Author: Elizabeth Gaskell
First published: serial, 1864–1866; book, 1866
Locale: Hollingford, a country town in England
Plot: Domestic realism
Time: Mid-nineteenth century
Molly Gibson, the only daughter of the town doctor. When the story opens, Molly is twelve years old, eagerly anticipating the annual garden festival on the grounds of the Towers, the grand home of Lord and Lady Cumnor. Sadly, Molly is disillusioned by the behavior and words of the aristocrats and those who serve them, particularly Clare Kirkpatrick, their former governess, who is now a widow. The scene introduces some of the people who will have a considerable influence on Molly's life. Molly is devastated when Mrs. Kirkpatrick becomes her stepmother through a marriage arranged by Lady Cumnor. Molly is a steady, sensible girl, however, and she does her best to be a dutiful daughter to the woman who has usurped her place in the doctor's home. She has much to put up with from her silly, pretentious, and snobbish stepmother, but she makes friends with her stepsister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick. Molly lives by her principles, which are to do what is right, even when it is painful to do so. She thus never reveals her love for Osborne Hamley, and later for his younger brother Roger, as Cynthia flirts with both of the young men though she loves neither of them. Later, Molly compromises herself by meeting with the overseer, Mr. Preston, who is blackmailing Cynthia over a foolish indiscretion that occurred several years earlier. When Osborne's secret marriage to a poor Frenchwoman is revealed, it is Molly who helps to heal the breach between the dying man and his father, Squire Hamley. Molly is an unselfish young woman who bears her own suffering in silence. Her marriage to Roger Hamley is clearly foretold at the end of the novel, and her happiness is well deserved.
Cynthia Kirkpatrick, the daughter of the new Mrs. Gibson. A lively, pretty young woman, Cynthia captures the heart of every man she meets. She is fond of Molly, who is her direct opposite in relations with others, but they are alike in that Cynthia, too, has a sense of reserve and does not often reveal her feelings. The author shows unusual psychological insight, for her time, in subtly creating a puzzling young woman who flirts with every man in sight but is unable to give love because she has never experienced it. Reared in poverty and insecurity, Cynthia was unwanted by her vain and shallow mother. Like Molly, she is sensible and practical, and her marriage to Walter Henderson, a young lawyer, is eminently suitable and appropriate.
Mr. Gibson, the town doctor, Molly's father. An honest, selfless, dedicated physician, he does his best to do what is right for his young motherless daughter. Outwardly unemotional and reserved, Mr. Gibson is the principal observer in the narrative. He and Molly complement each other, and it is through their eyes that the reader sees and feels. Mr. Gibson is intelligent, logical, and slightly sarcastic. He has provided Molly with a stable, affectionate upbringing, and his concern for her led him to marry Mrs. Kirkpatrick, at the prompt-ing—without his realization—of the meddlesome Lady Cumnor. Mr. Gibson shows understanding sympathy for his daughter, and their devotion to each other strengthens and sustains both of them.
Roger Hamley, the younger son of Squire Hamley and Mrs. Hamley. Roger has not received the parental attention and adulation bestowed on his brother Osborne. This emotional neglect apparently has not affected the development of the younger son, who quietly and earnestly becomes an eminent scientist, whereas Osborne languishes without any strong sense of purpose or serious pursuits. Roger soon realizes the folly of his infatuation for Cynthia, and his love for Molly is as steady and deep as he himself is.
Squire Hamley, the owner of a large estate. He is from an ancient family whose wealth depends on advantageous marriages. He represents an aspect of the country society that is in strong contrast to the feudalistic earl and duchess.
Clare Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson, the second wife of Mr. Gibson. In exchange for material security and social standing, she provides what Mr. Gibson was seeking for his daughter, protection and teaching in social matters. Her pretensions to learning and her snobbery make her appear super-cilious. She is an unlikable character whose faults are largely the result of her circumstances.