This dramatisation was, once again, adapted for the small screen by the ubiquitious Andrew Davies (he of Pride and Prejudice fame) and, once again, he has done his subject proud. Mrs Gaskell is not so well known as Jane Austen and has not been adapted quite so much but after the success of P&P the BBC cast its net to see what else they could catch and use. It was odd that for years the BBC refused all requests for more period drama saying it was no longer fashionable and nobody was interested. I received such a letter from a long gone Chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, in response to my asking about this subject, a letter so arrogant and rude I consigned it to the bin. Well, he retired/resigned/left and in 1994 the then Chairman decided he would try a bit of costume drama, we had Middlemarch and, as they say, the rest is history. Huge ratings, people clamouring for more and so what I call Crinoline Rep was born, a list of actors who seem to turn up in practically every period adaptation made since and there have been plenty.
Wives and Daughters is Mrs Gaskell's last book and was unfinished at her tragic early death, but her notes and drafts were comprehensive enough for readers to see what her plans were for her characters and
this ending has been woven into this adaptation.
Molly Gibson and her father, the local doctor and a widower, live together in perfect amity until he remarries Mrs Kirkpatrick, a silly, selfish woman with an equally selfish and self centred daughter of her own, Cynthia. This marriage is undertaken, partly in love of Molly who needs a mother, but it destroys their intimacy and trust and begins to obliterate the memories of her childhood and her dead mother.
Molly spends a great deal of time with Squire Hamley and his ill wife, with whom she is a great favourite and becomes close to his two sons, Roger and Osborne. We see her grow and mature and the friendship between them becoming closer with a growing affection for Roger which is taken away from her when the mercurial Cynthia, her new sister, arrives and he falls in love with her and they become engaged. Roger is off on an expedition in Africa and Cynthia insists the engagement is kept a secret and as time goes by we can see why - her mother and her are keeping an eye out in case something better comes along as Roger is only the second son and Osborne will inherit.
I am not going to give away any further plot details as (a) the post would be pages long and (b) I really would like you to see this adaptation for yourselves. Not sure who or where everyone is who is reading this but if you are in the UK, Wives and Daughters is available on Amazon at a very silly price and I do urge you to buy it. The casting is wonderful: Francesca Annis as Mrs Gibson, Molly's stepmother, spot on and so infuriating that you want to shake her (as infuriating as Mrs Bennett in many ways); Keely Hawes as Cynthia who has her butterfly mind and attitudes just right; Justine Waddell as Molly - not conventionally beautiful but lovable and if there is anyone who does not love Molly by the end of this series, I will be surprised.
Their are other luminaries of the British stage appearing here in parts both large and small but I simply have to single out Sir Michael Gambon as Squire Hamley. Warm hearted, loving, prejudiced and irascible, he is a character to treasure. His grief at his wife's death, his clinging to Molly, his deep affection for her, all beautifully portrayed. There is one scene and I am not going to tell you which one as it would spoil the plot, is heartbreaking, and it is one where he reduced me to floods of tears. If you watch this for one reason and one reason only, it would have to be for this portrayal by one of my favourite actors.
But I am going to say no more. Andrew Davies and the BBC have done Wives and Daughters proud. We have also had North and South and, more recently, the wonderful Cranford so Mrs Gaskell is well and truly back in the public domain. Would love to see more of her works on television, but am not overly hopeful....