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Hard Times: Dickens' own "Milton" tale

A Manufacturing Town  (1922) - L.S. Lowry

A Manufacturing Town (1922) - L.S. Lowry

How does Charles Dickens' Hard Times compare to North and South?  I've wondered about this for years, ever since I heard that Hard Times was also an industrial novel. These two stories even appeared back-to-back in 1854. Dickens ran his story in weekly installments from April to August in his magazine, Household Words. Gaskell's story ran from September to January of the following year.

How are these two works similar? Well, in Dickens' book there is a dirty industrial town, a self-made manufacturer (with a mother who worships him!), a poor weaver with integrity and soul, and a heroine who doesn't know her own heart.

And there are similar strains in highlighting what is lacking in the industrial society of the day. Dickens' overall theme boils down to a warning that in the intellectual and self-satisfied excitement of lauding science and industry, it is vital to remember that humans are not machines or numbers, but individuals who need nurturing and care. Focusing on facts, statistics, bank accounts (and social esteem) deadens us to matters of humanity. It's the lower classes--Cissy Jupe, Stephen Blackpool, and Rachel--who understand what life is really about: love.

The most pointed difference, for me, between Hard Times and North and South is in the depth of the characters drawn by the author. Dickens uses exaggerated characters to make his pointed social commentary. It's difficult to feel an intimate connection with characters that are more symbolic than realistic. I felt the most sympathetic connection with the poor weaver, Stephen Blackpool, whose situation and hope reflects the reality of many hard-worn lives of every century. With Gaskell's characters, I can sympathize with each and every one for their very human faults, habits, and virtues. 

Oh, but I love Hard Times'  comedic Mrs. Sparsit! What a perfectly conniving, presumptuous old fortune-seeker! It was glorious to see her get taken down. The scene in which she gleefully endures pouring rain and muddy terrain to spy on her nemesis was fantastically described. This part was Dickens at his best for descriptions and character revelation. She may be my favorite Dickens character yet!

Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Of course, anyone who loves North and South, will be interested in Dickens' dark description of "Milton."

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

I really enjoyed reading a shorter work of Dickens. The intricate weaving of the characters into the building plot is Dickens' usual genius. In this story, no scene is superfluous. Every early scene lays the groundwork for the coming climax.

Overall, I liked this better than the over-rated Great Expectations, and maybe even better than Little Dorrit and Bleak House, where I found the length of the novel sometimes tedious. My romantic side would have loved to see a happier ending for a few of the characters, but considering the title of the book I'll suppress my complaint. Nothing here can compare to the romance in North and South.

And that self-made manufacturer in Hard Times? Definitely not John Thornton material! Josiah Bounderby is a pompous old windbag. Sorry about that. But who could compete with John Thornton anyway?

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Should Gaskell's 'Mary Barton' be made into film?

Photo by Mike Hogan/BBC

Photo by Mike Hogan/BBC

According to IMDb, the BBC already adapted Elizabeth Gaskell's first novel -- way back in 1964! Made into 4 episodes, the film is believed to be lost. (How do films get lost?) 

Four years ago, The Guardian announced that the BBC had plans to adapt Mary Barton, quoting Heidi Thomas (creator and writer of Call the Midwife) as saying she was eager to turn the novel into film. See the full article here.

There's certainly a lot of material in Mary Barton similar in nature to North and South:

Dirty, smokey old Milton   √

Struggle between masters and workers  √

Proud female protagonist who shuns the best catch of the town  √

Hard-working, devoted hero who must wait for idiot woman to come around √

An impressive tally of deaths √

Problematic father  √

If you thought North and South was dark and dreary, Mary Barton will take you even further into the stark lives of the working class.

Higgins and the working class in the BBC's 'North and South.'

Higgins and the working class in the BBC's 'North and South.'


The drama level rises several notches above North and South; with violence, tragedy, and perilous situations all vying to excite the reader's emotions.

