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  • That “Old Rigmarole of Childhood”: Fairytales and Socialization in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters
  • Carrie Wasinger

Four and a half years before the serialization of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864–66), the Cornhill Magazine published “Curious, if True” (1860), one of the novelist’s last gothic stories. The narrator of that tale, Richard Whittingham, an archivist in Tours attempting to prove his genealogical descent from a sister of John Calvin, loses his way, like Wives and Daughters’s little Molly Gibson, in a dense wood. When he happens upon a lonely chateau, Whittingham knocks at the door, only to be welcomed into a gathering of eccentric individuals as if his visit were expected. These guests, who mistake him for the legendary Dick Whittington, turn out to be notable fairytale protagonists grown fat and old, degenerated–if not completely ruined–by the very attributes that made them fantastic. The story abruptly ends when Madame la Féemarraine (the fairy godmother) appears, and the narrator awakens beneath a tree to “the slanting glory of the dawning day” (286).

“Curious, if True” challenged the conventions of mid-Victorian realism by defamiliarizing the domestic narrative, one of the most recognizable arenas for exploring the dynamics of adult sexual relations. In the story, Whittingham, a seemingly impartial narrator, presents an intricate web of marital and class tensions through the familiar idiom of the drawing-room anthropologist. Yet his detached scientific perspective jars against Gaskell’s all-too-apparent use of fantasy motifs. When Whittingham identifies his hostess Madame de Retz, for example, as a parvenu wife given to henpecking her spouse, the reader recognizes the tragically curious consort of the infamous Bluebeard who has since acquired a second, less notorious husband. This layering of quotidian matrimonial experience over fairytale narrative conventions creates an [End Page 268] uncanny effect and initiates an interpretive rupture. Simultaneously Whittingham, the archivist, and Whittington, legendary Mayor of London, the narrator balances uneasily between identifications. At first an enlightened interpreter whose distanced analysis seemed to secure his autonomy, Whittingham now becomes, like his new acquaintances, an object to be “read,” another signifier in a system of fairytale signs. Although “Curious, if True” eventually ejects Whittingham from its community of fairytale protagonists, it never secures his character; readers remain unsure whether to replace the name “Whittingham” with “Whittington.” Since no set of fantastic or realistic generic conventions emerges as a reliable method of identification, Whittingham never fits securely into the social circle in which he finds himself. Simply put, “Curious, if True” makes it impossible to definitely identify anyone.

Gaskell habitually used fairytale in her longer fiction to signal such problems of socialization. However, critics of Wives and Daughters have generally subordinated a sustained discussion of the relationship between fairytale and socialization in Gaskell’s work to unflinching admiration for her realistic characterization and resistance to fantasy.1 Many argue that Gaskell’s attention to psychological detail and the complexities of social interaction form part of a larger and distinctly Victorian effort to assert, in George Levine’s words, the “power of the real over the imagined” (57), a novelistic project that appears diametrically opposed to what scholars often describe as the universalizing function of the fairytale.2 Indeed, an 1866 review commended Wives and Daughters for its lack of typology, fantasy elements, sensational devices, and “impossible fortune[s], showered into a last chapter, in the midst…of a transformation scene” (qtd. in Easson, Critical 471). This review articulated what has become the standard interpretation of Gaskellian realism and of the mid-nineteenth century novelist: obsessed with faithful and accurate reproductions of daily life, the best of nineteenth-century novelists sought nothing more than to tell meaningful stories through “the admirable, inaudible, invisible exercise of creative power” (463). Although aware of realism’s limitations, critics tend to characterize Gaskell’s project as an outright challenge to fairytale’s most appealing aspects: the fanciful, the grotesque, and the bizarre. In concentrating on Wives and Daughters’s materiality, its fascination with social science, natural history, and economics, and its declared intention to present an “every-day story,” readers neglect the extent to which Gaskell’s social project depended on her management...


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