Household Goodness: ‘Cousin Phillis’, Wives and Daughters

  • Jane Spencer
Part of the Women Writers book series (WW)


Towards the end of her writing career, Gaskell gained a new sense of confidence in her work. ‘Cousin Phillis’ (1863–4) and Wives and Daughters, the enchanting ‘everyday story’ which she had not quite finished when she died, display a new and dazzling sureness of artistic control. Edgar Wright explains this development in terms of a move from direct authorial commentary to more impersonal narrative methods. In ‘Cousin Phillis’ the narrator is a major character in the story, and in Wives and Daughters the omniscient narrator withdraws to the background, leaving Molly Gibson, in Henry James’s terms, the ‘fine central intelligence’ that gives the novel a unified viewpoint. (As Wright points out, James admired Gaskell’s final novel).1 This artistic development is sometimes assumed to entail a movement away from the social commitment of her earlier fiction.


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  1. 1.
    Edgar Wright, Mrs Gaskell: The Basis for Reassessment (London: Oxford University Press, 1965) p. 246.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Patsy Stoneman, Elizabeth Gaskell (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) p. 201.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Angus Easson, Elizabeth Gaskell (London, Boston and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979) p. 220.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Quoted in A. B. Hopkins, Elizabeth Gaskell: Her Life and Work (London: John Lehmann, 1952) p. 312.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Meena Alexander, Women in Romanticism (Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1989) p. 147.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Mary Jacobus, Romanticism, Writing and Sexual Difference (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) p. 251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    This ending was sketched out in a letter to George Smith, 10 December 1863. See J. A. V. Chapple,‘Elizabeth Gaskell: Two Unpublished Letters to George Smith’, Etudes Anglaises, vol. 33 (1980) pp. 183–7.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    For a discussion of Mrs Hamley as a model of feminine self-sacrifice who has a dangerous appeal for Molly, see Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1976) pp. 91–2.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Rich defines the ‘re-vision’ she advocates for women writers and critics as ‘the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical. direction’. See ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision’, in Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silence: Selected Prose 1966–78 (London: Virago, 1980) p. 35.Google Scholar

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© Jane Spencer 1993

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  • Jane Spencer

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