Mary Barton definitely has the potential to make great screen drama. I hope the BBC picks up this apparently shelved project someday. I would love to watch another Gaskell story unfold on film.

Now that I've piqued your interest in the novel, I hope you'll be intrigued enough to come join me in a group read! For the next 6 weeks, I'll be hosting a group read of Mary Barton at Goodreads. Anyone is welcome to join us here.

And just to make sure you understand...

...there is no John Thornton in this story. He does not make an appearance as one of the evil mill masters.

But I hope you'll try reading Mary Barton anyway. Hints of Thornton's world abound.




Have you seen Wives and Daughters?

Last weekend I indulged in a rare spree of binge-watching. In the course of a few days, I watched the BBC's four-hour adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters.

Alright, so my definition of binge-watching may not be typical. But I don't usually watch much of anything. No TV shows -- none. I see an occasional movie. Perhaps now you will better appreciate the distinguishing honor I gave Wives and Daughters by taking the time to watch this mini-series for the second time (or is it the third? I'm not sure!).

The setting and pace of this story is much like Austen. But the underlying themes animating it are all Gaskell's own: the inevitable march of progress, the sacred importance of individuality, the value and strength of women; the emptiness of wealth, rank, and display; and the great impediment constructed between human beings by class divisions.

I love how Molly Gibson is drawn into a complicated web of relationships at every level of society. And the entire plot is set in motion by a rather random event--her father's interception of a love letter sent by an infatuated admirer.

As usual, the cast of characters is played by a host of well-loved British actors. If you haven't yet seen this sweet story, then maybe some name-dropping will entice you:

How many of these names do you already know?! It's just amazing--the talent packed in this piece!

How many of these names do you already know?! It's just amazing--the talent packed in this piece!

And now I'll get to the most important part of this blog post --

                  Have you read the book YET?

I love this book almost as much as North and South. I struggle at times in trying to decide which of these novels should be known as her masterpiece. Do you understand what that means, coming from me?! 

If you love classic Victorian literature, if you love Austen or Gaskell, if you love character-driven books, then please don't pass by this book. It is Gaskell's last work, the cumulation of her writing and story-telling skills -- and it shows. It's a much more polished work than North and South. 

There's only one drawback to the book: it has no ending. Gaskell died very suddenly before it was finished. Fortunately, however, she was within close sight of the ending. The reader knows that the pieces will all fall in place, they are merely deprived of knowing exactly how the author would have played her final hand. 

The mini-series does a wonderful job of creating an ending that works for the drama of film. The proposal scene is one I have watched over and over again. I can't think of a proposal scene I love more in any other film. (Do you have a favorite accepted-proposal scene?)

I have only one complaint concerning the film version of Wives and Daughters. And it's a complaint I must direct at the screenplay writer, Andrew Davies: a handhold cannot replace a kiss in a final scene! There, I said it. And let me know if you feel the same. After investing four hours of our time in a romantic story, we viewers deserve a kiss!

This -- instead of a kiss!

This -- instead of a kiss!

At least North and South delivers on that score!  

Would Gaskell have given us a kiss? Ah, we'll never know....

 Up Next -- Get ready to join me as I lead a Mary Barton group read soon! Grab a free ebook copy of Gaskell's first novel and start reading.




Brönte, being plain, and the curse of beauty

I've been indulging in a bit of Brönte lately. I recently re-watched Jane Eyre (BBC 2006) and I just finished reading Agnes Grey.

I'm intrigued by the regular recurrence of heartless beauties in both Charlotte and Anne's works. Clearly, beauty is a big deal for the Brontes. But not in a good way. 

The beautiful Blanche Ingram (with plain Jane in the shadows).   

The beautiful Blanche Ingram (with plain Jane in the shadows).


There's a distinct similarity in Agnes Grey, Jane Eyre, and Villette in which the first-person narrator feels largely invisible as a quiet, thinking person and as a plain-looking female. Of course, in all these stories, there is often also a consideration of class wherein the narrator's social position is one of diminished importance compared to those around her. 

