04 April 2012

Victorian Controversies, 1864-66: Rationality

Trade paperback, 679 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1864-66)
Acquired January 2012

Read March 2012
Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wives and Daughters is surely unique among Victorian novels featuring scientists, in that the scientist turns out to be an excellent romantic choice. (I'm actually working on verifying this.) And it's because he's a scientist that he's an excellent romantic choice.  What woman wouldn't want to marry Roger Hamley?  His scientific powers of perception carry straight over into his personal life, where he knows what you're thinking and what you're worried about and how to take care of it.  Of course, he can't tell that you are the one he is meant to be in love with and not your flashy stepsister, but I suppose we can't have everything.  

I was struck by the contrast between the two scientific characters, Roger and Mr. Gibson, and Mrs. Gibson.  Mrs. Gibson is no scientist, just a woman, but her self-interest is far stronger than either of theirs-- as is her rationality.  She does things not because they are morally right, but because they will help her, or because she is socially obligated to.  Mr. Gibson, a surgeon, spends his time with dying patients, but she criticizes him, pointing out that he doesn't help them at all, it just makes the family feel better.  "Rational self-interest," as we might call this attitude, is then not aligned with scientists, but with people who are not scientists: a scientist's perception of others is too acute for him to behave this way.  Similarly, the poet Osborne Hamley is constantly described as "sensitive," and normally we'd expect an author to like a poet more than a scientist, but Osborne is sensitive to no one other than himself.

Wives and Daughters is a cute romance, though by no means is it little; it's Gaskell's longest book, and she died before finishing it!  Had she finished it, I am confident it would be her best book, filled with a level of psychological insight that only George Eliot exceeded her at, but also plenty of charm and humor.  The book's opening chapter, where young Molly Gibson spends a fairy-tale night at "the Towers," is probably the best bit, but it is all good.  Sometimes wishes Molly might do a bit more, but she is as well-realized internally as any of Gaskell's uniformly excellent heroines.

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