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Penguins on Parade: Wives and Daughters!

By (May 12, 2013) No Comment



Some Penguin Classics make their courtroom cases with the blunt force of a bulldog trial lawyer, flatly asserting that their client deserves a better deal. Of course this is what all reprint editions should do, ideally: no book should assume a second life in print – books cost money to make and time to read, after all, and especially on the proving-ground of fiction, momentum should count for nothing. If there comes a time when “Beowulf” no longer speaks to readers, “Beowulf” should be taken off life support and allowed to lapse out of print (or at least as out of print as any classic can be at the dawn of the 21st century, when anybody with an Internet connection can download a free copy of any classic they want in about fifteen seconds). From its inception, Penguin Classics has had a knack for finding audiences where nobody predicted they’d be, so the risk of advocacy becomes a moral duty.

penguin wives & daughtersThe 1986 Penguin Classic reprint of the 1969 “Penguin English Library” edition of Mrs. Gaskell’s masterpiece Wives and Daughters, for instance, takes its advocacy very seriously: it considers the book to be one of the most underrated masterpieces in the fiction canon. “Jane Eyre, or Barchester Towers, or Pendennis are flabby in comparison to its wit, its pathos, its intelligence,” Laurence Lerner writes in his take-no-prisoners Introduction (since supplanted in more recent editions, sadly). “It raises Elizabeth Gaskell to the level when we can compare her with Jane Austen or George Eliot.”

Lerner makes his case for both book and author right away:

The great woman novelists all have two names: Jane Austen, Emily Bronte (or ‘Ellis Bell’), George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. The names may be false, or masculine, but at least they look like names. Behind them, dimly thronging the pages of the histories of literature, come the modestly feminine writers who shelter behind their marriage lines: Mrs Radcliffe, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Mrs Oliphant, Mrs Gaskell. Elizabeth Gasell was a modest woman, and would not have been surprised to find herself among the minor or even the unread. Those who have read only one of her books – it is invariably Cranford – may feel that she belongs there, assuming that her other novels are even more feminine, more limited, and perhaps not quite as charming. This book will give them the pleasure of discovering their mistake.

As charming (and deceptively subversive) as Cranford is, Lerner is certainly right that it’s a quick Homeric hymn compared to the Iliad that is Wives and Daughters, and although every plot-strand of the book is bracingly complex, the heart of that different elevation is the relationship between the book’s heroine, the virtuous Molly Gibson, and her stepsister Cynthia, who’s franker and more jadedly vivacious. The book has a great deal of action and plot in its 700 pages, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who’d have been perfectly happy eavesdropping on Molly and Cynthia the whole time (or at least more time than we get) – imagine prolonged and slightly more even-footed dialogue between Jane and Elizabeth Bennet, and you’ll almost have it:

“What did he tell you?” asked Cynthia, almost fiercely.

“Nothing but that. Oh, yes! He praised your beauty, and wanted me to tell you what he had said.”

“I should have hated you if you had,” said Cynthia.

“Of course I should never have thought of doing such a thing,” replied Molly. “I didn’t like him; and Lady Harriet spoke of him the next day, as if he wasn’t a person to be liked.”

Cynthia was quite silent. At length she said:

“I wish I was good!”

“So do I,” said Molly simply.

“Nonsense, Molly! You are good. At least, if you’re not good, what am I? There’s rule-of-three sum for you to do! But it’s no use talking; I lucy reads wives and daughtersam not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.”

“Do you think it easier to be a heroine?”

“Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history. I’m capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation – but steady, every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!”

That question – the difference, if any, between a good woman and a heroine – runs all through Wives and Daughters (you might even say it’s adumbrated in the title), as was perhaps predictable when considering that the author was, as Lerner puts it, “a busy, happy woman who wrote her novels in the interstices of family life.” The narrative is big and boisterous like a bright choral performance, and it was all but – but not quite (think of the last-second scorpion-sting at the end of Northanger Abbey) – over when Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly in November of 1865 (“What promised to be the crowning work of a life is a memorial of death,” as her Cornhill  editor put it). But that’s OK – plenty of classics come to us incomplete. Penguin honors them anyway, as is only right.