Darwin in the Details: Wives and Daughters’ Naturalist Subplot

November 23, 2009

I’m honored to be a part of the Classics Circuit Elizabeth Gaskell Tour.  I knew the moment I heard about it that I wanted to be a part of the project.  For more about the tour go to its website here.  The next post (due tomorrow) will be at things mean a lot. I welcome comments and would love to hear what you thought of Wives and Daughters if you’ve read it … or if you’re planning to.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters has long been a favorite story of mine.  I’ll admit that before I read the book I had seen the excellent BBC mini series (1999) but reading it only enhanced my love for the plot.  It has all the “flaws” that some of the previous reviewers have pointed out: dense language, an un-modern languid sense of drama, and many diversions from the main love story.  For me, though these all enhance the pleasure of the story and solidify its atmosphere.  Much has been made of North and South being a reprise of Pride and Prejudice.  If I had to pick a Jane Austen story to match with Wives and Daughters it would probably be Mansfield Park.  They both focus on the question of doing the right thing in small ways throughout your daily life even if you don’t get much credit for it and for the value of loving truly and getting re-paid for it in the end (after the usual amount of heart ache and suffering of course).  (They’re also both shockingly under appreciated as novels.)  It’s a good love story with many twists and turns and misunderstandings.  As much as I love this aspect of the book, it has another facet which much enhances the plot.  The story is thoroughly tangled up with the science of the day and naturalism is involved in characters, plot and diversionary details.  I first read the book in college at the same time that I was taking a biology course focusing on evolution and an environmental studies class covering the transcendentalist movement in America.  I was struck by how much Osborne Hamley’s poetry sounds like Emerson’s (written a hundred years later) and how often Roger reminded me of Darwin (theoretically his contemporary).   As I found out later, I was hardly the first to draw these comparisons.

Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Wives and Daughters at the end of her life (actually she died during the writing and the last few chapters are summed up in a note from her editor at Cornhill, the magazine in which it was being published serially).  The book is set in her youth, however, in the mid 1830s, and she makes good use of her knowledge of the ensuing thirty years to set up her key characters in patterns of future success.  The time period of the book was a transition between the romantic values of philosophy and poetry and refinement into a more “modern” scientific and rational point of view.

Through the book, Gaskell places high value on the characteristics of a good naturalist.  Characters are considered good as far as they might make good scientists– observant, careful, truth-seeking and telling  as opposed to flighty, self-involved, bending the truth to their own ends.  All of the pillars of the book, Molly, Roger, Mr. Gibson and even Lady Harriet are intelligent and observant.  Gaskell specifically sets up the two Hamley brothers as a contrast representing the old and new men of England. She plays a little game with the audience – setting up Osborne, the elder, as a paragon in the eyes of all the surrounding characters.  He is by far the most brilliant, “Roger was never to be compared with him”, he writes poetry and handsome and accomplished and expected to make a name for himself at Cambridge.  Roger on the other hand is considered dull by his teachers and rough by his mother.  But in fact Osborne is self involved, weak in character and constitution and ends up disappointing his family very badly.  The abused Roger is steady, loving and considerate.  In the end its Roger, the man of science, who is successful and happy and his brother fades away into the past where he belongs.

It’s been often pointed out that the character of Roger Hamley was modeled after Charles Darwin, a distant cousin of Elizabeth Gaskell’s.  Like Darwin, Roger is a keen collector of insects.  His first real interaction with Molly occurs when he is on his way home from a bug collecting expedition and finds her crying over the news of her father’s impending remarriage; he carefully folds over his net to keep his finds inside before he sits down to comfort her.  The way he shows his concern isn’t very delicate or romantic – first he bucks her up and gives her a little lecture on thinking about other people before herself, then he shows her his bug collection.  In fact, though, this turns out to be exactly what she needs, and is the start of a beautiful friendship.

Darwin’s voyage made him a scientific celebrity – capable of moving with confidence among the London elite of science, both the scientists themselves and those of the nobility who chose to dabble in the newly fashionable subject.   Roger is always cast in the light of a humble country boy – Molly’s step-mother, Mrs. Gibson, decries his lack of refinement to the last – but to the audience Mrs. Gaskell was writing for it would have been clear that his star was rising to great heights outside of his local neighborhood.  By the time she was writing Wives and Daughters, in 1865, Darwin had been awarded the Royal Society of London’s Copley Medal, England’s highest scientific honor.  We can suppose that she intended Roger Hamley to rise to similar heights.

