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‘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 is 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; not wanting to be outshone on her wedding day to Mr Gibson she even cunningly arranges for Cynthia to be kept in France. ‘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.