Pre-Victorian English country society in the 1820s, the time period in which Wives and Daughters is set, was multi-layered and organized by intricate and distinct social groupings.
This basic hierarchical system consisted of the upper-, the middle- and the working-classes -- and each of these categories had its own internal hierarchical relationships as well. The upper classes ruled through a system of inherited aristocracy with complex rules, including rules of address. Everyone knew their place and fulfilled through their speech, dress, manner and aspirations.
In her Elizabeth Gaskell (Oxford, 1976), Winifred Gerin notes:
There is such a sense of pleasure apparent in all her descriptions of the fields and lanes and copses and hedges of Hollingford... One comes to know the inhabitants of Hollingford quite intimately, and over the whole scene, Mrs. Gaskell casts a magic golden light... There is no real malice, nor wickedness... Wives and Daughters is, of course, something more than a panegyric of country life. It is a long-term view, one might almost say a valedictory view, of the author's life and of life in general, particularly as it affected women in relation to every phase of family commitment, as daughter, sister, wife, mother.
But the mannerly world of Wives and Daughters that Gaskell described was on the brink of change. In England, in 1801, most people lived in villages or on farms. By 1851 more than half the population would be urban. And the Reform Bill, which started the evolution of a more democratic government in England, passed in 1832, after public pressure forced Parliament to respond to the will of the people. It cleared the way for the reforms of the 1830s and '40s.
Elizabeth Gaskell filled Molly Gibson's idyllic world with a range of characters drawn from across the spectrum of society -- from lowly servants like Molly's old nurse Betty through the middle-class Miss Brownings to the lofty nobility of Lord and Lady Cumnor. For more about each, follow the links below.
Earl and Countess
Lord and Lady
The Young Lady
Doctor and Apprentice