This paper will examine the maturation of the main female characters in Mary Barton (1848), Cranford (1851), Ruth (1853), North and South (1855), and Wives and Daughters (1866). Five girls in five Elizabeth Gaskell novels, each coming from a different background, are all left motherless at some point in their youth. Because the girls' natural mothers die before their daughters have reached maturity, the girls miss the security which a relationship with a mother could give them, as well as the knowledge from their own experience that mothers impart to their daughters. There is a case to be made, however, for the benefits of being a motherless girl: "the Victorian heroine's motherlessness...gives her the freedom necessary to circumscribe her own developmental course" (Hirsch, 44). Susan Peter McDonald has also previously argued that
the good supportive mother is potentially so powerful a figure as to prevent her daughter's trials from occurring, to shield her from the process of maturation, and thus to disrupt the equilibrium of the novel. But if she's dead or absent, the good mother can remain an ideal without her presence disrupting or preventing the necessary drama for the novel" (qtd. in Hirsch, 206).
In these five novels, the girls all lose their mothers early in life, thus opening the doors for the "trials" and challenges which will make them into credible heroines.
The changes in society brought about by the Industrial Revolution make it vitally important that there are other characters who, by word or example, will provide models of behavior and values for the girls to observe and adopt in order to successfully navigate the changing future. Each has a relationship with her father which helps shape her character, yet each also receives important advice and guidance from friends and relatives. This is not to say that there are only good influences at work in the girls' lives, because with the good must also come the bad. However, one hopes that the girls in these novels will learn to recognize what is good and honest and not be tempted down the wrong path.
In the first two books, Mary Barton and Cranford, Mary Barton and Mary Smith change without much notice on their part, but this will differ in the other novels. In Ruth we begin to see some awareness of the influence that other people are having on her character. In North and South and Wives and Daughters we see Margaret Hale and Molly Gibson more aware than the previous heroines are, of how the advice they are given, and the examples of behavior they are shown, are improving their characters.
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