‘I am not good and I never shall be now… I might be a heroine still…’
Cynthia Kirkpatrick is not the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Wives and Daughters but some modern readers may think she deserves to be.
Elizabeth Gaskell brought up four daughters in a happy, high-principled family home. In her portrayal of the sweet-natured, truth-telling Molly Gibson, the actual heroine of this last unfinished novel published in 1866, she writes with all the realism and delicate perception of a good and wise mother. But while it impossible not to love Molly, it is Cynthia, the daughter of a bad and neglectful mother, who is somehow more interesting and arguably Elizabeth Gaskell’s finest creation.
Patricia Beer, in her study of the women characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot Reader, I Married Him writes that ‘Cynthia is perhaps the least hypocritical girl, and the one with the most self-knowledge, that we meet before the twentieth-century novel.’ It’s this that gives her so much appeal to modern readers, who may not always relate to Molly’s struggles to be good when presented with a truly appalling stepmother.
‘Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it.’ We see her being the perfect companion and guest: ‘She exerted herself just as much to charm the two Miss Brownings as she would have done to delight Osborne Hamley, or any other young heir. That is to say, she used no exertion, but simply followed her own nature, which was to attract every one of those she was thrown amongst.’
Cynthia is the daughter of another splendid creation, the widowed Hyacinth, tired of having to earn her own living: ‘How pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; someone who would work while she sat at her elegant ease in a prettily furnished drawing room, and she was rapidly investing this imaginary breadwinner with the form and features of the country surgeon.’ Mr Gibson, anxious to provide his daughter Molly with a suitable stepmother, falls into the trap set for him.
The new Mrs Gibson, caring only for her own comfort, has been a lazy mother to her own child Cynthia. She sent her away to school at four years old to be out of the way; on her wedding day to Mr Gibson she even cunningly arranges for Cynthia to be kept in France, not wanting to be outshone. ‘If there is one thing that revolts me, it is duplicity,’ she asserts, but her selfish neglect of her daughter has meant that Cynthia too has a mercurial relationship with the truth.
It is Cynthia’s recognition that she does not love her mother – this at a time when filial love and duty were part of Victorian thinking – and her apparent careless acceptance of the damage that has been done to her which give her character its modern flavour and conviction. As she says to her stepsister Molly, to whom she is a loving and sympathetic listener ‘But don’t you see I have grown up outside the pale of duty and “oughts”. Love me as I am, sweet one, for I shall never be better.’
Cynthia’s disarming self-knowledge contrasts sharply with that of her mother, who has none at all: ‘I never think of myself, and am really the most forgiving person in the world, in forgiving slights.’ When speculating about the advantages of the possible death of the heir to an estate, Mrs Gibson insists ‘I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we are commanded to do so somewhere in the Bible or the Prayerbook.’
‘Do you look forward to the consequences of my death, Mamma?’ – Cynthia’s barbs, always directed at her mother, provide much of the comedy in the novel, much as do the exchanges between Mr and Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But there is a greater depth of seriousness and pathos in Elizabeth Gaskell’s examination of relationships between mother and child or husband and wife. Mrs Gibson’s futile attempts to win back her husband’s esteem after he has discovered her shallow self-seeking deceit not only stir the kind-hearted Molly into pity, but also the reader. Mrs Gaskell is careful too not to reduce her to the level of caricature – whereas Mrs Bennet comes perilously close – by small details; we learn that Mrs Gibson was always good to the poor.
‘I wish I could love people as you do, Molly!’ Cynthia knows what she is and what is likely to become of her. She escapes into what an earlier or sterner morality might call worldliness – though Elizabeth Gaskell does not make this judgment – but what nowadays we see as the fun and pleasure that life may have on offer.
