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Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters Saga – A Rare Period Gem


I saw Wives and Daughters around 2005, during a recurring period drama binge where I discovered many, many wonderful period drama gems. On the initial viewing, I enjoyed it a lot. It’s with subsequent viewings that my adoration and appreciation for this miniseries grows by leaps and bounds.

An adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name, Wives and Daughters, is less popular than its BBC period drama predecessor Pride and Prejudice, but no less interesting.

The novel, unfortunately, unfinished at the time of her death, is expertly adapted for the BBC by British television’s screenwriting rock star du jour, Andrew Davies. In such capable hands, you may rest assured that Wives and Daughters will have something good to recommend it.

What Is It? Is It Something Bad? 

Wives and Daughters is told from the perspective of Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) a young woman who is raised by her father, a physician by profession after her mother dies. Molly and Mr. Gibson (Bill Paterson) are close, a reason she is devastated when her father chooses to remarry a woman she doesn’t like very much. As Molly shares with a friend, “I met her once when I was a little girl. Everyone said that she was very kind to me. She let me rest in her bed and then she forgot all about me. I don’t think she cares for other people very much at all”. Instinctively Molly understands her new stepmother.

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The marriage, however, changes Molly’s quiet life. The change introduces her to a brash, and often manipulative stepmother, Hyacinth (Francesca Annis) and her flirtatious stepsister Cynthia (Keeley Hawes). Despite their differences in mood and temperament, Molly and Cynthia become close. Between the stepsisters and their mother, however, there is an ever-present tension. Cynthia, in particular, is outspoken in her disregard for her mother’s opinion, something that always makes Molly uncomfortable, despite her inclination to silently agree with Cynthia’s sentiment.

Miss Gibson – Molly. You probably won’t like me very much for saying this but it doesn’t do any good to prejudge people, especially on the bad side. We have to give things a chance to turn out well. It might be for the best after all.

Another family at the heart of Wives and Daughters is the Hamleys. Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon) has two sons – Osborne, the heir and family favourite – and Roger, the studious, responsible second son. Osborne (Tom Hollander) is tortured, unable to share an important secret with his family for fear of their reaction. Roger (Anthony Howell) however, is stable and over the course of the story, develops a close relationship with Molly. Affection comes before love blossoms for Molly, but it is not reciprocated. Roger almost instantly falls in love with Cynthia, leaving Molly devastated. Cynthia however, is not without secrets either. When Mr. Preston (Iain Glen) arrives in town, his presence threatens to unravel Cynthia’s scandalous actions and in turn place Molly’s impeccable reputation at risk.

What’s To Be Done Then?

If there is one thing to recommend Wives and Daughters, it’s the exceptional cast. The BBC truly does period drama right because it attracts and casts a stellar ensemble of actors to bring these iconic characters to life. Justin Waddell, already a BBC alum due to her work in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is my Molly from the novel. Strong-willed yet innocent – and sometimes naïve too – she is lovely to watch. Her heartache, happiness and disappointment are palpable, as is the wonderful portrayal of the father/daughter relationship at the heart of the miniseries. Bill Paterson is perhaps my favourite actor in the series. As Molly’s father, his care and consideration for his daughter is incredibly touching. In a world where darker relationships with sinister intent are usually highlighted, it’s refreshing to see a father and daughter’s real affection for one another.

RELATED: North and South (2004) Review – A Look Back at One of the Best Period Dramas of All Time

Keeley Hawes (a favourite of mine in Our Mutual Friend) steals the show, however, as Cynthia. Flirtatious, shallow and fun, she seems to live her life in the moment, aware of the consequences of her actions, but complicit in the execution nonetheless. She is an intriguing character who admits she doubts she will ever be able to truly fall in love. This inability might be one of the reasons she continues to make bad judgements and seems unfulfilled and unhappy.

Like Gaskell’s other period piece North and South, Wives and Daughters also touches on how the world is changing, even in a small country village. In particular, Michael Gambon is fantastic in his role as a prejudiced father who is unable to accept change, and in doing so, alienates his son Osborne with devastating consequences.

I’m only a cause of irritation to you. and home is no longer home to me, but a place where I am to be controlled and scolded as if I were a child. I am as ready as any man to earn my living but to prepare for a profession costs money and I have none.

Francesca Annis, like Hawes, is a scene stealer. As Molly’s stepmother and Cynthia’s mother, she is insufferable and as shallow as her daughter. An unapologetic social climber, she calculates the improvement of her daughters’ marital prospects based on the folly of others. Even worse, she is a little jealous of her daughter’s beauty and resents that Cynthia occupies so much of the spotlight. She is rather tragic and Annis is flawless in the role.

Give Me A Wise Man Of Science In Love

I was surprised to learn that this was Anthony Howell’s first television role. He is handsome and charming as Roger Hamley, a brilliant scientist. Like many of the characters, Roger too must mature over the course of the series and with time, his own mistakes and blind spots are revealed. Howell has wonderful chemistry with both Hawes and Waddell, but it’s with Molly where his true affections are tested. Their friendship is built first on the foundation of their mutual interest. With Molly, Roger is able to converse about science because she is genuinely interested.

