One of my favorite podcasts, Bonnets at Dawn, decided to do a read-along of this classic by Elizabeth Gaskell and I was all excited for it, but it ended up being part of an emotional journey I just wasn’t ready for. To give you some context, the kindle edition I read is a mere 800 pages, so it was always going to take me a while to get through this, but then my mom got sick and died, so the book took me much longer to read than I had initially anticipated because I had to deal with that whole mess.
I started reading this book two days before Christmas, at which point my mom had not been feeling well for a few weeks and was quickly deteriorating, but we did not yet know exactly what was wrong, and because of the holidays, they couldn’t schedule any tests for her until after the new year, which led to a parallel between this book and my real life that I had not been expecting. Now, to discuss this book properly, there will be plenty of spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
So, the book starts out with Molly Gibson as a young girl who’s being raised by her father, who happens to be the local doctor, and her governess (named Miss Eyre, no less, and yes, that is a tribute to Charlotte Bronte, who was good friends with Gaskell). Molly’s mother died when she was very young and she has just a few vague memories of her. Ever since, it’s just been Molly and her father and she likes it that way, but as part of his duties, her father has been inviting other young men who want to practice medicine to learn from him, which means they have to stay in his house for a few years, which throws the young, attractive Molly in the way of all these young men. As soon as Mr. Gibson realizes the “danger” his daughter is in, he has her sent off to Hamley Hall, where the local squire lives with his wife. Mrs. Hamley, who has no daughters of her own, is only too glad to have a young lady to keep her company, especially as she starts to feel under the weather and is less and less able to go out and about.
The hosts of Bonnets at Dawn seemed to think she wasn’t really sick, she was just affecting because it’s what was expected of ladies at the time, and yet she did die a few chapters later, so I’m not sure where their idea that she wasn’t really sick comes from… In fact, this was the part that hit home for me.
At the time I was reading these early chapters, my mom was still with us, but getting sicker and sicker and we suspected it might be cancer before she got the official diagnosis. So Mrs. Hamley gets weaker and weaker and is eventually sedated with opium until she finally breathes her last. It’s never stated what she had (which could be why the podcast hosts thought she wasn’t really sick), but I always assumed it was cancer because there wasn’t much else they could do for cancer at that point in time other than dope you up for the pain until the end. I didn’t know it at the time I was reading those chapters, but that’s what we ended up doing for my mom. She got a terrible infection in the hospital that didn’t respond to any of the antibiotics that they gave her so they couldn’t even begin to treat her cancer, which was quickly getting worse. Finally it got so bad we all decided it was best to give her the maximum amount of painkiller, which knocked her out for the rest of her life.
So, then I was reading all these chapters about Mr. Hamley and his two sons, Osborne and Roger, dealing with her loss. One of the worst things for them is that Mr. Hamley had a temper and his wife had always been adept at helping him control it and smooth things over when he ruffled other people’s feathers. My mom was also always the peacemaker in my family, which makes me wonder how we’ll get on in the long run without her. So far, that’s TBD.
What I did find comforting was seeing this family move on after the loss of their matriarch. They grieved her, but their lives didn’t end with hers and I found comfort in knowing that such carrying on was possible.
So, Osborne is the oldest and set to inherit the family fortune, but it’s not much a fortune. The estate is in debt and Osborne needs to marry a wealthy heiress in order to save the estate, but there’s a problem with that. Molly finds out by accident that Osborne has already been secretly married to a penniless French servant, and if that weren’t bad enough, she’s Catholic to boot! *gasp*
So Molly is sworn to secrecy. Meanwhile, her father has taken it into his head that he needs a wife to help protect his poor, innocent daughter from any menfolk, so he hurriedly marries Clare, who was a governess to the children of the local earl and countess, Lord and Lady Cumnor. She has since been running a school for young ladies, but it turns out she doesn’t have much of a head for business, so the school isn’t doing very well, she’s constantly pinching pennies, and really just wishes she could marry again (she’s a widow with one daughter about Molly’s age) so she could have someone to handle the finances for her and she wouldn’t have to worry about them anymore. They marry without knowing anything about each other, which is exactly the not-so-solid foundation for a marriage it sounds like.
As it turns out, Clare is somewhat lacking the morals department. She wasn’t born with any money, but she got a taste of the good life as the governess in the earl’s mansion, she wants more, and that’s really all she cares about. She covetously prizes her continued relationship with Lady Cumnor and her daughters and spends holidays with them whenever she’s invited – sending her daughter, Cynthia, off to France where she’ll be out of the way.
Cynthia isn’t even brought home for her mother’s wedding, since her mother didn’t want to spend the money on her travel and figured she might as well finish out her last few months at school. When Cynthia does finally arrive in her new home she is elegant and fashionable and pretty much everything a young lady should be. She and Molly quickly become BFFs, even though it quickly becomes clear that Cynthia’s moral compass is as lacking as her mother’s (which is no wonder, since she’s really never had an example of what morality should look like).