Is this a peculiar feeling to the Bronte sisters, who were obviously brilliant intellects and astute observers? Or is it a common burden for any girl of the era who has more intelligence than good looks? Do the beautiful girls get all the attention? 

Well, not always of course. Rochester chooses Jane over Blanche.

Good choice, Rochester.

Good choice, Rochester.

Conversely, perhaps it is actually something of a curse to be born beautiful as a girl in that era. Is there really an inverse relation of brains to beauty, or are beautiful girls taught early on to consider their self-worth as largely pertaining to appearance? Do they steadily grow into all-consuming vanity after years of being raised to give inordinate attention to the outside package?

Agnes Grey confesses that "it is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves, or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?"

It feels like Agnes is trying to use good sense and logical reasoning to quell a longing for a little more beauty. Her musing on beauty comes at a time when she discovers that the dazzling Miss Murray intends, merely as a vain game, to attract the attention of the man Agnes loves. The plain-looking Agnes Grey acknowledges that "we are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what more pleasing than a beautiful face...?"

Poor Agnes is in anguish over the thought of being passed over simply because she lacks the power to make herself known; a gift or benefit naturally accorded to those that are beautiful. If a woman "is plain and good ... no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections." Whereas, those who are favored by nature to be beautiful may have "an angel form [which] conceals a vicious heart."

Miss Murray does seem to have something of a vicious heart. In toying with the affections of one her four suitors, she finds his heartfelt marriage proposal an amusing incident to relay to others -- even after the suitor begs her to keep his failed overture a secret. She has little or no concern for others.

In Villette there is a Miss Fanshawe who enjoys keeping two or more men dangling after her. And one of them is admired by the plain-looking narrator, Lucy Snowe. Again, the beautiful Miss Fanshawe is portrayed as having little consideration of others' feelings. The world exists to amuse and venerate her. 

The belle of the county in Jane Eyre, however, seems merely ambitious, not vicious. Blanche Ingram is interested in becoming mistress of Thornfield. Her beauty enhances her prospects, so custom assumes, in realizing her goal. But Rochester discerns that she is incapable of loving anyone. Such beauties like Blanche seem to truly lack the ability to put another person's happiness above their own. 

The inability to care for others reminds me of someone else at her most vicious. (Fanny Watson - BBC 2004)

The inability to care for others reminds me of someone else at her most vicious. (Fanny Watson - BBC 2004)

Where does all this vanity and indifference to others come from? Does being born with good looks naturally create a heartless, narcissistic female?

Social conditioning has a great deal to do with creating these hollow shells. Parental expectations and values are often transferred to their offspring. Parents guide their children's minds into channels of thought either conducive to or wholly opposed to worthy pursuits that enrich character, such as self-improvement, and respect for others.

There is a recurring theme in Agnes Grey that reveals how children are turned into selfish, undisciplined brats by their parents' own inflated sense of self-importance, based on the shallow markers of wealth, class, or physical appearance. 

I loved the particularly candid observation made in a conversation between Agnes and her love-interest: 

"... some people think rank and wealth the chief good; and, if they can secure that for their children, they think they have done their duty." 

"True: but is it not strange that persons of experience, who have been married themselves, should judge so falsely?"

With such empty values being transmitted to children, it is hardly surprising to see the pretty Miss Murray get her just deserts. Having been taught to seek grandeur and wealth her entire life, she achieves her goal in marrying a titled man with impressive property. After a glamorous honeymoon through the capitals of Europe, she becomes perfectly miserable within a year -- tied to a man she detests, and living with an overbearing mother-in-law.

Taking such lackluster results into consideration, the highest advantage may ultimately belong to the plain girls, who have to rely on something other than beauty to bolster their identity and self-worth. It's the quiet girls in the shadows, after all, who have much more opportunity to observe and reflect and grow a heart while others earn society's attention. 

What should a girl aspire to be? A thinker (and lover!) or a showpiece?