Novels on novels, II

I’m a little more than halfway through Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, and although I’ve found it slow in places, I think that’s my fault and not the book’s, and there are just as many times I’ve found myself wanting to read on as I’ve been tempted to put the book down. All that’s to say, I’m still reading this book and am glad I’m doing so.

When I was reading Jane Austen’s Sanditon, I noticed that Austen had some things to say about novels and reading, and it turns out Gaskell does too; it seems to be the case that we can judge a character based on what Gaskell tells us about his or her reading habits. (And, really, isn’t that the way the world should be? That all our time spent reading would communicate volumes, so to speak, about what wonderful people we are?)

Mrs. Hamley, for example, is meant to be a sympathetic character; the novel’s heroine, Molly, loves her very much, and she turns out to be a peaceful center in the novel, the other characters missing her very much when she’s gone. And this is how Gaskell describes her reading:

Mrs. Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good.

I love the easy slide here from being a great reader with taste to being a good person.

Molly herself is not a deep reader; when asked if she likes reading, she says, “It depends upon the kind of book … I’m afraid I don’t like ‘steady reading’ as papa calls it.” But she does love poetry and she is capable of losing herself in a Sir Walter Scott novel (The Bride of Lammermoor). She turns out to be suggestible when it comes to reading; when she befriends Roger, another central character, he becomes her personal tutor, suggesting books for her to read and discussing them with her. When Molly and Roger are separated for a while:

He felt something like an affectionate tutor suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and dishearted by the books he had lent her to read …

A little later in the novel another character accuses her of becoming a bluestocking and reading “deep books — all about facts and figures.” She responds that she has come to find those “deep books” interesting. As befits a novel’s heroine, she has proven her ability to learn and change.

Roger has a brother Osborne, and early on we learn that Osborne reads and writes poetry, while Roger:

is not much of a reader; at least, he doesn’t care for poetry and books of romance, or sentiment. He is so fond of natural history; and that takes him, like the Squire, a great deal out of doors; and when he is in, he is always reading scientific books that bear upon his pursuits. He is a good, steady fellow, though …

The family owns a portrait of these brothers showing Osborne deep in a book of poetry, and Roger trying to draw his attention to something outdoors. I get the feeling that Gaskell thought of reading and writing poetry as a feminized pursuit and therefore a little unsuitable for Osborne; it’s fine for Molly and Mrs. Hamley to love poetry, but not for Osborne — he turns out to be a disappointment, a weak and susceptible failure, not “manly” enough. Roger, however, turns out splendidly, becoming his family’s savior; his scientific reading and his love of nature bring him worldly success — he earns some fame for publishing an important scientific paper — but it also seems to prove he is, according to Gaskell, the proper sort of man, energetic, capable, outdoorsy, and scientific, but not poetic. In her “deep” reading of facts and figures, Molly may be venturing a bit into “male” territory, but she is doing so with a man’s guidance, and so this doesn’t really disrupt the proper gender roles.

Molly has a stepmother, Mrs. Gibson, who is — no surprise! — a major pain. And this is what Gaskell says about her reading:

About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.

No, she is not known for her intelligence or her insight. She also reads light novels, ones, not at all like Wives and Daughters, that are meant merely to pass the time, “the dirty dog’s-eared delightful novel[s] from the Ashcombe circulating library, the leaves of which she turned over with a pair of scissors.” She considers these novels “little indulgences that were innocent enough in themselves, but which [her] former life had caused her to look upon as sins to be concealed.”

Mrs. Gibson’s daughter, Cynthia, who is a sympathetic character but not entirely trustworthy and with a dark secret in her past (at least I think so — it hasn’t been revealed yet, but there are hints …), turns out not to be much of a reader; she prefers millinery to reading, we learn. Mrs. Gibson tries to get Cynthia to undertake some “improving reading,” but her motives for this are bad ones, and neither Mrs. Gibson or Cynthia persist in this quest to improve Cynthia’s mind.

So, I’m fascinated by the way one’s reading is a clear guide to one’s character in this novel, and the way reading gets gendered. I shall have to see how all this plays out as the novel continues …


Filed under Books, Fiction

7 responses to “Novels on novels, II

  1. Oooh, this sounds like a fun book. I have it on my bookshelf, I must get around to it one of these days!


  2. This does sound like fun… I love books about books and those that include the books that characters are fond of.


  3. At last! A form of character assessment that I might do quite well on. I’m not a great 19th century reader, but I like the way you talk about this book, Dorothy! It’s fun reading it through you.


  4. I think what people read can tell you a lot about them, just like what foods people like to eat. Of course, those of us who have voracious appetites are always more fun and interesting than those who don’t, no? This does sound really interesting (I’m especially intrigued by the gendered reading).


  5. It IS a fun book, Stefanie; I think you’ll enjoy it when you get there. Jenclair — I love books that discuss books too! And I always perk up when I come across book references. Litlove, I’m very happy to be able to extend my reading experiences to other people! Yes, if only people judged me on the basis of my reading a little more often … Emily — absolutely, and I can’t help but make judgments about people based on what I know about their reading.


  6. This does sound fascinating. (I must confess that the first thing that I do on a first visit to someone’s house or office is to eye up the bookshelves in search of insight into my host. Very rude, I know!) I’m intrigued by your perception that Osborne’s reading and writing are presented as inappropriately feminine pursuits in Gaskell’s novel. If I remember correctly from my long ago reading about the origins of the novel, the novel was initially regarded as a frivolous form aimed exclusively at a female readership.


  7. This sounds like a fun book. When I was reading Sanditon and got to the part that you happened to post on–it caught my attention and I remembered your post. I think it is interesting to “read” a character by the books they read. In the Virginia Woolf book I’m reading one of the main characters is not much of a reader even though her grandfather was a great poet and she and her mother are trying to write a bio of him, and the daughter character only wants to be a mathematician! It’s funny when an author like Woolf has characters who are not literary. It is interesting though to think about what that says about the character.


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