Since Osborne and his younger brother, Roger, are already acquainted with Molly and her father, they come to visit fairly regularly. Mrs. Gibson likes Osborne a lot and encourages him to come to visit more often, since she doesn’t know he’s already married and she’s hoping Cynthia will attract his attention. She’s not as thrilled with Roger, since he’s not set to inherit anything, but she soon changes her mind, starts encouraging him to come visiting more often, and sure enough Roger and Cynthia become engaged.
The problem with this is that Molly has fallen in love with Roger (although she won’t admit it, even to herself) and it’s clear that Cynthia doesn’t really love Roger or take as much interest in his scientific studies as Molly has. Roger has been working hard at school, gotten good grades, and started making a name for himself in the sciences, so he has been chosen to lead an exploratory expedition in Africa and will be gone for two years. He proposes to Cynthia right before leaving, but says he doesn’t want to tie her down while he’s away for two years. Cynthia is the one who insists on settling it as an engagement, but she doesn’t want anyone to know about it. It’s only to stay in the family, but of course it quickly spreads.
Throughout all this, it’s become pretty evident that there’s something going on between Cynthia and Mr. Preston, the new manager of the earl’s estate. Eventually, the reader (along with Molly) learns that Mr. Preston trapped Cynthia into an engagement when she was just 16 years old and without anyone to look out for her, since her mother was always off with the Cumnors. Cynthia borrowed some money from him and he’s been holding it over her head as blackmail ever since, even though she’s saved up to pay the money back to him, but he won’t take it.
Since Mr. Preston refuses to accept Cynthia’s attempts to break off the engagement, Molly agrees to meet with him and break it off for Cynthia, but Molly and Mr. Preston are spotted alone together, which causes scandal all over town, leading people who have known Molly her whole life to snub her thinking she has done something dishonest with Mr. Preston. Fortunately, one of Lady Cumnor’s daughters, Lady Harriet, has taken a shine to Molly, and comes to her rescue by going about town with her and making sure lots of people see them together, thereby restoring Molly’s reputation without Molly having any idea what she’s just done.
Once Mr. Preston is out of her hair, Cynthia decides to break things off with Roger, and then Osborne dies of an aortic aneurysm, so Roger’s having a really hard time. He rushes home to deal with everything that’s going on at his place and Molly also rushes to Hamley Hall to help out. Then the French wife shows up, but she doesn’t speak much English, Mr. Hamley doesn’t speak any French and hates her right away for being French and Catholic and low born and a secret, none of which is her fault, of course. But he decides immediately that he loves his tiny grandson, and when the boy gets sick, he and his daughter-in-law are finally united in their love of the little boy.
Meanwhile, Molly has worked herself into such a state taking care of everyone at Hamley Hall except for herself that she ends up getting very sick and is confined to bed rest for an extended period of time and everyone is really worried about her. But she rallies and is sent to the earl’s estate for some quiet and a change of scenery to help her fully recover. That’s where she runs into Roger again, and seeing her in a different light, Roger starts to realize how much Molly means to him. There are a few more minor hiccups in their relationship, but they eventually end up together … we think. It turns out Gaskell died before she could finish it, but it seems pretty obvious to me that she was leading up to an ending in which Roger and Molly end up together.
There was a lot of interesting discussion in the Bonnets at Dawn Facebook group about this book, and particularly about Clare and Cynthia. There’s a lot of hate for both of them, but I have a hard time feeling it. Clare did some pretty awful things, including replacing Molly’s furniture (which had belonged to her mother) with new furniture. She does this because she’s redecorating Cynthia’s room and doesn’t want anyone to say she treats her own daughter better than her stepdaughter, even though Molly begs to be allowed to keep her mother’s furniture. It’s a heartbreaking scene, and yet Clare has a point. People will talk about how she treats her daughter vs. her stepdaughter and they’ll be on the lookout for anything that seems to favor Cynthia. Nothing Clare does is ever malicious, it’s just that she’s incapable of seeing the other side of things. And I actually give her props for taking pains to make sure she treats her daughter and stepdaughter equally.
Cynthia is a hopeless flirt, but let’s face it, she’s a girl living in a man’s world, without the protection of any parents, and honestly, the best way for a girl to survive that kind of situation is by pleasing men and Cynthia has learned how to do just that. So she flirts without any meaning, but of course men read more into it than they should, and Cynthia gets blamed for that. The narrator seems to blame Cynthia, but I think all women have had too much experience with men reading things into a smile that aren’t there for me to be able to blame her. She’s friendly with everyone and it’s not her fault if they choose to take it to mean something more.
The one thing for which I do blame Cynthia is destroying Molly’s reputation. She sends Molly to meet a man alone without any thought to the consequences Molly will face as a result. Mr. Gibson rails at her for that at one point, and the book’s narrator seems to think he’s too harsh on her, but I think he was spot on. At that time, a girl’s reputation was her most valuable asset, and once it’s ruined, there’s no bringing it back. Molly and Cynthia were both lucky that Lady Harriet happened to learn the truth of the matter and decided to intervene.
What did you read this week? Anything that hit home in a way you weren’t expecting?