[If you don't know, Cynthia is a character in Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters. I have read the book, but only once, so this discussion will be exclusively informed by my multiple viewings of the 1999 mini-series adaptation (which happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time). Cynthia is a somewhat complex and somewhat controversial figure: both flirtatious and reserved, both selfish and thoughtful, both reactive and contemplative.]
Before we get started, let's recap the plot of the story real quick: Molly Gibson's father decides to remarry after several years of widowhood. His new wife, also a widow, brings her own daughter (Cynthia) into the union. All four come together under the same roof after the wedding and must adjust to the initially jarring integration of their lives.
The stepsisters bond quickly, but Cynthia is apparently harboring a distressing secret (O_o). This mystery threatens the reputations and futures of all involved.
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There are certain things that can be relied upon in life. One of those things is that, whenever my parents and I watch Wives and Daughters, at least three items will be audibly remarked upon by one or more of us:
- something about Mr. Gibson [I don't like him; my parents do]
- something about Cynthia [I like her; my dad doesn't]
- something about Molly, Hyacinth, Squire Hamley, etc. [we love them (except when the Squire goes full-on Denethor at poor Osborne and then is all, "Why doesn't my son love meeeeee?!")]
It seems that always, inevitably, the three of us will be drawn into the same debate over the respective merits of Mr. Gibson and/or Cynthia. (As this post deals solely with the latter, we'll ignore the former. 😛)
Typically, someone will make some sort of comment about Cynthia being flighty, or a twit, and I will quickly rush to her defense. (Usually by denigrating some aspect of Gibson's character, but that's neither here nor there.)
Now, to be clear, I do not think that Cynthia is a heroic character. She's significantly flawed. But she is not shallow, nor is she some sort of villainous tart. She's human. She's sort of the Boromir to Molly Gibson's Aragorn. Does she make mistakes? Yes. Do those mistakes cost other people? Yes. Is she still a good person herself? Yes again.
The two main complaints I hear about Cynthia are a) her general attitude toward life, her mother, Roger Hamley, etc.; and b) the way she deals with the Preston situation. Those are what I want to unpack.
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Cynthia displays exactly the persona that she wants to display to the world at large. She's beautiful and charming and she knows it, and she knows how to exploit it. She simpers and banters by turns, playing the role of the social butterfly almost to completion. Almost, but not quite. Because then, when she's at her coyest, she'll suddenly assert her own opinions or beliefs in a startling blunt manner.
I believe that the flirtatious caricature Cynthia at times makes of herself is intentional and deeply, deeply about defense. On the one hand, Cynthia is naturally a people person ⎼ she has a natural flair for social interaction and a natural rapport with the opposite sex. And there's nothing wrong with any of that. But when she slips into a premeditated manipulation of the room, or of the poor young fop who's most recently besotted with her, that's when it becomes problematic.
But think about it. Cynthia has been on her own, though surrounded by people, for almost all her life. Her mother bundled her away to foreign schools at the age of four ⎼ by financial necessity, yes, but how is a four-year-old who just lost her father supposed to understand that her one remaining relative is "shunning" her for her own good? Cynthia has had to learn everything about social and romantic interaction by observation. She didn't have a mother by her side to teach her proper cues and inhibitions. She didn't have anyone truly close to her. What a lonely existence that must have been.
And because she's always been poor, while having to labor to maintain the pretense of affluence, she must have learned very early on that the weapons in her arsenal against life were few. She would have soon felt the need to use charm to advance her own station. She might not have had any external control over her situation, but darned if she wouldn't use what she did have. And that makes sense. It's misguided, obviously. But it makes sense.
Cynthia has been subliminally told since girlhood that her value lies in her ability to be a showpiece. No wonder she's become adept at playing the part. If that's all that people want from her, why should she share anything deeper? Why should she unveil her vulnerability? What gives them the right to her soul if all they're interested in is her laughter?
Now, as regards Preston. Should Cynthia have engaged herself to Roger when hiding this whole mess of an alliance with Preston? No, of course not. That wasn't fair to Roger, on multiple levels. And she should have confided in her mother and stepfather and stepsister long before she did. Obviously. But it's more than understandable why she didn't. On the one hand, would her parents force her to marry him? Would Molly, the one person she'd ever met who thoroughly loved her for her, lose all respect for her? Would she be called exactly what she later was ⎼ a flirt, a jilt? Would she be told that she brought it on herself? These are all reasonable concerns for someone in Cynthia's position to have.
Sure, Cynthia's not blameless in all this. But I'd find it pretty erroneous to assign anywhere near as much fault to her as to Robert Preston himself.
Yes, she agreed to marry him. No, he wasn't physically or emotionally "forcing" her. But he was taking advantage of her. He can growl about how "she was old enough to know what she was doing!!" all he wants, but was she, really? She wasn't a baby, but she wasn't much more. Certainly, women married at that age in that time. But it was young, even then.
Cynthia was fifteen. She was lonely. She was poor. She was naïve. Of course she thought she could trust her mother's handsome, attentive friend. Of course she thought, in her girlishness, that she might be "in love" with him. What measure could she possibly have against which to compare her (probably convoluted and confused) feelings about him? Why on earth would an impressionable, friendly adolescent who knows how insecure her position is refuse a seemingly kind gentleman? Especially when he had picked her, out of all the glittering ladies he knew, out of all the experience he had?
All of this, Preston knew. He was intimately aware of the Kirkpatricks' fragile position in the world and in society. I don't believe he intended to "buy" Cynthia's acceptance with that loan, but he did not behave as he should have afterward.
Really, it's quite simple: Cynthia thought she liked him. She later realized she did not. This is not wickedness. In fact, it's maturity. Cynthia did everything right after realizing that she didn't love him and that the relationship was suffocating her. (With the exception of telling her family.) She told him straight out that she wanted to break off the engagement, and she saved up enough money to pay him back. Here is where Preston fails in his ethical duty. He'd won the hand of a very young and very inexperienced girl years before, and when, as a more clear-sighted woman, she wants out, he becomes possessive.
Now, once again, clarification is in order: I don't think that Preston is a villain, either. I think he genuinely does love Cynthia, and I think he did when he proposed to her, as well. But he did not go about it in the right way, and the honorable thing to do would have been to let her go once she'd made it so abundantly clear that she wanted to be free. He comes through in the end, of course, which is why he has my sympathy. But it should have happened earlier. He shouldn't have threatened or cajoled Cynthia the way he did.
Basically, Molly (queen that she is) said it best in this exchange between the two of them:
P: "No legal or no moral right; which do you mean?"
M, levelly: "Simply that you have no right at all, as a gentleman, to keep a girl's letters when she asks for them back. Still less to hold them over her as a threat." [Have I mentioned that I love Molly?? CUZ I LOVE MOLLY.]
So, no: I don't think Cynthia is a twit. I don't think she's a bad apple. I think she has flaws, but I think she has strengths as well. She speaks her mind in a time where things would be easier for her if she did not. She stays strong in the midst of pressure to put herself in harm's way to secure her own future. She truly loves Molly (though she also endangers/uses her at times). She's self-aware. She can be generous. She can think of others first. And she might fly off the handle when confronted about her mistakes, but ultimately she's humble enough to own them.
And I, for one, like her very much indeed.
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ANYWAY. That's probably quite enough of my dithering.
Obviously, no amount of past trauma or tragedy absolves an individual of their own personal responsibility to be the best person they can be. But it's something that should be considered by those with more privileged backstories before they bring down the gavel.
Peace out. 😘