Between Mary Barton and Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell has shifted from public to private themes, from fatherhood to motherhood, and from a self-conscious use of Romantic or Biblical allusion to the language of family life. The change has been interpreted as her giving up the struggle for social reform, and becoming, in late middle age, gracefully ‘feminine’ and conformist. On the contrary, this book has shown that each of the earlier novels ‘tripped’ on the unfocused ‘woman question’, which in Wives and Daughters becomes the acknowledged subject of debate. The problematic status of Wives and Daughters as a ‘great’ novel, with nothing to account for its ‘greatness’ – no dramatic events, ‘major’ themes or revolutionary conclusions – is related to the minuteness of its effects, dictated by the small scale of women's daily lives, but also by the theories of realism.
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