Wives and Daughters by Mrs Gaskell
(pub between 1864 and 1866) chapter 5
“… For high days and holidays – by which was understood afternoons and Sundays – Miss Rose persuaded her to order a gay-coloured, flimsy plaid silk, which she assured her was quite the latest fashion in London, and which Molly thought would please her father’s Scotch blood. But when he saw the scrap which she had brought home as a pattern, he cried out that the plaid belonged to no clan in existence, and that Molly ought to have known this by instinct. It was too late to change it, however, for Miss Rose had promised to cut the dress out as soon as Molly had left her shop.
[Molly needs her new frock to go visiting, and worries ‘that her silk was not a true clan-tartan’ and that it won’t turn up on time. And it doesn’t. Dinner on the first night:]
‘I am afraid they expect me to be very smart’ she kept thinking to herself. ‘If they do, they’ll be disappointed; that’s all. But I wish my plaid silk gown had been ready.’
[It finally arrives, described by Mrs Gaskell as ‘the terrible, over-smart plaid gown.’ Later Molly is going to meet her new stepmother.]
Mrs Hamley wanted Molly to make a favourable impression, and she sent for her to come and show herself before she set out.
‘Don’t put on your silk gown – your white muslin will look the nicest my dear.’
‘Not my silk? It is quite new! I had it to come here.’
‘Still, I think your white muslin suits you the best.’ ‘Anything but that horrid plaid silk’ was the thought in Mrs Hamley’s mind; and, thanks to her, Molly set off for the Towers, looking a little quaint, it is true, but thoroughly ladylike, if she was old-fashioned."
The tartan theme – however inauthentic – is to mark 25th January as Burns’ Night. Wives and Daughters is one of the finest of 19th Century English novels, much under-rated, and has some very modern ideas in it. How bad is the dress meant to be? Well, Mrs Hamley we might trust, but Dr Gibson (Molly’s father) is shown throughout the book to be a kindly, well-meaning, clever man, a wonderful doctor – but to have very bad judgement. One of the themes of the book is that parents may well not know what is good for their children, and that that is just the way it is. The theme is pursued in a most un-Victorian manner, particularly in the relationship between Cynthia (Molly’s new stepsister) and her mother. And in fact a tartan/plaid dress, as the child above knows, is a splendid addition to anyone’s wardrobe.