Friday, July 27, 2012

Reader Question #5: Austen, Dickens, Gaskell, and Bronte, Oh My!

This question come from Birdienl, who writes:

What do you think are the unique points of the stories (books or adaptations) of each of these great writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brönte (add others if you like), which distinguish them from other writers.

First, let me get into my background with each of these authors so you can understand where I'm coming from as you read my response.
  • Jane Austen - Read and have seen adaptations of all of her books except Mansfield Park (in progress and will watch adaptations when I'm done reading it).
  • Charles Dickens - Read A Christmas Carol years ago and part of Little Dorrit. Have seen Little Dorrit (both versions), Bleak House (2005), and Great Expectations (1999 and 2011) along with some versions of A Christmas Carol.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell - Have seen Cranford, Wives and Daughters, and North and South (2004). Haven't read any of her books.
  • Charlotte Bronte - Read Jane Eyre years ago (though long after A Christmas Carol). Have seen the 1943 and 1996 version of Jane Eyre all the way through, half of 2006, and some clips of the 1934, 1973, 1983, 1997, and 2011 (very small clips)
Okay, so now that you know what my background on these authors is, I'll begin to answer the question.

Jane Austen is my favorite author for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons (the one that pertains to this question) is that from the books I have read, I found that she was the most realistic and the most relate-able to me. That is what I think is unique about Jane Austen's plots -- that in a lot of other authors that have unrealistic plot devices and situations that are implausible to life, Jane Austen doesn't go for the outlandish and extraordinary things that are bound not to happen in real life, but instead writes about situations that she personally has observed and adapts them to her stories. Ever notice that there is never a scene in a Jane Austen novel that doesn't have at least one female character? That is because Jane Austen has never observed a situation in which there were only men present (that we know of); even if she was the only lady in a room, the men in that room would act differently than if there were no women present because Jane Austen is was lady and would immediately act differently if she was not there.

Having read only a little of Charles Dickens, I'm going to have to speak mostly from what I've seen in adaptations of his books. What is unique about Charles Dickens's stories is the complexity of them. There may be many, many main plots to the story that seem to be completely separate stories but then somehow at the end, they all, to the surprise of the first time viewer/reader, all strangely had something to do with the other and merge (essentially) into one ending. What is also different about Dickens's from the other authors is that there is so much focus on the other main plots than the MAIN main plot (if that makes sense). For instance, in Little Dorrit, we see quite a bit of Amy's story (the book is named after her, after all), but there is also a big, big focus on Arthur Clennam's family secret and Rigaud's escape from prison. In Bleak House, we see what goes on both at Bleak House AND Chesney Wold,  AND the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Most authors would probably have some mention of what was going on in those plots, but it would have been a quick mention of it while we are following the main character (for instance, it might come up in a conversation, but we wouldn't actually "see" the events). But with Dickens, he devotes a lot of story time to those other main plots.

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a similar way to Jane Austen, studies life and (I'm assuming here) writes her observances into her stories. The difference between Jane Austen and Elizabeth Gaskell has to do with grittiness. Elizabeth Gaskell's stories do have the tendency to be much grittier than Jane Austen's stories. In Jane Austen's stories, no main character dies (let's leave The Watson's, her unfinished novel, out of this), while with Elizabeth Gaskell, any main character has the chance of dying. I'll give you all a warning, but Spoilers are ahead, so read at your own risk. In Cranford, Deborah Jenkyns is a pretty main character... and then mid-story, she dies. Mr. Carter (who has a different name in the book, I understand), who is one of the central characters in the plot concerning Harry Gregson, dies at the end. Onto another one of her stories: Wives and Daughters. I thought Mrs. Hamley was going to be a main character... dies in the second episode. Osborne, who was also one of the main characters, dies towards the end of the story. North and South: multiple character who we all thought of as main characters die. Mr. and Mrs. Hale die, Bessy Higgins dies, and Boucher (if that's his name: the one who was smoking in Mr. Thornton's factory) all die. Okay, that's enough of spoilers. So, that is what sets Elizabeth Gaskell apart from other authors: she writes about life, but she mentions more of the unpleasant things in life.

Charlotte Bronte (who I hold a grudge against for speaking so ill of Pride and Prejudice!), is similar to some of the other authors, but different from them in a couple of ways. (Now, keep in mind that of her books I've only read Jane Eyre) Like Charles Dickens, she writes a lot of mystery into her book, but she has one main plot and not really any subplots (there are back stories, however). She wrote a romance like Jane Austen (though Jane Austen's books are also satires) and Elizabeth Gaskell, but Charlotte Bronte's stories were Gothic novels that didn't necessarily reflect everything she saw in real life (plus she used a lot more romantic language than Jane Austen). Those differences I think are what makes Charlotte Bronte different from other authors. She focuses on one plot and her novel has a Gothic, mysterious setting to it. 

So, to sum everything up:
  • Jane Austen: Writes realistic plotlines that are based on her observances of human behavior
  • Charles Dickens: Has multiple main plots and subplots and all main plots have a big focus on them.
  • Elizabeth Gaskell: Writes about life like Jane Austen, but is grittier.
  • Charlotte Bronte: Focuses on one main plot and has Gothic and mysterious themes.
What do you think? Are there any unique points of each author that I talked about that I missed? If you have read books of the authors that I didn't read, do you have any other insights to make? Leave a comment!

Thank you, Birdienl, for sending in your question! If you have a question you would like to submit for me to do a post on, leave a comment. Just follow these guidelines. It can be about anything related to this blog: period dramas, blogging, reviews, etc.

 God Bless,
God Bless, Miss Elizabeth Bennet

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much for your thoughful analysis of my question. In general I agree with your answer, though I would add the emphasis on social problems in Dickens' and Gaskell's novels, which I think distinguish them from Bronte and Austen


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