I’ve now watched this Andrew Davies adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel at least three times over the years (it might even be four), and my admiration grows each time. I think it must be one of his very greatest TV adaptations, up there with his takes on Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair - and it is yet another one from the late 1990s, a period which saw an extraordinary flowering of classic adaptations. All the cast are superb, with my very favourite performances coming from Francesca Annis and Michael Gambon. For me, Wives and Daughters is Gaskell’s masterpiece, and this is a version which does it justice. Sadly she didn’t live to write the last few pages of her novel, but I rather like the ending this mini-series supplies – though I’ll discuss that at the end!
This mini-series looks beautiful, set in the countryside throughout (apart from brief glimpses of Cynthia in London and Roger in Africa), with endless shots of sweeping green landscapes and country houses. Director Nicholas Renton also made the fine 1998 version of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which has a similar feeling for country scenery. However, like his FFTMC, this isn’t just an idyllic picture of country life – it is made clear how characters are hemmed in and how difficult it is for anyone to escape the atmosphere of gossip and all the little rules governing village society. Wives and Daughters doesn’t deal with changing times as overtly as North and South, but the theme is still there, as is class conflict. The Squire in particular is clinging to the past while everything changes around him.
For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the mini-series, the story centres on a doctor’s daughter, Molly Gibson, who gains a new step-mother and step-sister, Hyacinth and Cynthia, when her father remarries – and on the tensions within this ill-assorted instant family. However, if you haven’t read/seen it, you’d be best not to read on until you have, as I’ll be discussing aspects of the whole plot – and also, as with North and South, you have a great double treat in store from the book and film.:)
The opening shot of the series sticks in my mind as a striking evocation of many of its main themes, as the young Molly (Anna Maguire) looks at a caterpillar crawling across a green leaf – but is called away. This gives a feeling of how Molly will be fascinated by science all through the mini-series, something she shares with Roger and of course with her father as a doctor - but how she will rarely have much time or space to pursue these interests. The caterpillar on the leaf also gives a feeling of a worm in the bud, suggesting that there are threats even in this beautiful landscape. And, of course, a caterpillar always looks forward to a butterfly – so a glimpse of one suggests how this drama will be about a young woman coming of age. There are quite a few striking images of insects running through this mini-series – I’ll mention a couple that I noticed along the way, though there are probably loads more I didn’t!
In any case, after this opening, there is a brief episode where the young Molly feels unwell during a day out at an event at the grand home of Lady Cumnor (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and the Cumnors’ governess, widow Hyacinth Claire Kirkpatrick (Francesca Annis) is imperiously ordered to take care of her. Hyacinth lets Molly sleep in her bed, surreptitiously herself eating the plate of goodies provided for the youngster - but then forgets all about her. The child misses her lift home and nearly has to stay at The Towers overnight, until her father, Dr Gibson (Bill Paterson) turns up to collect her. As often with childhood scenes at the start of dramas, this brief sequence establishes important things about the characters – the strong relationship between father and daughter, and the self-centredness which is a key quality of Hyacinth’s despite her surface charm. She forgets about Molly as soon as she is out of sight – yet the official version of the story becomes that she was very kind to the little girl.
On Hyacinth eating Molly’s food, I was interested in Andrew Davies’ comment (taken from the Eras of Elegance website which has loads of background information, press handouts etc about this drama): “We had quite a little debate about that incident. When I read it in the book, I was thinking that she was eating it up herself so that Lady Harriet’s kindness wouldn’t be seen to have been wasted. But all the women who were working on the production said, no, that this is a big symbolic event, and that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is going to eventually consume all of Molly’s happiness. It’s a symbolic kind of eating.”
It strikes me, though, that Davies’ original interpretation is right too – as a governess, Hyacinth is used to trying to turn events so that they will please Lady Cumnor, and to trying to hide and smooth away her own needs and desires. Eating in secret is just right. Lady Cumnor is rather like a more fretful and less terrifying version of Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh – she has the same way of blithely assuming that people are her possessions and she can order them about and arrange their lives for them. The way she has changed Hyacinth’s name to “Claire” as more suitable is an example of this – there are a lot of masters and mistresses in 19th-century novels who change their servants’ and dependents’ names, and it is always a way of showing who is master. Having said that, I think the main point about the name is that Hyacinth shows her pretentious nature by preferring the fancy name (cultivated flower) to the more simple one.
