Wives and Daughters (based on the Elizabeth Gaskell novel of that name) was a BBC drama based on 1930s life in an English provincial town that pleasantly surprised me. If you follow this blog, you know how much I love period drama miniseries. I thought the title was dull so I imagined this story would be equally bland. How wrong I was to make such a decision!
It opens with young Molly Gibson looking for a place to rest at a garden party as her father has gone on an errand; he’s the local doctor. She is taken into the big house of Lady Cumnor and her employed governess, Miss Clare (Francesca Annis) is charged with Molly’s care. The governess makes a big fuss of how kind she is but it’s far from the truth. Molly asks her to alert her father as to her whereabouts but this slips from flighty Miss Clare’s mind and the poor child wakes alone to a house full of complete strangers. Fortunately for Molly, Lady Cumnor arranges for Dr. Gibson (Bill Paterson), a widower, to come and pick her up and she is relieved after her father’s arrival. Molly (Justine Waddell) grows up into a young beauty and her father on realising she is arousing the attention of his apprentice chemist intercepts a note for her and hastily sends her away to stay with Squire Hamley and his sick wife, landed gentry whose circumstances have dwindled. They dote on their eldest son Osbourne, a poet (yes, it’s Mr. Collins from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice), and pay little attention to second son Roger, a man of science.
Molly is impressed when she hears Cambridge student Osbourne (Tom Hollander) – more clever, more fashionable and reputedly more handsome than his brother – being lauded by his parents for his poetry so she has a minor spat with Roger (Anthony Howell) when he bears bad news regarding his brother’s lack of accomplishment. This situation amicably resolves itself later on when Roger consoles Molly after she’s upset at news about her father’s second marriage about which she received no prior warning. Meanwhile Roger does very well in his chosen field. But Molly is aware that as the daughter of a professional man, she cannot expect a union with either of the Hamleys. It turns out that Osbourne had a secret which caused the neglect of his studies – the secret is confided only to Molly and Roger. Meanwhile Mr. Gibson marries mainly to provide a mother for Molly rather than because he’s inclined to marry so in ignorance he selects the unsuitable Mrs. Kirkpatrick , the former Miss Clare, to be his wife. When he begins to live with her, his high estimation of her drops considerably due to her behaviour until he regards her as no more than an annoyance he had brought upon himself. Molly and her stepmother naturally do not get along due to their contrasting natures which are at odds but she does her best to be a dutiful daughter for her father’s sake. If there were illustrations in the dictionary, Molly would be the pictorial entry under the definition of “good”.
Funnily enough, the naive and sweet Molly gets along with her rebellious and conniving stepsister Cynthia (Keeley Hawes), who was educated in France. It becomes clear her stepmother and stepsister have some previous secret involvement with a man of ill repute, land agent Mr. Preston (Iain Glen). Meanwhile heartbroken at the failure of her beloved eldest son, Mrs. Hamley (Penelope Wilton) passes away. It came to my notice that Michael Gambon who plays the Squire is very touching in his performance of farewell scenes. Her death only widens the divide between him and his eldest son. In the middle of these happenings, Molly’s stepmother decides to play matchmaker for Cynthia with Osbourne, having no idea her manuevers and efforts are futile. This does not affect Molly since she has fallen for the charms of Roger. Unfortunately Cynthia has the upper hand in the good looks department and he falls for the wrong girl. After overhearing a confidential discussion the state of Osbourne’s wavering health, the stepmother plots a union between Cynthia and Roger before he leaves for Africa. Molly hears her stepsister who does not even love Roger has accepted his proposal, in secret, and becomes upset. Also she finally discovers the secret Mr. Preston holds over Cynthia and intervenes on her behalf which almost negatively affects her reputation while her stepsister ignores her fiance’s letters – which Molly peruses with fervour – and enjoys society company in London instead. The interference of well-meaning Lady Harriet (Rosamund Pike), who takes Molly under her wing as a protegé, makes amends to the circulating town gossip. When Cynthia returns, she breaks the engagement to Roger deciding she would like to be the wife of a professional gentleman from London, Mr. Henderson despite being rebuked for her hasty decisions.
Convinced the time to meet his maker is drawing near, Osbourne makes an additional confession to Molly. Poor girl has to keep secrets for a lot of people. When tragedy strikes, Molly tells what she knows to the Squire who sees this as a new chance to make reparation for his old mistake after some well-meaning advice from Roger. Meanwhile Roger settles into the local, scientific community and finds that he never realised that the brotherly affection he thought he felt for Molly was an entirely different emotion. This comes to the forefront when he sees Molly dancing with Lady Harriet’s cousin. Feeling unworthy of having professed his love to Cynthia before, he admits his intentions to Dr. Gibson who gives him the go ahead but he is prevented from contacting her due to a scarlet fever scare.
This is where the story deviates from the book as the original had no ending. Elizabeth Gaskell died suddenly before she completed it so the ending was written by Frederick Greenwood. It is said that she told a friend that she had intended Roger to return and present Molly with a dried flower, a gift to him before his departure, as proof of his enduring love (Sidenote: Thanks, Wikipedia) to contrast with Cynthia’s fickle love. The BBC adaptation uses an alternative ending because Molly and Roger are able to meet once more, despite being unable to touch each other, before he departs again to Africa.