Reading, Reviews

Overlooked Greatness: Elizabeth Gaskell

I’ve mentioned before that I love British Literature from the Victorian era, or slightly before. It was a minor tragedy when I ran out of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters a few years ago.

Enter: Elizabeth Gaskell.

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My Gaskell Collection

I had never heard of Elizabeth Gaskell (known as Mrs. Gaskell during her publishing career), until I took a Bronte seminar in college and read parts of her The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Generally, I am terrible at reading nonfiction, biographies especially, but I found that I enjoyed Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. Granted, some scholars claim that Gaskell took some liberties to make Charlotte’s life story a bit more like a novel. I forgive her for that, though, because her skill obviously lies in the novel form. Two of her works, Wives and Daughters and North and South are some of my favorite books.

Wives and Daughters (TV tie-in)Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson and her family. At the beginning of the novel, Molly is a motherless child, being brought up by her father, the village doctor. Molly enjoys her companionable relationship with her father. By and by, her father decides to marry again. His choice is questionable, but it makes for a great novel. The woman he  marries has a daughter, Cynthia. Cynthia is affectionate towards her new sister and father, but has made questionable choices in the past that come to light along the way. This novel also has a great villain, Mr. Preston. Wives and Daughters is centered on the family and village life, but it also has a lot to say about the struggle between science and traditionalism in the 1830s. Squire Hamley, a family friend and main character in the novel, is entrenched in his old farming ways, while his son, Roger, is an up and coming naturalist and has big ideas of what needs to change. That and many other plot lines and wonderful characters makes Wives and Daughters a beautiful work, comparable to the best novels of the time. Lauren Lerner calls it “surely the most neglected novel of its century” in his introduction to the Penguin Classic 1986 edition. Its only shortcoming is the fact that Mrs. Gaskell died before she tied up the ending into the beautifully wrapped package Victorian novels usually become. However, I think the ending is quite sufficient. Yes, it has a bit more of a modern, open-ended feel, but it’s pretty obvious where it’s going. If you like Austen, I think you’ll like Wives and Daughters.

North and SouthNorth and South surprised me with how different it was from Wives and Daughters. While Wives and Daughters closely follows a family and a several other village characters, North and South is full of social contrasts: industrial vs. agricultural, city vs. country, poor vs. rich. The title refers to the contrast in England between the industrial, factory-operated North and the pastoral, high-society south and London. It has a bit of a critical, Dickensonian approach. When Gaskell first introduces Margaret Hale, the main character, she is returning to her country home in Heston from a London visit to cousins. Margaret loves the picturesque cottage her family enjoys as her part of her father’s position as a minister in the Church of England. Margaret’s life quickly changes when her father’s conscience can no longer bear some differences he has with the Church of England, and he breaks ties with it. The family moves to a Northern city called Milton. Then, Margaret is thrust into a new perspective, as she watches and makes her own judgment of the factory life the Milton runs on. She meets a mill owner, John Thornton, and they form a tension-filled acquaintance, as Margaret disagrees with his treatment of the people he works for. As the novel progresses, the Margaret and Mr. Thornton find their opinions challenged and changed by one another and the circumstances that surround them.

Margaret Hale is one of my favorite literary characters of all time. I’d liken her a bit to an Elinor Dashwood or Ann Elliot, but much more lively. Margaret is aglow with the cause she champions and the people she wants to help. She is full of compassion and love tempered by steel determination and quite an ability to dislike as much as like. Her complexity is unparalleled in any Victorian literature I have read.

I hope you read both of these works by Gaskell. If you don’t think you’ll like them, perhaps you should try the Masterpiece Classic adaptations of them and see if they might whet your appetite for Elizabeth Gaskell. I’d usually not recommend watching the movie before reading the book, but they are pretty great, as far as movies go. =)

Links to movies on Amazon (please note: this post contains no affiliate links):

Wives and Daughters

North and South

think there are some videos from these movies on YouTube, but I’m not sure of their legality.

And finally, a disclaimer: if you read Elizabeth Gaskell, I would not recommend Mary Barton or Ruth. I’m sure that there are people somewhere who like those books. I found them to be rather trite–fallen Victorian woman plight, etc. Perhaps they were a little more cutting edge in their time, but if you’ve read The Mill on the FlossTess of the d’Urbervilles, or any number of similar stories, you don’t really need to add Ruth or Mary Barton to your repertoire, unless you find that you have become a die hard Mrs. Gaskell fan and must read all her works.

I hope you check out Elizabeth Gaskell and find a new favorite, or at least an enjoyable read. Happy reading!

Reading, Reviews

Some Old Fashioned Goodness

What do you do when you feel like you’ve read all the classics? That’s a problem I’ve been dealing with for the last few years. The real problem is of course, the large amount of pride I must have if I think I’ve exhausted the classics. Of course, I certainly haven’t read all the classics. Is that even possible? But I feel like I’ve exhausted my favorite Victorian era literature such as Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Hardy, and those types of writers. I just want a new Jane Austen book, you know? (yes, I realize I’m confusing my eras and she was in the Georgian era, but she was a trendsetter, no?).