After this opening, the series switches to Molly as a young woman, beautifully played by Justine Waddell, who also played Tess in ITV’s adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles the previous year. When Dr Gibson is forced to realise that Molly is growing up, after one of his medical students makes a clumsy attempt to court her, he sends her away to visit the nearby Hamley family – determinedly old-fashioned Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) and his sickly, upper-crust wife (Penelope Wilton). Molly is soon taking the place of their little daughter who died, and builds a strong relationship with both of them and their two sons, poetic Osborne (Tom Hollander) and down-to-earth scientist Roger (Anthony Howell). All the members of this family love each other deeply, but they can’t talk to each other properly and misunderstandings abound, with painful rifts opening up when the Squire hears that Osborne has been raising money against his expectations -and, even more so, when Osborne does badly in his exams at Cambridge. I think Gambon and Hollander give wonderfully sensitive performances as a father and son who have just about nothing in common and are almost speaking different languages to one another – but who, nevertheless, both long to make the other one understand, to find some point of contact.
Molly is devastated when she learns that, during her visit to the Hamleys, her father has arranged to marry Hyacinth – a woman she instinctively shrinks from, who is extremely liable to say something appalling every time she opens her mouth. Francesca Annis is one of the great costume drama actresses - she is a tragic figure as Lady Ludlow in Cranford, but in Wives and Daughters gives an equally fine comic performance as the social-climbing, utterly self-centred mother who keeps her own daughter, Cynthia, at arms’ length lest she should be outshone, and who constantly calculates on whether other people will live or die in order to work out her daughter’s marital chances. Of course, many people in the 19th century did make just these kinds of calculations, but Hyacinth is very obvious about it – encouraging Cynthia to reject younger brother Roger Hamley one minute, and to accept him the next, when it looks as if his older brother Osborne may be terminally ill.
Hyacinth is really a comic monster, however soft-spoken and charming she may seem. Her daughter, Cynthia, played by Keeley Hawes, shares her charm and some of her shallowness – she openly says that she can’t love people, and she enjoys being admired and breaking hearts even if she has no intention of taking a suitor seriously. Molly’s heart is one of those to be broken when Roger – a brilliant scientist said to have been based on Gaskell’s cousin, Charles Darwin - falls in love with Cynthia and proposes to her before heading off on a scientific expedition to Africa.
The whole love triangle here reminds me very much of Fanny, Edmund and Mary Crawford in Austen’s Mansfield Park. Molly’s love for Roger has grown up slowly and unromantically through shared interests (he gave her a wasps’ nest – another insect moment), but his love for Cynthia is instant and based on her looks and charm rather than any real similarity between them. However, Gaskell makes Cynthia far more sympathetic than Austen’s Mary, who is nearly as self-centred as Hyacinth. Cynthia might be fickle, and bored by Roger’s scientific interests just as Mary is by Edmund’s desire to go into the Church – but her lonely childhood is to blame for a lot of it. Despite everything, there is something warm about her, and there is a real sense of sisterhood between her and Molly.
In general, Gaskell doesn’t tend to draw her characters in black and white – even Hyacinth has her good points, and the awful land agent Mr Preston, who tries to bully and blackmail Cynthia into marrying him, nevertheless has a certain poignancy because of his unrequited love. To go off at a slight tangent, I found it surprising that Preston is played by Iain Glen, who is probably the most conventionally handsome man in the mini-series and has played heroes like George Eliot’s Adam Bede - but he is great at giving depth to the character and avoiding any danger of him being a two-dimensional villain.
While Roger is away on his voyage, brilliantly coloured footage of his experiences is intercut with footage of the village, and voiceovers from his letters show how little he and Cynthia really know of each other. Meanwhile, his brother, Osborne has his own battles to fight, as he can’t bring himself to tell his prejudiced father that he is married to a French wife, and one from a lower-class background. With tragic irony, the only thing that could possibly reconcile the Squire to such a daughter-in-law is the thing that actually happens – his son Osborne’s death. The scene of him lying dead on the ground, with an insect crawling over his mouth, is one of the most haunting moments in the whole mini-series, recalling that caterpillar in the opening scene. A worm is certainly in the bud here. Gambon’s portrayal of Hamley’s grief at the loss of his son and his guilt over his own behaviour is absolutely riveting – probably the scenes which have stuck in my mind the most from previous viewings.
At the ending of the book, it is clear that Molly and Roger are intended for one another, but they are kept apart by a fever scare and he can only wave to her through the window before heading back to Africa. Gaskell did not live to write the last few pages which would have given them a happy ending, probably on his return to England. In the series, Davies speeds things up by making Molly run out of the house in the rain to declare her love to Roger before he goes away - this echoes countless films and dramas where there is a final scene of one lover running to reach the other, but it is still just as effective for all that. Then there is a final shot of the two of them in Africa together, with her joining him on his exploration. I’m sure Gaskell wouldn’t have written this ending and that Molly would have been left to wait in the village for her explorer to return, but I really like the glimpse of them together on the sands, sharing their love for science at last.