Wives and Daughters is a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, first published in the Cornhill Magazine as a serial from August 1864 to January 1866. When Mrs Gaskell died suddenly in 1865, it was not quite complete, and the last section was written by Frederick Greenwood.
The story revolves around Molly Gibson, only daughter of a widowed doctor living in a provincial English town in the 1830s.
Molly's mother died many years earlier, and Molly has been raised by her father and servants. As the story opens, she goes to visit the Hamleys of Hamley Hall, a gentry family that purportedly dates from the Heptarchy, but is now somewhat poor. There she finds a mother substitute in Mrs. Hamley, who embraces her almost as a daughter. Molly also strikes up a shy friendship with the Hamley's younger son, Roger. Molly is aware that, as the daughter of a professional man, she would not be considered a suitably genteel match for either of squire Hamley's sons.
Meanwhile, Molly's father abruptly decides to remarry, less from inclination than from a perceived duty to provide teenage Molly with a chaperone and the blessings of a (step)mother's advice. The dutiful Molly has a stormy relationship with her social-climbing stepmother, but she immediately hits it off with her new stepsister, Cynthia, who is about the same age as Molly. The two girls are a study in contrasts: Cynthia is far more worldly, and more openly rebellious, than the naive and slightly awkward Molly. Cynthia has been educated in France, and it gradually becomes apparent that she hides secrets in her past.
Mrs. Gibson tries unsuccessfully to bring about a marriage between her daughter Cynthia and Osborne Hamley, the heir of Hamley Hall. In fact, it is the younger son, Roger, who falls in love with Cynthia, and Cynthia accepts his offer of love, though she insists that their relationship should remain a secret until Roger returns from an extended trip to Africa. Meanwhile, Molly struggles against her growing love for Roger and discovers that Osborne, like Cynthia, has secrets of his own.
It is then revealed that Cynthia had promised herself to a Mr Preston after she borrowed 20 pounds when she was fifteen. Although Mr Preston wishes to marry her she does not. Molly manages to break off the promise on Cynthia's behalf and risks losing her credibility when rumours start that she is secretly involved with Mr Preston. Cynthia breaks off her engagement to Roger and then marries a Mr Henderson whom she met in London. Meanwhile Osborne reveals to Molly that he is married to a French maid and has a child. Molly keeps this secret until Osborne becomes ill and dies when she tells Squire Hamley who invites Osborne's widow and his grandchild to live with him.
Roger returns and begins to realise that his brotherly affection for Molly has become something more. He hesitates in revealing his feelings, because he feels unworthy of her love, after throwing away his affection on the fickle Cynthia. Before he leaves again for Africa, he does confide his feelings to Mr Gibson, who tacitly gives his blessing. However, because Roger is quarantined for scarlet fever, he is unable to speak to Molly before he leaves. At this point, Gaskell's novel stops, unfinished at her death. She related to a friend that she had intended Roger to return and present Molly with a dried flower (a gift to him before his departure), as proof of his enduring love. This scene was never realised and the novel remains unfinished. In the BBC adaptation, an alternate ending was written, in which Roger is unable to leave Molly without speaking of his love, and they marry and return to Africa together.