Welcome back to another 3 Classics Review! These are all books for my courses this semester, and they are all written by women; two are for my Victorian women novelists independent study and one is for 19th-century American literature. So let’s jump in!
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
My Rating: 4 stars
This was my third Gaskell novel, and I wasn’t sure what to think going in. I adore North and South, but I found Mary Barton quite boring. Wives and Daughters lands somewhere in the middle for me. The story itself is interesting. It has a bit of a “Cinderella” plot; Molly Gibson’s father remarries a selfish woman with a daughter of her own. But Molly and Cynthia, her stepsister, become friends, and I enjoyed seeing their relationship. Molly is likable yet kind of boring, but I was still rooting for her to get with Roger. The interesting part of the story comes from the secondary characters; Cynthia’s romantic difficulties and Osborne Hamley’s secret wife are both fascinating plot threads that kept me reading.
This book’s main problem is the length. It is 60 chapters (yet still unfinished), and my copy was just over 900 pages! Gaskell could have cut out 300 pages and it would have been the same story. She spends a lot of time describing the history and lives of minor characters that just aren’t necessary to the plot. We get play by plays of events that could be summarized. It just starts to drag after a while. And we never get a resolution since Gaskell died before finishing it. It’s fairly clear that Gaskell was going to end it with Molly and Roger being together, but it’s still disappointing to not see the happy ending play out. I couldn’t help but wonder if she would have been able to finish it if she had spent less time on some of the more unnecessary sections.
Overall, Wives and Daughters is a Victorian brick with far too much detail, but it still has an enjoyable story. Though I am baffled that some people think this is Gaskell’s best work when North and South is far superior.
Hope Leslie: or, Early Times in the Massachusetts by Catharine Sedgwick
My Rating: 3 stars
I read this for my 19th-century American literature class, and I went in with no expectations. I’m usually not big on American literature, but I was interested to see what American women writers were doing during this time period. The story itself is not just interesting; it’s exciting. There are fights, people losing limbs, daring escapes, scenes set in stormy graveyards. I had a great time reading about it in the critical pieces my professor assigned. But I found Sedgwick’s execution far more dull. Something about her writing just made me immediately want to fall asleep. I’m not sure if that’s just her style or if it was because she set the story in the 1600s and was trying to mimic the language of that time. There is also a fair amount of exposition to plod through before reaching the exciting parts. It’s all important to understanding the overall story, but I found it hard to get through. This could also just be my bias against American literature coming through. It’s always a bit hard to tell for me. Would I find it better if it were by a British author? Who knows.
However, there are some fantastic scenes, particularly whenever Magawisca shows up. Magawisca is such a compelling character, frankly far more compelling than the book’s heroine Hope Leslie. She is the daughter of a Pequod chief who is captured and placed with the Fletchers as a servant. She is eventually rescued by her father in his raid of the Fletcher house, but she maintains a friendship with Everall Fletcher, who she saves from being killed, and Hope. Every time Magawisca shows up, the book becomes ten times more interesting. It should be noted, though, that there is a bit of the noble savage trope in her characterization. While Sedgwick’s portrayal of Native Americans is more positive and sympathetic than that of other writers, it’s still fairly problematic, especially by modern standards. It’s important to be aware of this while reading the book and discussing characters such as Magawisca.
Overall, I found Hope Leslie to be an exciting story bogged down by dull writing, but Magawisca ultimately made it worth the read. It’s certainly an important book in the history of American–particularly American women’s–literature.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of my favorite Victorian novels, and I was so excited to revisit it for my independent study. Anne Brontë has been sadly overlooked in favor of her sisters despite being just as talented as them. If you’re a fan of Jane Eyre‘s feminist leanings, you will love Tenant. Our heroine is Helen Graham, a widow who moves into the dilapidated Wildfell Hall and paints to support her young son. Her standoffish attitude and unknown past cause people to gossip, and we learn her story along with Gilbert Markham, a young gentleman farmer who starts falling in love with her. Helen is just as much of a spitfire as Jane; she stays strong in the face of abuse from her alcoholic husband and finds the courage to take her son and leave, something that was illegal during the time period. She breaks laws and social conventions to save her son and doesn’t care what anyone says about it. She’s by far my favorite Brontë heroine.
I will say, this book does get off to a slow start. Like her sister Emily, Brontë employs a frame narrative, setting it as a series of letters from Gilbert to his brother-in-law. I don’t think she pulls it off quite as well as her sister does. I just find Gilbert to be a very meh character. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s not interesting enough to be hilariously dumb like Mr. Lockwood of Wuthering Heights. His frame narrative takes up about half the book, and the sections do feel long. However, Brontë more than makes up for it in the middle, which is Helen’s story told through her diary entries. I know some people feel this section is a little preachy because Brontë really hammers home her point on gender inequality and marriage laws. That’s actually one of the things I love the most about the book though. It was a major issue many people preferred to ignore, and Anne Brontë went and wrote a book about it!
Overall, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a fantastic early feminist novel that anyone interested in women’s writing should pick up. Anne Brontë deserves to be just as well known and loved as her sisters.