The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

XI. The Political and Social Novel

§ 20. Wives and Daughters

One of Mrs. Gaskell’s novels has still to be noted here, which, though nominally unfinished, has, by many judges, been held to be in execution the most perfect of them all. Wives and Daughters, an Every-day Story, was, like its predecessor, first printed in The Cornhill Magazine, where it appeared from August, 1864, to January, 1866. Most of the story had been written during a happy holiday at Pontresina, on a visit to Mrs. Gaskell’s intimate friend Mme. Mohl at Paris and at Dieppe. Before the publication of its last, but uncompleted, portion, Mrs. Gaskell died, quite suddenly, but surrounded by many of those she loved best, at Holybourne near Alton in Hampshire, in a country-house which she had intended to present to her husband on the completion of her novel. This had been all but reached when death overtook her, while in full enjoyment of her powers, which had never been exerted with more delightful mastery and assured effect than in her last work. To describe Wives and Daughters as in its author’s later manner is, however, a criticism of doubtful import. It was, rather, that some of her literary gifts—especially the humour which she had richly displayed in so early a work as Cranford—had now mellowed into a delicious softness, and that, even in depicting the serious conflicts through which the souls of men and women have to pass in this troubled existence, she had learnt the value of “the subdued colouring—the half-tints of real life,” which George Eliot had desiderated in Ruth. Wives and Daughters, thus, instead of being called in Mrs. Gaskell’s later manner, should be described as Mrs. Gaskell’s manner itself in perfection. Above all, its irony is inimitable. This enables the writer to furnish in Mr. Gibson a fresh type of simple manliness—the type which women most rarely succeed in realising—quite different from that of Thornton in North and South, yet deserving a place by its side, and, among the female figures, to contrast with the true-hearted Molly and the irresistible Cynthia, the wholly original personality of Clare—second wife, stepmother, ci-devant governess and the embodiment of unconscious shallowness. She is certainly not a “woman of feeling”; neither, however, is she a woman without feelings; for “if Mrs. Gibson had ever felt anything acutely, it was the death of Mr. Kirkpatrick,” her first husband.

In Mrs. Gaskell’s hands, the social novel, which, in Mary Barton, she had essayed with extraordinary success, had thus developed into a form of fiction which she had made entirely her own. The power of finding full expression for the human sympathy within her, which had given force to her earliest work, had grown and been refined as it grew, till, in her latest, she had produced one of the most exquisite examples in English fiction of the pure novel of character.