Sunday, November 8, 2009
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
The way an author treats those the protagonist disagrees with is a good way to understand their style. Jane Austen, for instance, treats them with a gentle sort of contempt (Think of Mr. Collins, for instance). Dickens frowns darkly at them. Bram Stoker hates them with a deep, meaningful hatred. L.M. Montgomery does the kind of 'Bless Your Heart' routine that a southern grandma might do ("Poor girl, just doesn't realize she's a tramp, bless her heart"). But, in all of these instances, it's interesting to note, that it's immediately apparent who the 'wrong' people are. If you spent some time thinking Fagan was possibly just a kind-hearted miscreant who wanted the best for his boys, you probably missed something. If you were under the impression that Dracula was really a tragic, pitiable figure, you probably mistakenly read Twilight. The bad guys are wrong, immediately, obviously wrong.
Gaskell isn't like that. It isn't like, say, James Joyce, where there simply is no right and wrong. It's that for Gaskell, every character is a tableaux of both. The person who eventually is the most hellishly obnoxious character in the whole book to me, in the beginning, seemed like they were going to be a pleasant, if imperfect, sort of friend. The man who is the most obviously bad upon his introduction never ends up being good, but as you grow into the situation, it becomes far less black and white. Her friends, in the same vein are all wicked in their ways. Every single person has a fault, every person has virtues, and all of them are who they are - really the same person at the end of the book as at the beginning for each, eve if some have grown a bit older and wiser (or deader).
In a sense, this story felt like a cross between a romance and Middlemarch. The story centers around a young girl, and follows her growing up, and eventually leads to a culmination in her love life (I am trying purposely not to be too specific). But along the way, the portrait broadens, and becomes a spectrum not just of one girls life, but of middle class society, in the same way that Middlemarch does. If you've read Gaskell before, it has the deeply loving author-voice of Cranford, and the earnest seriousness of North and South, without, from a plot perspective, being like either one.
But, my favorite thing about the book (quite unexpectedly) was the ending. Wives and Daughters was a serial novel, and Ms Gaskell wrote it throughout the period when it was being published - she had the basics of the plot sketched out, but wrote chapters as they were needed. And then, she died, before she finished. The last chapter is pretty much a sketchy synopsis of what would have happened had Ms Gaskell lived, and a very kind elegy on her life, written by her editor. Originally I thought the ending had been written by someone else, something like Mozart's Requiem. When I discovered this was not so, I'm not sure if it made it worse or better.
But when you finally get to her ending... there's a certain poignancy to it, to this abrupt, but at the same time remarkably appropriate fade-to-black. The novel is a truly intimate one, you feel a strong closeness the farther along you get, and just as you get to the crux of that feeling, there is a death - a death not of one character, but of the entire world. And the abruptness of that, in a way I don't think one coould accomplish on purpose, lays bare the beating pulse of the story, strips off the wards, and for a moment, your hand lays on the last pulse beats not of a fantasy, but of a fantasist. The death of Molly's world whispers itself quietly away, leaving for a moment, the sudden realization, of what writing really is, of the fact that the body and soul of the author are the soil that the world sucks it's nutriment from. One can know that, academically, but to see the winter of that soil come, to see it expire before the trees can spring to their fullest bloom is a sort of transcendent experience, and one, that bears it's own, strange, ghost fruit.