Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

STOP THE JANE AUSTEN MADNESS!

If you are a fan of Jane Austen, check out the lostgenerationreader blog here. She is hosting an Austen in August event.

http://lostgenerationreader.com/2014/08/01/austen-in-august-master-post/

My collection of Austen spawn
My collection of Austen spawn

In vain I have struggled to hold back my thoughts, but it will not do.  My feelings will not be repressed.  You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love Jane Austen.

On my refrigerator
On my refrigerator

Because of my sincere appreciation of Austen’s superior mind and character, I was intrigued a number of years ago when I noticed the rapidly growing number of Jane Austen’s spawn infiltrating the marketplace  Her growing brood of knock-offs included not only faithful movie and play adaptations, but also re-imaginings of her works with an endless variety of twists and turns.

Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was one of the first Austen re-writes I read.  I found this re-writing of Pride and Prejudice from a 30-something English Everywoman’s perspective refreshing and hilarious.  As an added bonus, I learned the term “fuckwit” from this novel, a term I have found to be quite useful for describing a number of people I have since come across.

Even more diverting than the book version of Bridget Jones’s Diary was the movie version of it, starring competing dream boats Colin Firth and Hugh Grant (who are apparently the only two male actors in England).  How could anyone resist Renee Zellweger lounging alone at home in her jammies, singing “All By Myself” before falling into a drunken stupor?  How could anyone not find it satisfying that the snobbish female stick-insects of the movie ended up without either Colin Firth or Hugh Grant?

Colin Firth played the Darcy character in Bridget Jones’s Diary.  Not coincidentally, he also starred as Darcy in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and I believe he plays a not inconsiderable role in Jane Austen’s recent popularity. (Not that I would know anything about that.)

At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.
At the Jane Austen museum in Bath, England.

So at first, I was proud of Jane Austen for her continuing popularity, and I wanted to learn more.  I thought it would be fun to research all of the Austen knock-offs from the past few decades.  But alas, my pride in Austen quickly turned to prejudice against the Austen industry.  I realized it was futile to try to compile a comprehensive list; her spawn was multiplying far too rapidly for a mere mortal like me to get control over it.

As I noted above, at first I found the knock-offs charming.  But then my attitude changed.  As the little Austens began to reproduce more rapidly, I started to become frightened.  For example, the Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice,” called Bride and Prejudice, was initially intriguing.  But when the entire cast came out in matching outfits and started singing and dancing together, I cried in horror.  I wanted to do a Mr. Bennett and go hide in my library until they were done.

But the real trauma began with a novel and author whose names I fortunately do not remember.  This novel described Elizabeth and Darcy’s early married life in intimate detail.  And I mean intimate.  I’m not a prude, but when I read the description of Elizabeth and Darcy banging away on the dining room table, I blanched.  Not long after that enlightening scene came another scene of ardent embraces that took place under a tree in the yard.  Unfortunately, Elizabeth had just recently given birth and was not ready for such “activities,” so she started bleeding and, if I recall correctly, some of her placenta came out as well (?).  (I’m not making this stuff up.  I am not capable of making this stuff up.)  That was the end of that novel for me.

Years later, after the traumatic memory of the previous book had been safely buried, I started perusing a few more knock-offs, with titles such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen, and, God help us all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Every time I walk into a book store, I see at least one,  usually more, re-interpretations of an Austen novel.  To be honest, they all blur together in my head; I can no longer distinguish one baby Austen from the other.   There are so many of them at this point, it is almost like trying to distinguish one brand of cereal from another.

You’d think a zombie knock-off would be memorable, but it’s not. For the most part, Seth Grahame-Smith copied Pride and Prejudice word for word.  My people call this plagiarism.   I guess Grahame-Smith gets away with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies because in every chapter or so he adds a paragraph or two in which zombies enter the scene and Elizabeth Bennett skillfully fights them off with her advanced zombie-killing skills.   Yawn.    Where’s the “value-added” as my friends in the business world like to ask?

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I have had enough.  Twenty or thirty Austen knock-offs are enough.  We do not need several hundred of them.   LET’S STOP THE MADNESS!  Let’s put an end to the endless Austen wannabes.  Let us regain some sanity and JUST SAY NO.***

Let’s let Austen rest peacefully in her grave.

If authors feel they must write a knock-off of an amazing classic woman author, how about George Eliot or the Bronte sisters?  Maybe some Emily Dickinson?  Virginia Woolf?  Let’s spread the love around, shall we?

JUST SAY NO TO THIS!
JUST SAY NO TO THIS!

***Unless Colin Firth or Hugh Grant is involved.  We can never get enough of those two, especially together in the same film. ***

Why Jane Austen Rocks

Image

“I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” –Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen lived from 1775-1817, and her novels came out between 1813 and 1818. She grew up the daughter of a rector in Steventon, England.   She was similar to many of her literary heroines in that her family was a member of the gentry, although at the lower end in terms of income. She was close to her large family, especially to her brothers. She never married, but enjoyed her nieces and nephews.

I know what you are thinking: BORING!   The pathetic spinster lived a boring life. She probably spent her days sipping tea, doing needlework, and trying not to let her breasts fall out of those ridiculous dresses they wore.

Image

Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC Mini-Series version of Pride and Prejudice

 Seriously, Elizabeth Bennett needs to be careful not to bend over too far or Colin Firth will get quite an eyeful.

But, back to my point. Jane may well have sipped a lot of tea, but she nonetheless rocked. Maybe not like Joan Jett:

 Image

Image found on http://feminema.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/joan_jett.jpg

But perhaps something like this:

Image

Tina Fey at the SAG Awards

 Yes, Tina Fey.

Some of Austen’s fans (and many of her detractors—most of whom have not even read her) focus on the romantic, costume-drama side of Austen. Austen is all about silly women hunting for husbands rather than doing something more important, like getting a job or hunting for lions or drinking a lot of absinthe in European cafes.

While it’s true that there is a fair amount of husband-hunting going on in Austen’s novels, it is also true that women of the gentry had no other way of making a living. Getting married WAS their job.   Many women could not even inherit their father’s property because English inheritance law favored sons. Is it any wonder that Mrs. Bennett is obsessed with finding husbands for her five (yes FIVE) unmarried daughters?

But I digress. The real reason Jane Austen Rocks is because of her snark. She is hilarious in her skewering of the pretentious, the ridiculous, the idiotic, the pathetic, and the self-deluded, which is just about everyone. In other words, she is Tina Fey.

What makes Austen even more remarkable, in my humble opinion, is that her characters, especially Elizabeth Bennett, manage to remain reasonably happy even though they live such restricted lives among such an assembly of knuckle-heads. Sister Jane manages to be happy by being blissfully ignorant of the baser side of human nature. The same cannot be said of Elizabeth Bennett. She recognizes everybody’s flaws, laughs at them, and yet still retains her good humor, rather than sinking into a black hole of bile or shutting herself off from the world and her responsibilities the way Mr. Bennett does.

While Pride and Prejudice ends on a happily-ever-after note, with the worthy heroines marrying rich men—for love—Austen’s own life did not have such an ending. She never did marry, and she was forced to live off of her brothers, without even a stable home of her own. However, I can’t say for sure, but it certainly seems from what we know about her is that she was just fine nonetheless.

In other words, Jane Austen rocks because she is an example of how a person can use her mind, spirit, and wit to keep her “head above water” and enjoy the spectacle that our fellow human beings offer us.

Image

Jennifer Ehle and David Bamber in 1995 BBC Version of Pride and Prejudice

As long as we are not forced to marry said spectacle, that is.