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Wives and Daughters was first published as a serial from August 1864 to January 1866 in the Cornhill Magazine. The story revolves around Molly Gibson, the only daughter of a widowed doctor living in an English town in the 1830s.
Molly's friends and acquaintances make up all we know of this quaint, country town. She is also part of a cast of four young people whose romantic interactions are portrayed with striking realism. We do not see love at first sight or passionate attachment that, pursued faithfully, makes up a happy ending. We see arbitrary and consuming love turned into disillusionment. This is contrasted with mature and deeper love that grows slowly and selflessly. The latter is not such an exciting read as the former, but it gives a more lingering impact and marks Gaskell as a mature and thought-provoking novelist rather than a sentimentalist.
While Gaskell enjoyed portraying romantic relationships in her novels, she was also intensely interested in social themes. Wives and Daughters doesn't include the very poor social strata that was in North and South, however economic troubles do visit several major characters. In it's sheer number of social themes and unique characters, Wives and Daughters bears a strong resemblance to Eliot's Middlemarch. It wouldn't be surprising if Eliot were influenced by Gaskell, as Middlemarch came seven years later.
When Gaskell died suddenly in 1865, Wives and Daughters was not quite complete. Her editor, Frederick Greenwood, wrote an appended section describing what Gaskell had planned for the remaining chapters in her notes. There are no surprises for us here, but it would have been nice to read it in her own words. The last scene we are left with, however, perseveres partly because it was in fact the last. In a way, the image of a young gentleman standing on a sidewalk in the rain is much more enduring than several pages of lovers' confessions and professions. While I lament that Gaskell was taken at the young age of 55, I will venture to say that I in fact prefer the ending this way. There is an intriguing and freeing quality to things left unsaid and loose ends left untied.