged by her publication 'Ruth' that they collectively burnt this book.
Colby sees Gaskell as a writer for whom work is a source of both deep ambivalence and enormous possibility, and reads each of Gaskell's novels as an effort to come to grips with a different aspect of the problem of women's work. This is perhaps unsurprising as it is documented that she did not find the path to her own vocation an easy one. "I am sometimes coward enough to wish that we were back in the darkness where obedience was the only seen duty of women," she confessed to friend Eliza "Tottie" Fox, and then went on to add, "Only even then I don't believe William would ever have commanded me."
Jane Spencer writes that,
"She herself felt split not simply into two but into a multiplicity of selves whose warring allegiances were hard to disentangle."(11)
However despite such limitations Gaskell undoubtedly does promote education for women and as Jane Spencer writes of Gaskell in her, 'Women Writers: Elizabeth Gaskell' book,
"The very necessary voice of nineteenth-century feminism, insisting on a woman's right to be considered as more than a vessel of emotion. Important moves to improve women's education, job opportunities and property rights came from that voice."
and later adds,
"Wives and Daughters contains social commentary all the more telling for being subtly rendered" (12)
It is written that her work often articulates most strongly not only the glorified feminine ideals such as grace, delicacy and sensitivity, which were often attributed to her by early critics but instead a determined and sometimes belligerent social consciousness. 'Wives and Daughters' and indeed many of her other works take their themes from the breach between public policy and personal conduct.
In summary, it appears that whilst the constraints of the period are considered, Gaskell did indeed argue for the necessity of women's education. If that was to secure a suitable marriage match or to become a socially adept hostess is not hugely important. Gaskell was in someway instrumental in the shift towards educating women which not only gave them essential knowledge but also long overdue empowerment.
1.Wardle, David. English Popular Education 1780-1970. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1970. Pg 28
2. Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels. Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1995. Pg 134
3. Unsworth, Anna. Elizabeth Gaskell: An Independent Woman. Minerva Press. London. 1996. Pg 165
4. Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels. Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1995. pg 135
5.Colby, Robin B. Some Appointed Work To Do, Women and Vocation in the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Greenwood Press. Connecticut. 1995. Pg 90
6. Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels. Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1995. Pg 133
7. Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels. Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1995. Pg 133
8. http://www.ucpress.edu/scan/ncl-e/512/ - Alison booth Review of Elizabeth Langland, Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
9. Colby, Robin B. Some Appointed Work To Do, Women and Vocation in the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Greenwood Press. Connecticut. 1995. Pg 101
10. Spencer, Jane. Women Writers: Elizabeth Gaskell. Macmillan. London. 1993. Pg 1
11. Spencer, Jane. Women Writers: Elizabeth Gaskell. Macmillan. London. 1993. Pg 2
12. Spencer, Jane. Women Writers: Elizabeth Gaskell. Macmillan. London. 1993. Pg 117
http://www.ucpress.edu/scan/ncl-e/512/ - Alison booth Review of Elizabeth Langland, Nobody's Angels: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Colby, Robin B. Some Appointed Work To Do, Women and Vocation in the fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Greenwood Press. Connecticut. 1995.
Harvie, Christopher. Industrialisation and Culture 1830 -1914. Open University Press. London. 1976.
Langland, Elizabeth. Nobody's Angels. Middle-Class Women and Domestic Ideology in Victorian Culture. Cornwell University Press. Ithaca and London. 1995.
Schor, Hilary M. Scheherezade in the Marketplace: Elizabeth Gaskell and the Victorian Novel. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 1992.
Spencer, Jane. Women Writers: Elizabeth Gaskell. Macmillan. London. 1993.
Wardle, David. English Popular Education 1780-1970. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. 1970.