If you can’t get enough of the British aristocracy. If you can’t get enough of vast estates, majestic manors, and sweeping views of landscaped greens and the soothing charm of elegant gardens, don’t feel like you’re an isle unto yourself. It seems the world is ready to live vicariously to the manor born, surrounded by quiet elegance, dignity, and gracious style. In my view, Wives and Daughters is the equivalent of the Garden of Eden with Eves entertaining at tea in full period costume. But, as in the original Garden, not all is as it seems.
Wives and Daughters, 1999, is a four-part BBC mini-series based on the novel of the same name by Elizabeth Gaskell. The full title: Wives and Daughters: An Everyday Story, was first published in 1864 as a magazine serial. Mrs. Gaskell died suddenly in 1865 before completing the last installment, and it was finished by Frederick Greenwood.
The story centers upon Mollie Gibson, daughter of Dr. Gibson (Bill Paterson), the widowed physician of Hollingford. We are introduced to Mollie as a child (Anna Maguire) attending a social gathering at the “great house” of Lord (Ian Carmichael) and Lady Cumnor (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), where she strays from the company to investigate the perfectly groomed flora of the estate. Our view focuses in on young Mollie as she examines a worm — actually a caterpillar — upon a torn and ravaged leaf. (The worm in Eve’s apple?). It is our first clue to her quiet, contemplative nature, which grows into a fascination with science, an extension of her close relationship with her physician father.
As in all good literature and its cinematic reproductions, Wives and Daughters begins by setting the stage for the characters to be revealed. In a short space of time we are given compact clues to their character, their interests, their relationships, and the dynamics that make up the social structure. As in all structures, rules must be strict and exacting to keep it standing strong. Deviations can threaten the integrity that the builders try desperately to maintain. Thus, fear for the status quo presents itself in the form of gossip, ostracism, and the confinement of class distinction.
The opening sequences of Wives and Daughters are the foundation blocks of the story, as the production goes on to fulfill the promise of its origin. Young Maggie falls asleep under the tree, triggering a search for the child by the adults. Fearing for Maggie’s health, the despotic Lady Cumnor orders the governess, Hyacinth Claire Kirkpatrick (Francesca Annis), to take Maggie to her own room. Lady Cumnor’s character doesn’t stray far from her authoritative and tyrannical rule of all lives within her purview. She insists on calling Mrs. Kirkpatrick “Claire”, short and choppy, rather than the more poetic “Hyacinth”, which Mrs. Kirkpatrick prefers. The old bat — played perfectly by Barbara Leigh-Hunt — never misses an opportunity to step on people to more actively keep her own high status elevated. The manor is called “The Towers”.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick is, at first, an enigma. Presenting herself as kind and caring, tucking the child into her own bed, and soothing away her fear of being left by the family she came with, the governess then proceeds to eat the food left for Maggie. At first I couldn’t understand why she did this. Was she that hungry? Was she spiteful? So I Googled it. After hitting several review sites, I came upon an excellent article that hit every single point in the movie. (I suggest you not read it until after you’ve seen the series). In Costume drama reviews, Judy quotes Andrew Davies’ comment from the Eras of Elegance (which I could never get to come up). Andrew Davies is the script writer who so faithfully brought out the soul and essence as well as the plot, of Mrs. Gaskell’s classic novel.
“We had quite a little debate about that incident. When I read it in the book, I was thinking that she was eating it up herself so that Lady Harriet’s kindness wouldn’t be seen to have been wasted. But all the women who were working on the production said, no, that this is a big symbolic event, and that Mrs. Kirkpatrick is going to eventually consume all of Molly’s happiness. It’s a symbolic kind of eating.”
Whatever, it does guide our observations toward a more deviant character than is, at first, anticipated. When the governess forgets all about Maggie, leaving her in the room alone and abandoned, to the point she has missed her ride home, we know Claire has another face she does not want the world to see. Later in the film we see her as a self-serving, shallow woman, who twists every situation to her own advantage, becoming a shrewish, high-strung, human wrecking ball. I began to see her as the snake in the Garden of Eden. That kind of emotional response is due entirely to actress Francesca Annis, who slipped into the skin of Hyacinth Claire Kirkpatrick, and became the old Dragon himself.
But little Maggie does not have to wonder long if she must spend the night in a place where no one cares. Her doting father comes to pick her up, and thus cements our thoughts on this father/daughter relationship.That act may not seem like much until we remember that it was after dark, in a horse-drawn carriage, and we are not told how far the doctor had to travel. Also, it was not unusual at this time — before planes, trains, and automobiles — for guests to stay over several days, or even weeks.
As Maggie grows up, father and daughter live a quietly happy life, with Maggie (now played by Justine Waddell), working as her father’s assistant and making sure his wants and needs are met. An incident involving a young suitor makes her father apprehensive about how he is raising this 17-year-old girl without the influence and guidance of a mother. In attempting to remedy the situation, he unwittingly destroys the happiness and contentment their household has so long enjoyed.
As loves and lives collide in this excellent series, we are given insight into human relations that are rarely done so well. There are scenes you’ll want to see again and again. Like the one between Squire Hamley (Michael Gamdon) and his handsome son and heir, Osborne (Tom Hollander). Filled with love and desperation, both father and son long to understand the other but are unable to communicate. This scene becomes so heartbreakingly explosive as well as intimate, you feel like an intruder.
Filled with celebrated actors, this unprecedented cast brings these relationships and characters to such life, it absorbs and captivates with a distinct quality that few films attain.