A quiet, engaging novel of life in the English countryside in the Victorian era.
Molly Gibson has been raised solely by her father, the only doctor in their town of Hollingford, since her mother died when she was little. But when her father remarries, she gets not only a stepmother, but a stepsister into the bargain: pretty, lovable, coquettish Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Between the troubles at nearby Hamley Hall, where Molly has become almost part of the Hamley household, and Cynthia's worrisome secrets, Molly has her hands full trying to hold everything together.
Molly always tries to think of others before herself, and is thoughtful of the needs of those around her. Cynthia is not a steady character and gets herself into various "scrapes," and she repeatedly talks of her inability to truly love anyone. Roger Hamley, who is really the hero of the tale, is very kindhearted and good and respectful. His brother, Osborne, keeps an important secret from his father out of fear and worry - a fact which is considered understandable, but not right.
There is a great variety of characters depicted in this Victorian novel, and much variance in character and morals. The people of Hollingford are fond of gossip, and they inflict pain on people through slander. The Lady Cumnor, who lives at the Towers and is respected by everyone, is fond of satiric comments and has a tendency to look down her nose at others; her mischievous daughter Lady Harriet is also somewhat proud in her own way and expects to be obeyed in all, but is also considerate and kind. Molly's stepmother is a flighty, fluffy, silly woman with her mind bent on worldly things.
The vicar at Hollingford is not a very intellectual man and has a tendency to state things without knowing why he believes them, and Mr. Gibson is said to enjoy "toying" with him on rational subjects. One lesser character is a French Roman Catholic who marries a Protestant, and though the alliance is frowned upon because of national prejudices, the effect of those differences in beliefs is not expounded upon.
There is some talk of whether or not Roger Hamley will die in Africa, after going there on a scientific exploration. There are several illnesses throughout the course of the story, but no violence.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Squire Hamley smokes a pipe and allows a child to do so, but the child's mother puts a stop to it. Wine is a common beverage at or after supper, and different kinds are mentioned; ale is also used at Hamley Hall.
There are several different "romances" throughout the story that Molly observes going on, and some end with a man being refused or jilted. The people of Hollingford gossip about a supposed scandal and talk about underhand doings. Molly's stepmother plaintively references her first husband and how romantic he was, to the disparagement of Mr. Gibson. Molly herself is very modest, sweet, and conscientious.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
Squire Hamley, Roger and Osborne's father, sometimes exclaims "Good G--" (with the ejaculation thus cut off).
"Wives and Daughters" - unlike Mrs. Gaskell's popular work, "North and South" - is what she herself termed 'an every day story.' Set before the 1832 Reform Bill, which marked the change in politics from the old order (founded upon rank and birth) to the new order (based on wealth and class), this story depicts many different facets of Victorian life. It is simple, quiet, interesting, and, at times, humorous, and is an easy read despite its great size.
It is unfinished; Gaskell died in 1865, before she could tie up the few loose ends of this novel. However, all the important points of the story are drawn to a satisfying conclusion and leave nothing to be pined for.