My pick for the 1820s is notable for a few reasons: it’s my first pick to be based on a period source, as well as my first pick to have a story focused entirely on women. And that is the 1999 miniseries Wives and Daughters. The novel Wives and Daughters was originally published as a serial from 1864 to 1866, and was the last novel written by Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell. Mrs. Gaskell was a rare Victorian woman author who was successful during her own lifetime, and her writing was and is still known for its remarkable sensitivity and sympathetic portrayals of people from all walks of life.
The heroine of Wives and Daughters is Molly Gibson, daughter of a widowed country doctor. When her father remarries, she has to deal with a new stepmother with seemingly shallow priorities, and an inconstant stepsister who takes a sometimes-reluctant Molly into her confidence. In addition, she has to navigate the harsh social waters that are the society of 19th century women, where gossip rules and her reputation is only as good as the friends she has to defend it. And of course it’s got the usual range of births, deaths, balls, dinner parties, love letters, marriage proposals, broken engagements, secret wives hidden out in the country, etc.
It’s hard to give a simple summary of all of the things that happen in a Gaskell story, but Molly really sets herself apart as a protagonist – she’s kind and compassionate, etc, but she’s also interested in science and nature and often frequents the bookshop, and though often quiet, she never hesitates to say exactly what she thinks and feels (readers familiar with works about 19th century women will realize how rare this is).
On the visual side, Wives and Daughters does one of the best jobs I’ve ever seen of showing passage of time through clothes. A brief prequel taking place during Molly’s childhood shows everyone wearing proper Regency-style clothes, in contrast to the slightly lower waistlines, fuller skirts, and heavier trim of later styles – and the TOTALLY INSANE A La Chinoise hairstyles. It also has REALLY GREAT dancing! Very authentic.
Wives and Daughters stars Justine Waddell as Molly Gibson, and features all of the costume drama mainstays you could possibly want – Michael Gambon, Francesca Annis, Deborah Findlay, Penelope Wilton (Harriet Jones!!!!), Iain Glen…I could go on. However, best-dressed definitely goes to ever-fashionable Lady Harriet, played by Rosamund Pike, who ends the series sporting a baller Titus cut.
No pick yet for the 1830s, so you’ll have to come back next week to find out!