Cynthia’s need is to be always admired, and relies on ‘all the unconscious ways she possessed by instinct of tickling the vanity of men.’ But these men mustn’t find her out. ‘I try not to care which I dare say is really the worst of all, but I could worry myself to death if I once took to serious thinking.’ ‘I don’t like people of deep feelings… I’m not worth his caring for’. Her eventual choice shows her understanding of her own inability to commit herself to anyone who wants too much from her or sees the flaws behind the fascinating created self she displays to the world.
What a relief to finally type The End on the final page of my novel.
But, sadly, that doesn’t mean work is finished. I’m reminded of jumpers I struggled to knit in my teens. The shape is recogniseable, but the tension’s all over the place, there are odd holes which weren’t in the pattern, and nobody would be seen dead wearing it.
A recent quote of Gustave Flaubert’s, seen on Twitter,* struck a chord:
‘I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.’
If Flaubert struggled, what hope for lesser writers?
Weeks, perhaps months, of editing those 100,000 words lie ahead. Of straight-forward proof-reading. Of adverb-pruning. Of tightening action sequences. Of making sure those blue eyes in chapter three haven’t turned hazel by chapter thirty. Of wheedling long-suffering friends in ninevoices to take yet-another look at a purple passage I’m insecure about.
In the meantime I hope a police car doesn’t draw-up outside my house, with gentlemen in dark blue wanting to ask awkward questions about my on-line researches into the murkier corners of the eighteenth century…
Ninevoices have warned in the past of the dangers of being in Oxford if you’re a fictional character, and we’ve also extolled the works of other writers’ groups. The two come together in The Bodleian Murders and other Oxford stories, produced by the OxPens group in 2016.
This is the third of five collections of short stories OxPens have produced. It was a gift from my daughter and I’ve much enjoyed its variety. Some of the stories are University-based – such as of course the title story – but others are set elsewhere in the city or in the Oxfordshire countryside. Rural Bliss (set in a village near Chipping Norton) is a warning to husbands of the risks of not taking seriously enough your wife’s delight in rearing sheep. Oggi (set largely near Henley-on-Thames) is about bodgers, craftsmen who make chairs to order from wood they have, er, liberated from woods nearby.
History is well served. Burning Words takes us back to 1555, when the mere ownership of a book inscribed by a burned heretic could bring great danger. In The Stunner from Holywell we see the creation in 1857 of a beautiful painting by Rossetti and what happens to it a century later. Colin Dexter appears in Just Keep Going, with encouraging word for uncertain writers.
A Visit from Social Services describes just that, and shows us the perils social workers face making house calls on the elderly. In Time for the Wake mysteriously links Oxford with a funeral in Nigeria. The Festival of International Art and Scholarly Culture, Oxford farcically takes us back to the excitement of Olympic year in 2012, when the local Arts Committee decide to join in the festivities in ways that may mean that the dreaming spires won’t get back to sleep for a long, long time. The death count in The Bodleian Murders rivals that in an episode in Midsomer Murders, and that in only ten pages.
There are 15 stories in all. Lack of mention of the other 6 here shouldn’t be taken as any form of criticism at all! Thanks, OxPens. (http://www.oxpens.co.uk/)
ISBN 978-1-904623-24-3 RRP £7-99 Available from Blackwells post free http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/bookshop/home Profits from the book are shared with Oxford Homeless Pathways (formerly Oxford Night Shelter).
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/stay-away-from-oxford/ speaks for itself.
Other writers’ groups that have featured on this site:
https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/delayed-reaction/ (the Just Write group in Amersham)
At ninevoices‘ pre-Christmas feast there were vehement protestations from everyone about entering LOTS of competitions in 2018. Here are some we might kick off with:
Bath Flash Fiction Award is inviting entries for its Novella-in-Flash Award. First Prize is £300, with two runner-up prizes of £100. The winners will also be published in a three-novella collection. Entry fee is £16 and novellas in flash should be between 6,000 and 18,000 words, with the individual flashes (chapters) each being no longer than 1,000 words. Entries must be aimed at adult or young adult readers. Deadline is 29 January.
