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Places to Go: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

Written by Rachael Norris, 24th April 2020

Literature provides us with one of the most powerful experiences of travel, all from the comfort of our front living room. Places to Go, People to See is a special feature that The Reader is bringing to you in the hope that it may provide some inspiration on how we can spend our time at home during these difficult times. We will be posting extracts from stories which highlight special moments of travel and adventure for you to enjoy. This week Erin Carlstrom shares a reading of, and her thoughts on, Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell.

 

What happens when our adventure goes wrong?  This is what Molly Gibson wrestles with when the much anticipated visit to The Towers—the local manor house outside of her village—turns out to be more awkward than expected.  The visit becomes more uncomfortable still after Molly falls asleep, only waking to find that her companions have left, leaving her alone among the noble people of the house.

I resonate with Molly’s disappointment when something anticipated with excitement doesn’t end up meeting the expectations. I appreciate how well that feeling of finding yourself awkward among new people and in new places is captured in this passage. When I was young, I dreaded the first day of school each year—all those unknown experiences waiting, new teachers, new classrooms, new mix of students, new impressions to be made—I wanted to sink away from all the unknown back to the safety of my familiar. And even now I find I need to summon up a hidden store of courage each time I enter a new social experience.  So I laugh with relief and recognition as I read of the kindly meant but uncomfortable jokes made on Molly’s expense by the socially at ease Lord Cumnor, and how daunting Molly finds the task of only saying thank you and goodnight to Lady Cumnor, how in the midst of all that grandeur and those lovely people she feels more alone than when she actually is alone outside among the trees.

I love Molly’s act of courage when she steps away from Mrs. Kirkpatrick to bid goodnight to Lady Cumnor on her own. This small moment actually feels quite huge because it shows that what drives Molly to address Lady Cumnor on her own isn’t a desire to overcome her fear, but to move away from someone who trivialises feelings.  She chooses to rely on her own feeble, yet more authentic, strength than to rely on the flippant support of Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Even the smallest journey just to cross a room can require a huge amount of courage.

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