Monday, October 12, 2009

Quotation of the Week: Selflessness

I read Elizabeth Gaskell's last and unfinished novel Wives and Daughters several years ago, not realizing that the nearly 800-page book was left incomplete at the time of Gaskell's death. The work, though, is truly masterful, but the unfinished status was frustrating beyond expression as the very best part, Molly's long-suffering love about to be requited, was on the cusp of occurring when the book came to a screeching halt. Coming across an Editor's Note explaining Gaskell's untimely death when one is so very excited to see the two honorable and lovable characters about to discover their common love for one another was deflating, to say the least. Still, despite being incomplete, Wives and Daughters remains Mrs. Gaskell's masterwork, and should be high on the list of the best 19th century British literature.

Oh yes, I've read other books by Mrs. Gaskell: North and South and Mary Barton, to be precise, and Cranford is high on my list of books I have wanted to read, even though it is extremely difficult to procure it unless I purchase it. No library in San Diego County, public or university, seems to possess it. But its mention in Little Women, along with the Masterpiece Theatre production starring Judi Dench, whetted my appetite. I did get my hands on a copy through The Circuit (interlinked California libraries) a year ago or so, but it arrived at a very busy time for me, and I only had time to read the first few chapters before having to return it. But what I did read I liked very much indeed.

In addition to short stories, Mrs. Gaskell penned thirteen novels in her 55 years (1810-1865), plus a biography of her friend, Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, The Professor, etc. You may read more about Mrs. Gaskell and her works at this link: Elizabeth Gaskell.

My quotation for this week is taken from page 134 of Wives and Daughters and is describing the main character, the sweet, selfless, intelligent, and long-suffering Molly:

"Thinking more of others' happiness than her own was very fine; but did it not mean giving up her own individuality, quenching all the warm love, the true desires, that made her herself? Yet in this deadness lay her only comfort; or so it seemed."

Selflessness is a quality I have always admired, probably because I am such a selfish person myself. Can we truly take comfort in living for others rather than for self? Can we live a fulfilling life doing so? It seems to take a very special kind of saint to attain selflessness, and then only as a result of one's faith -- of God working in and through His willing child.

Molly is one of my favorite heroines in literature, equal in my opinion to Elizabeth Bennet, though not as fire-tongued, and Jane Eyre, though not as passionate. Molly lives a quiet life, a selfless life, complicated by the self-absorbed people who surround her, even in her own home, namely her father's new wife and her daughter, Cynthia. The wife is ridiculous in her self-absorption, Cynthia merely thoughtless, but they engage the thoughtful and shy Molly in situations that try her patience and even her reputation. It's an intriguing book, and Molly is the model "daughter" -- too shy and retiring to be perfect, too human to be a "real" heroine. Her literary sisters in more well-known English novels are Anne in Persuasion or Fanny in Mansfield Park.

If you don't mind reading an unfinished book and Victorian novels are a genre you enjoy, then I can't more highly recommend Gaskell's Wives and Daughters -- or at least the excellent Masterpiece Theater mini-series.


sarah haliwell said...

I must admit rather shame-facedly that I've never read Gaskell. I tried Cranford, but really prefer romantic plots. However, the BBC North and South production captured my heart completely!

Susanne Barrett said...

The BBC Wives and Daughters is even better! :) And the plot is quite romantic, unlike Gaskell's other books, although readers definitely have to wait for it.... :)


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