“Anxious journeys and open endings; Family and Feminism in the BBC’s Wives and Daughters”

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Nicholas Renton's and Andrew Davies's 1999 BBC production of Wives and Daughters set out to rescue Elizabeth Gaskell from popular, if not literary, obscurity and attempted to establish her as a household name. If it did not singlehandedly achieve this, its success paved the way for the later adaptations of North and South and Cranford and for the creation of something like a Gaskell industry in recent years. This was the second time the BBC adapted this novel, and it is an interesting choice for adaptation given that it was, arguably, less well known than Gaskell's other works and that it was left unfinished at her sudden death in 1865. However its central subject matter – the changing nature of family life following remarriage, and the negotiation of the complicated parent, child and sibling relationships which result - makes Wives and Daughters equally interesting to a contemporary audience preoccupied by the demise and reconstruction of the nuclear family. This chapter will also discuss the 1971 production, but will focus upon the 1999 version. It will approach this as an adaptation which in its pastoral nostalgia is clearly influenced by Pride and Prejudice – a screenplay also written by Davies - a few years earlier, but which rewrites the marriage plot into a family romance, in the Freudian sense of the term. The traditional heterosexual relationships are still present, and in fact made darker and - typically for Davies - more explicit, but this adaptation expands and foregrounds Gaskell's suggestion in the novel that the really important love stories are between family members, and that the romantic hero here is either Mr Gibson, or indeed Molly herself. This version is also liberated by the unfinished nature of the source text to allow Molly an unconventional ending of travel, adventure and equality, in which marriage very literally opens up a new world for her. A desire for escape and exploration is hinted at by the novel's fascination with Roger's travels and his scientific findings, but inevitably denied to its fragile heroine, who can only access this through books and his letters home. The BBC's Molly, however, has been rewritten as a post-feminist heroine who finally exchanges the claustrophobia of provincial – and unsatisfactory - domesticity for travel. Hence in the closing scenes she, as an explorer and adventurer , experiences the Africa which the viewer has been allowed tantalising glimpses of throughout, and, in an ending many miles from the typical heritage romance, sets off towards modernity.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationGaskell on Screen
EditorsLoredana Salis
PublisherCambridge Scholars Publishing
ISBN (Print)1-4438-5141-8
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 30 Nov 2013


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