If you’re in this boat with me, here are a few classics I’ve discovered in my feverish search for new old favorites.

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached HouseEmily Eden has been called Jane Austen’s successor, though she is not quite the master Austen is. However, her humorous satire of upper class England in the early 1800s is very reminiscent of Austen. Her two novels, The Semi-attached Couple and The Semi-detached House, were popular when first released in 1860. I thought they were entertaining and fun. They are lighthearted, while so many of the novels of the mid-1800s were tragic (consumption again? really?). The plot is love and marriage, but it’s not boring because true love’s course can’t run smooth or there’s no need for a novel about it. Here’s the opening lines of the novel:

“Well, I have paid that visit to the Eskdales, Mr. Douglas,” said Mrs. Douglas in a tone of triumphant sourness.

“You don’t say so, my dear! I hope you left my card?”

“Not I, Mr. Douglas. How could I? They let me in, which was too unkind. I saw the whole family, father and mother, brother and sisters–the future bride and bridegroom. Such a tribe! and servants without end. How I detest walking up that great flight of steps at Eskdale Castle, with that regiment of footmen drawn up on each side of it; and one looking more impertinent than the other!

“There must be a frightful accumulation of impertinence before you reach the landing-place, my dear; for it is a long staircase.”

So you see, this book probably won’t stir your soul, but if you’re looking for a good beach read but you’re not into modern literature, or if you’re dying for more Jane Austen and all the modern Austen mania literature is not your cup of tea, Emily Eden is for you.

The Making of a Marchioness (Part I and II)Most grown women heard of or read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and The Little Princess when they were young. I love those books, especially The Secret Garden. As soon as my daughter is old enough to handle words like “plague” and “crippled,” I’ll be reading it to her. But I didn’t know until recently that Burnett wrote some grownup books, too. The only one I’ve read so far is called Emily Fox Seton or The Making of a Marchioness. While the plot isn’t going to jolt you much, it’s a very pleasant read if you enjoy the writing style of Burnett. Our heroine, Miss Emily Fox-Seton, is a respectable lady but very poor. She runs errands and performs tasks for elderly ladies to make ends meet. One of the great things about her is she is not beautiful, but her “usefulness” makes her attractive to various characters throughout the book. When she is invited to one of her patron’s summer home, the direction of her life is forever changed.

My husband went on an Alexander Dumas kick a couple of years ago. He read The Count of Monte Cristo and thought it was great. I read it afterwards and couldn’t put it down. In the end I decided it was probably a guy book–grim heroics and all of that.  But there was so much more plot in it that never makes it even close to the movie version I saw in the early 2000’s starring Jim Caviezel.  I realize that always happens when books get turned into movies. But seriously, they left out over half of the book. And also, the movie plot is mostly about revenge, while the book delves into many more themes such as mercy and forgiveness and how there’s always more than meets the eye to playing God. The plot starts with the Count being falsely accused of a crime by a man who has designs on the Count’s fiancee. Of course at that point, the Count is not the Count, but lowly Edmond Dantes. Edmond spends his time in prison and the rest of his life creating a persona of greatness and a plan for revenge. I understand why they had to shorten the plan in the movie, because the book develops each detail fully and intertwines many characters into the plot by the time all is said and done. The book’s end is more satisfying in some ways and less in others. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’d like to read it again! The Count is the only Dumas I’ve read, but my husband says the one he really likes is The Three Musketeers. He tells me it’s whimsical and fun loving and kind of like The Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

My latest old fashioned find is Jean Webster, author of Daddy Long Legs and Dear Enemy. I can’t believe that I haven’t heard of Jean Webster until now! I love her characters. I read Daddy Long Legs on Friday and I just finished Dear Enemy today. I am saddened that Sallie McBride is no longer in my everyday life. Daddy Long Legs is told from the point of view of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan who has grown up in the John Grier Home, an orphan asylum in New York (FYI, asylum does not mean the orphans were crazy, that’s just what they called orphanages back then). She is blessed by a benevolent trustee with a college education on the condition that the trustee will remain anonymous and that she will write him letters letting him know how she fares in her studies. Jerusha changes her name to Judy on arriving at college, and begins to write the required letters. But she happens to be a writer and a writer without anyone to write letters to, so her letters are full of everything. They are a treat to read. Dear Enemy, however, is even better in my opinion. It is a sequel telling what happens to the John Grier Home after Judy’s life there, and it is narrated by Sallie McBride. I would like her to be one of my best friends. If only she weren’t (a) fictional) and (b) from the 1910’s. Otherwise, I’m sure we would be the best of friends. I am on a mission to read all of Jean Webster this Fall. I have been neglecting my summer reading plans because of my discovery of this new favorite author. If you like L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Windy Poplars, I strongly recommend Jean Webster’s novels to you. In fact, I’m off to go download Webster’s first novel When Patty Went to College right now. I’ve decided I can’t wait until Fall. You can download her books at Project Gutenberg for free or Amazon has several free Kindle versions. See? There’s no excuse! You must read Jean Webster. Unless, of course, you don’t like old fashioned goodness. Then you’re excused.

Let me know what your favorite little known old book is! I am always on the lookout for old books I can make into my new favorites. 

 

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