Why has it taken me so long to finally read this wonderful novel? I bought the Penguin edition when I was in my 20s, read a page or two, put it down and didn't pick it up again. The book sat on my shelf for years. For all I know, it could be there still. However, after university I went right off Victorian literature and it's only been in the last twelve months or so that I've felt the desire to tackle it again. And now I've fallen in love with Elizabeth Gaskell's writing.
In brief, the novel is set in the English Midlands in the 1830s and focuses on Molly Gibson, who lives in a small town with her widowed father, the local medical practitioner. Concerned to acquire an appropriate chaperone and guide for his teenage daughter, Mr Gibson re-marries the vain, self-absorbed and manipulative Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who has a teenage daughter of her own, Cynthia. The story of Molly and Cynthia is a tale of love, friendship, secrets and scandal. Central to the narrative are the changes in English society, where class distinctions are slowly becoming blurred.
The best thing about this novel are its characters. There is kind, loving Molly, her sarcastic and undemonstrative but deeply caring father, her truly awful stepmother and the "fascinating, faulty" Cynthia, who is probably the most complex and interesting character in the novel. There is also the aristocratic Cumnor family, the conflicted family of Squire Hamley, and the chorus of ladies from the town. Gaskell breathed life into all of these characters. None are perfect - even the closest to perfect amongst them, Molly and Roger Hamley, demonstrate some flaws. None are mere caricatures, not even Hyacinth, in spite of her her quite breath-taking shallowness and the fact that she is the butt of much of Gaskell's highly-developed sense of irony.
This is a novel with plenty of wit and humour, as well as melodrama and pathos. First published in serial form between August 1864 and January 1866, Gaskell died before the novel was finished. The final section, said to have been written by journalist and editor Frederick Greenwood, explains how Gaskell meant to conclude the final chapter. While it is sad that Gaskell's death left the book unfinished, it's not difficult to see where the narrative was going even without the final section. The excellence of the novel is not diminished by it being unfinished.
I listened to an audiobook edition narrated by Josephine Bailey, who is truly superb. Every character is wonderfully realised, each with a distinct and appropriate voice.
All in all, listening to this novel has been a wonderful experience. I'm looking forward to going back to its world in the not too distant future. And of course, I now have the BBC television adaptation to look forward to.