Wives and Daughters, generally thought to be Elizabeth Gaskell's finest, is a departure from her earlier "social" fiction, such as Mary Barton and North and South.
Set in English society before the 1832 Reform Bill, Wives and Daughters centers on the story of youthful Molly Gibson, brought up from childhood by her father. When he remarries, a new step-sister enters Molly's quiet life — loveable, but worldly and troubling, Cynthia. The narrative traces the development of the two girls into womanhood within the gossiping and watchful society of Hollingford.
Wives and Daughters is far more than a nostalgic evocation of village life; it offers an ironic critique of mid-Victorian society. "No nineteenth-century novel contains a more devastating rejection than this of the Victorian male assumption of moral authority", writes Pam Morris in her introduction to this new edition, in which she explores the novel's main themes — the role of women, Darwinism and the concept of Englishness — and its literary and social context.
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