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Francine Levitov
Sound Commentary, May 2010

Mrs Gaskell follows in the footsteps of Jane Austen but leaves her own distinct prints on the body of British literature. An acute and often satirical observer of the society around her, an engaging chronicler of Victorian manners, mores and morality and the interplay among the classes, in Wives and Daughters, her last novel, she relates the story of Molly Gibson, from the unfortunate loss of her mother in early childhood through her likely engagement to a most deserving gentleman. The ambiance within the Gibson household is reminiscent of the atmosphere within the Bennett home in Pride and Prejudice. Gibson’s second wife is a vain, somewhat dotty, social climber, so blind to anything outside her limited agenda that she has raised selective perception to an art form. Gibson is a model of sometimes stoic and other times wry forbearance. Molly’s closest friend and confidant is her beautiful stepsister, Cynthia. Love, in several different guises, lost and found, propels the plot.

Mrs Gaskell’s uniqueness is in the sophistication of her characterization. Readers may wish they could dislike Cynthia, for example, or find Molly a bit of a prig. But they will not. Nor will they find anything about Roger homely or dull. Gaskell fleshes her people out enough to transcend stereotypical heroes, heroines and villains. Gaskell, the wife and daughter of Anglican clerics, admires virtue but knows that humans have flaws and that flaws are interesting. The author died while still writing this book, its ending firmly resolved, though not, strictly speaking, finished. Naxos includes an afterword by her editor which provides additional closure.

Patience Tomlinson’s narration is generally delightful. She distinguishes all of the speakers convincingly, adding to their depth as well…as Molly grows and blossoms, so too does Tomlinson, and by the time the audiobook ends, a more adept reader for this novel would be difficult to imagine.

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