Elizabeth Gaskell, 1832: portrait by William John Thomson
I spent last night in bed recovering from a hectic week watching a gorgeous BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. I was trying to find BBC’s Sense and Sensibility on YouTube but for some reason couldn’t; I ended up stumbling upon Wives and Daughters instead. Having already watched North and South, I am now interested in all things Gaskell and am anxious to read her novels.
As you probably already know, I’m a sucker for period romances and all things Austen and Brontë. I’m very fond of 18th and 19th century literature and have seen nearly every BBC adaptation of Austen and the Brontë sisters’ novels. (As a general rule, the BBC adaptations tend to do a better job and remain truer to the texts than Hollywood). So it was no surprise that I fell madly in love with Wives and Daughters and wish to watch the 301 minute TV mini-series again and again and again.
clockwise from left: Anthony Howell, Bill Paterson, Francesca Annis, Keeley Hawes and Justine Waddell in "Wives and Daughters" (1999)
But something in me last night was especially receptive to what God was speaking to me through this movie, especially in the areas of being a woman of worth, and true romance. Yes, God can speak through movies. He can speak through anything really, but tends to use the Arts to speak to me. Years ago, a friend of mine mentioned that she likes to watch movies by herself, with God. For some beautiful, unknown reason, the viewing of Wives and Daughters corresponded perfectly with what He has already been teaching me about myself and developing good character.
Molly Gibson (Justine Waddell) is the perfect example of a True Lady: she’s steadfast, intelligent, kind, quietly confident, fiercely loyal, selfless, modest, and speaks her mind when it is right to do so (I’ve noticed this is a common trait among Gaskell’s heroines). The only time she is gossiped about and has scandal associated with her name (this is Victorian England, remember, and these things were detrimental to someone’s reputation) is on behalf of her stepsister.
Although not as pretty and flirtatious as her stepsister Cynthia (Keeley Hawes, who reminded me of a more finely featured Keira Knightley), a fact even her dear father will admit, it is her good character and pure heart which attract the love of the admirable Roger Hamley (Anthony Howell), someone she quietly loves without silliness and strain. While Cynthia gets more than her fair share of attention from men and more marriage proposals than she can deal with, Molly is wise enough to know that a good man’s heart should not be trifled with. She is constant and unwavering in her love for Roger, and when he becomes engaged to Cynthia, her inner torment is heart-breaking to watch.
"I wish I was pretty," Molly says to Cynthia
But good girls finish first in Gaskell’s story, and everyone gets what they deserve. The whole time I was watching, God was speaking to me about my character and how He is developing it for the better despite all the trials and slip-ups. He was showing me how often I can be like a Cynthia (to whom Gaskell is still very sympathetic, by the way, which is something I love about her. No one’s black-and-white). Silly, fickle, viewing attention from men like a game, a way of measuring worth. In a rare candid moment, Cynthia confides in Molly: “I just like to be liked!”
Oh, how familiar those words are.
But being like that, placing flirting and attention above true love and romance, is not without its consequences. It is far more rewarding to be like Molly, who waits patiently for her good man to realize he’s loved her all along. The scenes in which he realizes this are easily some of the most romantic I’ve ever witnessed. The way he looks at her is so pure, so loving, without selfish desires or expectations … it’s something worth waiting for I think, and much more valuable than tallying up the empty, shallow glances of men who simply want something other than one’s heart.
I love scenes in many period romances where there’s a ball, and two characters realize they have feelings for each other while they’re dancing. The band plays on, other couples continue gaily dancing, the candles flicker to a soft background glow, and yet it’s as if time stands still. All that matters is the other person and your heart pounding in your chest as you slowly and delicately, as well-composed and graceful as your dance steps, fall in love. I saw this in Wives and Daughters as well as The Young Victoria (2009).
Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in "The Young Victoria" (2009)
When I watch Queen Victoria and Prince Albert fall in love as they engage in a dance, and Roger Hamley’s eyes burn with the realization of his love for Molly Gilbert as he gazes at her across a crowded dining table, God reminds me:
This is the love I have for you. This is the love, and more. My love for you is without agenda, without expectation, without limit. When I gaze upon you all I can see is your enduring beauty and loveliness and grace. I desire you. When I see you dancing with others who are not good for you, or when you’re sitting it out, pouting that you don’t have a partner, I’m dying for you to see me waiting patiently, hand outstretched. When we dance, I want nothing more than to have the world stop and nothing else matter but looking into your eyes and you looking into mine.