Grindstone Open Prose Competition. Flash fiction of maximum 100 words. Entry fee: £6. Prizes: £250; £100; £50; £10. Critique voucher to two runners-up. Deadline 28 January. Details: http://www.grindstoneliterary.co/competitions
Magma Poetry is inviting entries for its current poetry competition. There are two categories. The Judges’ Prize is for poems of 11-50 lines and will be judged by Mona Arshi. The Editors’ Prize, for poems up to 10 lines, will be judged by a panel of Magma editors. Prizes in both categories are £1,000 for first, £300 for second and £150 for third. The prizewinning poems will be published in Magma, and winning and commended poets will be invited to read their work at a special event in spring 2018. Enter original unpublished poems by 15 January. Entry fees are £5 for the first poem, £4 for the second and £3.50 for any subsequent entries. Check details at: https://magmapoetry.com/
The Keats-Shelley Prize 2018 is open for entries of poetry and essays. The theme for poems is Liberty; a celebration of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Essays may be on any aspects of the Romantics, their lives and works. Poems may be up to 30 lines, and essays up to 3,000 words. All entries must be original and unpublished. There is a prize fund of £3,000. ENTRIES (up to two poems and up to two essays) ARE FREE, and must be by email. An entry form can be downloaded from: http://www.keats-shelley.co.uk
The Plough & Ronald Duncan Short Poetry Prize. For a poem of maximum 10 lines. Entry fee: £5. Prizes: £1,000; £500; £250. Deadline 31 January. Details: http://www.theplough-prize.co.uk
The Plough Open Poetry Competition. For a poem up to 40 lines. Entry fee: £5. Prizes: £1,000; £500; £250. Details: http://www.theplough-prize.co.uk
The Lancashire Authors’ Association Open Flash Fiction Competition is inviting entries of stories of EXACTLY 100 words, excluding the title. Format entries as Word docs in double spacing on single sides of A4 and accompany each entry with a separate front page which includes name, address, email address, telephone number and story title. Entries can be sent by post or email. The entry fee is £2 per story, or three for £5, payable by Paypal or cheques made out to Lancashire Authors’ Association. The prize is £100. Closing date is 31 January. email: email@example.com. Postal entries: The Competitions Secretary, 2 Pardoe Close, Hesketh Bank, Preston, Lancashire PR4 6PT. As always, please check all details before entering anything suggested above.
And remember, even if you don’t win, being shortlisted offers welcome encouragement – and might even get you published in an anthology…!
I’m reading Londonopolis – A Curious History of London at the moment (thanks to my family for a great Christmas present). The author, Martin Latham, says, “You can read this book in any order, or leave it in the lavatory for the occasional reverie.” I can add another good use for it: silent entertainment for a case of Man Flu. It’s written in easy chunks (chronologically ordered), and so can be picked up and put down as fitfully as the suffering patient desires, with no loss of continuity.
It’s amusing and full of interesting oddities. It encouragingly takes on received historical wisdom: eg William Rufus was actually quite a good King (his Westminster Hall is a masterpiece), and the East India Company was in some respects better than the Raj that replaced it in India, and it had enlightened HR policies here at home (thieving employees would merely be publicly whipped through the street rather than be hanged or transported to the colonies). The illustrations are fun. While reading this the invalid won’t be plaintively and feebly calling to his devoted nurse for more lemon tea or more pillows or fewer pillows.
I was reading Daphne du Maurier’s excellent Rebecca (a 2016 Christmas present!), but felt that if I was already feeling sorry for myself that book’s atmosphere of tension and worry was hardly going to help. So Rebecca is on hold. Better something quirky that brings a smile.
There’s a fuller review of Londonopolis on the Turbulent London website, at https://turbulentlondon.com/2016/02/11/book-review-londonopolis-a-curious-history-of-london/.
Nasty germs apart, a Happy New Year to all ninevoices’ readers!