Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s Wives and Daughters

By Andrea Coldwell, Coker College

wivesanddaughtersThe final episode of Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle’s 1999 Wives and Daughters offered its viewers the happy ending that generations of Elizabeth Gaskell’s readers had missed. The adaptation garnered attention both as a new product by the team then famous for their wildly popular adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) and as a venture into uncharted territory. Though Elizabeth Gaskell’s reputation has grown significantly since the release of the series, in 1999 television reviewers labeled the novelist “overlooked.” In spite of this, Wives and Daughters was the first of several popular adaptations that reworked Gaskell’s novels to address twenty-first-century issues with roots in Victorian culture.1 While Davies and Birtwistle’s miniseries addresses many areas of common ground between the nineteenth century and the present, it is their ending to Gaskell’s unfinished novel that most notably draws together the themes of scientific curiosity, social and biological evolution, and colonization that play a less central role in the novel.

Elizabeth Gaskell died before completing the final chapters of Wives and Daughters, which had been serialized monthly from 1864 to 1866. This lack of closure has posed a challenge for readers as well as for the screenwriters. Although claims that “Davies has supplied the lost denouement with surprise and style,” The Sunday Telegraph quotes Birtwistle as noting, “We had quite a debate about it. It was clear what Gaskell wanted to happen. We’ve had to come up with the ‘how.’” The pair chose an ending that is both “happy” in the traditional sense of Victorian novels—Molly Gibson and Roger Hamley marry—and unconventional as well—the pair picks up with Roger’s comparative osteology just where he left off, on the plains of Africa (where to the shock of some audiences, Molly is pictured wearing trousers).

These choices in turn shape audiences’ views of what goes before. Scholar Katherine Byrne points out that Molly’s activities throughout the series accentuate her interest in science and learning, playing up what Byrne sees as merely “potential” in the novel’s heroine. Indeed, in the novel, Mr. Gibson puts careful limits on Molly’s education and accomplishments; she must struggle for every lesson beyond basics. Byrne also notes that the screen Molly is healthier than her novelistic predecessor, a young woman who would be unlikely to survive an African safari. According to Gaskell’s editor, Frederic Greenwood, Gaskell intended that Roger return to Africa alone and that the couple be united afterwards in England where he would become a famous professor at a university. In the novel, Molly’s curiosity about science is largely limited to reading. In the film however, her active investigation of plants and insects joins with the intimacy of sharing a microscope with Roger to transition her from interested hobbyist to budding amateur scientist—precisely the sort of mate who might travel with him to Africa rather than tying him to an English lecture hall.

By foregrounding scientific investigation as a bond between Molly and Roger, the series conclusion cements its emphasis on Victorian scientific inquiry. The series is full of commentary on the nature versus nurture question. For example, it expands on Gaskell’s hints about both how various young people have been raised and their innate characteristics. How is it that the two Hamley brothers differ so greatly after growing up under similar conditions, and what in Molly’s and Cynthia’s childhoods and educations resulted in their very different approaches to people and social codes?  For example, on the surface, it might seem that Cynthia is the better educated of the pair. However, both the novel and the series make it clear that her education is largely for show and that she lacks the thoughtfulness and attentiveness that Molly has been trained in throughout her life.

Likewise, the series builds on Gaskell’s allusions to the debates that raged in the 1830s concerning appropriate scientific mindsets and methodologies. Where Gaskell gives a title or a brief comment, the miniseries builds in a conversation, essentially annotating for modern audiences what well-informed middle class Victorians might already know, if only by hearsay. One example of this expansion occurs when the Hamley brothers come to dine with the Gibsons. Mr. Gibson comments on Roger’s paper (in advance of its presence in the novel), and Mrs. Gibson is drawn to ask about comparative osteology. In the course of his brief explanation, Roger notes jokingly that “it shows that we’re more nearly related to the great apes than some of us might care to think.” With Cynthia’s response that “you wouldn’t need to be a scientist to come to that conclusion,” his light tone points to the currency of the debate, even amongst nonspecialists. In the novel, the conversation between Roger and Mr. Gibson separates them: “Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science” (chapter 24). By dramatizing this as a general conversation, the series implies that this is a common topic of conversation, rather than one confined to men or even to scientists. Molly has found scientific books interesting, and Cynthia can follow the spirit, if not the details, of the argument. Far from being earth shattering, the debate over details of what would become evolutionary theory is offered as simply the dinner table conversation of the day.