One of my favourite moments in the miniseries is where the Squire asks Roger why he has never looked at Molly Gibson as a potential wife. Almost instinctively Roger says, “Molly’s like a sister to me.” The Squire knows best and becomes the biggest Molly/Roger shipper in the county. In fact, he goes so far as to give Roger advice on how to court Molly.

I don’t see why you don’t put up for her still! Don’t you think you could like her if you tried?! Just tell her you love her. And if she won’t have you now, then wait a while and ask her again. And don’t give up trying till you’ve made her safe.

It’s endearing and sweet, especially since as a character, the Squire has at this point, come a long way. As intended, soon Roger realises that the way he looks at Molly and the rush of accompanying emotions he experiences when he watches other men flirt with her is anything but familial.

You Always Do Us Good, Molly

The cinematography in Wives and Daughters is beautiful. The landscapes are pristine with rolling countrysides, complementing charming villages. However, the charm isn’t simply a visage of an idyllic country life. The series is clever about highlighting the claustrophobic feel of life in a small town and how difficult it is to survive and thrive within the constant air of societal rules, expectation and country gossip.

Lover Versus Father… Lover Wins

One of the things I love about this story is that all the characters – even Molly’s insufferable stepmother – are not all good or bad. Each character has moments that humanise them and create shades of grey where one is able to empathise with their plight. The Squire at the end of the series is left with heartbreak and guilt, leading him to reevaluate the choices he has made.

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Ian Glen in particular, who plays Mr. Preston, is another example. He is not just the series villain, despite his less than noble intentions. In fact, I felt quite a pull towards his character’s desperation at a love that would forever remain elusive to him. The ability to write complex characters that tug you in various directions is a skill. With Wives and Daughters, Andrew Davies has managed to capture that fine balance very well.

Wives and Daughters is a special kind of period drama gold. Fantastic acting, a wonderful script and sweet romance. I don’t think much more needs to be said.

Where to Watch: Wives and Daughters is available for sale or streaming on Amazon.

Content Note: Wives and Daughters is rated PG and is safe for family viewing. 

Have you watched Wives and Daughters? What did you think? Comment below and let me know!

Photo Credit: BBC


“You had me at hello.”


“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My

feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me

to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

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By on September 19th, 2017

About Naazneen Samsodien

Naazneen hails from South Africa and has spent most of her life steeped quite happily in fandom. A corporate Human Resource professional by day, she completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology and is currently completing her MPhil at the University of Cape Town. She spends her nights in a parallel universe where her creative pursuits find meaningful outlets. When she is not doing research, writing fanfiction or reading the latest novel for her book club, she is voraciously consuming information on pop culture and global socio-political issues - or quite simply, travelling the world. She loves words, fangirling shamelessly, Mr. Darcy and rugged beards... a lot.

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13 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters Saga – A Rare Period Gem”

  1. I can’t believe I’ve never seen this! I’ve enjoyed Gaskill’s other film adaptations and your review makes this one sound so interesting.

  2. I think you’ll enjoy the full miniseries then if you can find a way to watch! 🙂 And I believe she’s referring to the screenwriter’s previous work, which was the 1995 Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

  3. I really enjoyed this mini-series. It was nice to see Justine Waddell in something else, since her version of Tess is so captivating.

  4. I saw Wives & Daughters years ago when it was on Masterpiece Theater and really enjoyed it. Strong acting performances from a great ensemble cast!

  5. Lovely review. A magnificent series. I’ve re-watched it at least 10 times. I’m sorry that Justine Waddell hasn’t done more television drama.

  6. Great post! And speaking of scene stealers…I must put a good word for my beloved Rosamund Pike. There are two scenes….I believe it was her first or one of her first roles.

  7. Oh I loved this series!
    I had read the novel before, and this is just the perfect ending for a wonderful story.
    There are so many great scenes, one of my favourite though is when Molly and Mr Gibson finally get to spend some time together for the first time after he got married. Molly’s childish reaction is endearing, and Mr. Gibson’s laugh, just wonderful acting.
    Since you are a period drama fan, there’s sth I’d like to ask: Why is it that Lady Harriet does not wear those beautiful hair does by the end of the series? Just her hair cut short (looks too modern for my non-expert eyes). I just loved R. Pike in this role and her character’s unusual respect towards Molly, given that she is below her in class.

  8. This is my most favorite movie. I had to buy it so I can watch it many times-which I have. So many good moral lessons in it. My mom loves it too. Our favorite characters are of course Molly and Roger. Superb acting throughout.

  9. I Love Wives and Daughters everything is top notch considering it is pretty old now. It’s a period drama classic that I happily indulge in every once in awhile. It is difficult to identify a favourite character, I quite enjoy the gossiping ladies of the town, I find the Aunties rather endearing in their care and affection for Molly aswell.

    I really enjoyed this review, liked the discussion and found it wonderfully amusing so will happily subscribe and look forward to reading more 🙂

  10. I never thought Mr. Preston was a villain. I thought he was merely a chump who was dumb enough to allow someone like Cynthia use him. She used him, just as she manged to use Molly.


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