One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it plays to Roger’s strengths.  He courts with science, and while this doesn’t always work for him as he might like, it wins the right girl in the end.  From his first attempt to comfort the grieving Molly by inviting her to come look at his afternoons insect discoveries under a microscope and then recommending a few good books on the topic.  He brings her a wasp’s nest.  He tries to write to Cynthia about his findings in Africa but she’s not much interested.  Her replies are short and careless and finally open his eyes to her lack of real love for him.  Molly, however, matches his interest in naturalism.  She looks up the scientific references in his letters and longs to attend the meeting of the Geographical Society in London where his African reports are read to an admiring crowd of scientists.  In the end it will all come out right.  The end of the book is a quick and somewhat unsatisfying summing up by the Cornhill editor, in default of Gaskell’s own language.  But it does allow for a very gratifying conclusion to the mini-series (I won’t spoil it) and I think that it’s possible to assume from Elizabeth Gaskell’s own busy and active life, very much tied up with her husband’s profession as well as having one in her own right, that she would have allowed Molly to take an active hand in her husband’s pursuits during his rise to scientific greatness.

All in all this is one of my favorite pieces of fiction.  Molly Gibson is one of my favorite heroines, holding her own against Lizzy Bennet, Harriet Vane and Flora Post.  I heartily recommend Wives and Daughters to everyone who reads any type of period literature.

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8 Responses to “Darwin in the Details: Wives and Daughters’ Naturalist Subplot”

  1. Rebecca Reid Says:

    Oh it sounds so nice! I recently read North and South and saw the P&P parallel; maybe I’ll read Mansfield Park before I read this one so I can see that parallel.

    Interesting comments on Darwin and Naturalism. I’m not familiar with naturalism but it sounds like it adds an interesting depth to the novel.

    I was always hesitant to read it since I know Gaskell didn’t really finish it herself, but it sounds like it’s still enjoyable despite that!

    Thanks for this review, and thanks for joining the Circuit!


  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by JanetGS, The Classics Circuit. The Classics Circuit said: Elizabeth Gaskell visits Lost Between the Letters with WIVES AND DAUGHTERS (and a little Darwin too!) http://tinyurl.com/y9zxjsy [...]

  3. Stefanie Says:

    Hmm, I am planning on re-reading Mansfield Park soon. I will have to read this one soon after for comparison. Nice review!


  4. Great review. I love your comparison with Mansfield Park. I had never thought of that before, but I can really see it now.

    I love your description of Roger the man of science. I love science myself and think that is one of the reasons I love Roger so much as a hero.

  5. dihansmann Says:

    I should say that my Mansfield Park analogy is pretty flippant … but actually having considered it I’m willing to stand by it. I should probably acknowledge that a lot of people seem to think that Fanny Price (the heroine of Mansfield Park) is kind of a wet blanket and a poor substitute for the spunkier Lizzy Bennett. I simply don’t agree. She may not have as much witty repartee but she is just as strong and stubborn a woman – she is unfailingly polite and kind to people who ignore or snub her but she won’t be bullied into doing what she doesn’t feel is right or want to do. Molly Gibson is the same.
    Mansfield Park isn’t really the subject of this post but … I can’t resist plugging it here. If you didn’t think much of Fanny the first time through its worth a re-read. Whatever you do, though, DON’T watch any of the film and television adaptations. Screenwriters simply can’t stop themselves from “updating” Fanny with all sorts of modern mannerisms … which then make the rest of plot fall apart because her behavior and understated choices are central to the way everyone reacts to the events of the story.
    (The same is not true of Wives and Daughters – its adaptation is fantastic.)


  6. Very nice review. I read W&D this summer and I just loved it, I’m looking forward to reading more Gaskell. However, I think I disagree with your comparison of W&D and Mansfield Park. I do recommend it to all Austen lovers who are looking for something new to read. I haven’t read North and South yet, so your comparison to Pride & Prejudice makes me want to read it even more.

  7. JaneGS Says:

    I am so glad that the Classics Circuit is having a Gaskell tour because it might not have stumbled onto your blog otherwise :)

    Thanks for a terrific review of one of my all-time favorite books. I agree with the MP analogy actually with regards to Molly and Edmund and what swirls around them and what they are to each other.

    >One of my favorite aspects of the book is the way it plays to Roger’s strengths. He courts with science, and while this doesn’t always work for him as he might like, it wins the right girl in the end.

    I love this thought–nicely put.

    >Molly Gibson is one of my favorite heroines, holding her own against Lizzy Bennet, Harriet Vane and Flora Post.

    Yes! I am partial to Margaret Hale as well.

  8. Nymeth Says:

    Your review was brilliant! I love how thoughtful and detailed it was :) My classics circuit choice was my first time reading Gaskell, but I absolutely must read her again. And this will be at the very top of my list.


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