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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Sorry I’ve been absent for a while; my latest classes have had zero stepfamily content (except, of course, that I’ve been studying borderline personality disorder, which gives me even more sympathy for the stepmoms I know dealing with borderline BMs!). And my personal life, great shock and surprise, has been going swimmingly.

But I do want to add another category to this blog in the meantime—namely, reviews of stepfamily-related books. And I don’t mean the important nonfiction that we’ve all read, Stepmonster and the like. I want to look at stepfamily relationships in literature.

Today we start with Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell. Published as a serial between 1864 and 1866, it is certainly the earliest look at stepfamilies that I’ve ever seen. Even so, it illustrates many of the nuances and complexities of remarried life that we experience today.

I’ll warn you straight out: the stepmother is, sort of, the bad guy. But she’s not a true villain, and that is an important distinction. The reason she is the antagonist reveals as much about the timelessness of stepmother-stepdaughter difficulties as it does about the changes in parenting that have occurred over the last 150 years. But let’s first cover the basics.

Wives and Daughters is set in the charming English countryside. The story follows teenage Molly Gibson, whose mother died when she was very young. Molly’s father, a housecall-making doctor often away from home, decides to remarry in the hopes of providing Molly with a caretaker and chaperone. As though drawing a name from a hat, he chooses a beautiful widow whose own daughter is the same age as Molly.

Molly is devastated by the news. Having lived for a decade with only her father, she can’t imagine sharing him with another woman; she dreads being replaced. The feelings, her grief, are so like the ones my own stepdaughter once had that I marvel at the perpetuity of this struggle. Yet here is the difference: Molly, in many ways, has some cause for concern. In those days, children didn’t fancy themselves equal to adults, and Molly’s stepmother does in fact take over the position that Molly once held. Molly is expected to call her stepmother “Mama,” and both Molly and her father cater to the new wife’s wishes, even abandoning any physical affection so as not to make her jealous. (Can you imagine that happening today? It’s quite the opposite in most households!)

Still, Mrs. Gibson is not a villain. She is silly and shallow, but she genuinely cares for Molly in her own way. Her primary concern, in fact, is that she not be viewed as a “typical stepmother” who would treat her biological daughter better than her daughter by marriage. This theme runs throughout the novel—clearly it was the standard view of stepmothers in those days—and I have to say I recognized a bit of my own paranoia in Mrs. Gibson’s frequent worries about how others in the community perceive her.

All in all, I found the novel refreshingly nuanced for what I expected from 1865. Of course, I wished that the stepmother hadn’t been the problem character, but frankly it could have been much worse! Even as a stepmother myself, I could feel for Molly (who is a likable, if too thoroughly sweet, character)—and I also liked that the book presented stepfamilies as neither miserably horrid nor magically easy. In Wives and Daughters, we watch the Gibsons struggle to create one new family out of two distinct ones. It’s the same struggle we all face today.

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