As important is the inclusion of African scenes in the series, not excepting the final images of the newlyweds isolated in a desert landscape. The novel gives little detail about Roger’s experiences abroad, simply summarizing a few aspects of his letters to demonstrate that Molly cares more deeply about his welfare than Cynthia does. In addition to these summaries, the series shows Molly tracking Roger’s progress across a map of Africa and moving between letters and texts to learn more about the places and species he describes. More significantly, Roger himself is frequently shown making his way across desolate landscapes, the only European in the shot and in his party. He gazes at novel species and is gazed at in return by a group of African women. When he is ill, he is carried by members of his group, and he is also shown sitting in camp with them. While these scenes bring Africa into the series more vividly than its depiction in the novel, it is worth noting that viewing audiences know little more than the novel’s readers about the where’s and when’s of Roger’s trip. The Africa of the miniseries is still a monolithic continent waiting for European exploration, even as the African scenes ask viewers to consider the roles that African and colonial settings play in Victorian fiction.

Finally, though, these issues are tangential to Gaskell’s novel, in which, as Birtwistle points out in her interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gaskell offers an “authoritative feeling of what it’s like to be alive for a wide range of people. Nothing’s forced about her writing. She has great confidence to write about what are pretty ordinary lives in some cases.” Although readers and viewers love Molly Gibson, characters repeatedly note that she is just an ordinary girl. She’s not as pretty or instantly attractive as Cynthia, and even Lady Harriet labels her only “my favorite young woman.”  Yet, in the end, viewers see her embarked on the final leg of an expedition of a type that changed scientific thinking in the nineteenth century and, with that thinking, many aspects of social life. As a result, one effect of Davies and Birtwistle’s choices is that the series demonstrates the complex ways by which the lives of “pretty ordinary” people come up against questions and issues that continue to perplex and stimulate readers and viewers more than a century later.

Discussion Questions:

In Wives and Daughters, Gaskell spends a significant portion of the novel narrating emotional and thought processes in response to events. How does switching to film, where these internal monologues are translated into conversation or shots of a character thinking, alter the audience’s perception of the characters?

For the miniseries, Davies and Birtwistle created an ending to Molly’s story, something Gaskell certainly intended to do before her death, though her publisher indicated that Gaskell planned for the pair to settle in London rather than travelling to Africa. How does Davies and Birtwistle’s ending help to emphasize their interest in the changing climate for scientific investigation during the early Victorian period?  What might these choices about how to end an unfinished work tell us about the roles of conclusions in literary works?

Education for both men and women plays an important role in both Gaskell’s novel and in the miniseries. For example, Cynthia and Osbourne seem both better educated and more polished than their siblings when they’re first introduced, but both the novel and the adaptation undermine this initial judgment by showing that Roger and Molly make better use of more limited resources. What trends emerge in these discussions of social, moral, and intellectual education?  How do those trends shift when we consider gender or class as an aspect of education?

In adapting Wives and Daughters for modern audiences, Davies and Birtwistle both increase the emphasis on the details of Roger’s scientific study and shift the emphasis of discussions about his travels from African people to science. They preserve, for example, little or none of Mr. Gibson’s talk about and mimicry of stereotypes of African people. What could these changes tell us about changes in audience?  How have our perceptions of Africa changed?  What about our perceptions of science (and particularly of evolutionary biology)?

Further Reading:

Boiko, Karen. “Reading and (Re)Writing Class: Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” Victorian Literature and Culture 33.1 (2005):85-106.

Byrne, Katherine. “Anxious Journey’s and Open Endings: Sexuality and the Family in the BBC’s Wives and Daughters (1999).” Adapting Gaskell: Screen and Stage Versions of

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Fiction. Ed. Loredana Salis. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 77-95.

Endersby, Jim. “Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists.” Victorian Studies 51.2 (Winter 2009): 299-320.

Greenwood, Frederic.”Wives and Daughters: Concluding Remarks.” The Victorian Web. Accessed 30 August 2016.

Gritten, David. Review of BBC Wives and Daughters, by Andrew Davies and Sue Birtwistle. The Telegraph Accessed 10 June 2016.

Gritten, David. “Will BBC’s Latest Literary Export Be the Next Jane Austen?” The Los Angeles Times, 12 August 2000, Accessed 10 June 2016.

Litvack, Leon. “Outposts of Empire: Scientific Discovery and Colonial Displacement in Gaskell’s ‘Wives and Daughters’.” The Review of English Studies 55.222 (July 2004): 727-758.

“Wives and Daughters.” Masterpiece Theatre. Web. 15 June 2016.

1.Both the miniseries North and South (2004), adapted by Sandy Welch, and the miniseries Cranford (2007), created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, attracted wide audiences.