My experiences with Victorian novels had been quite positive, so I jumped in to read a few more. I enjoyed both The Moonstone and North and South very much.
I did give up on A Tale of Two Cities this week. While Oliver Twist seemed intuitive and easy to breeze through, Two Cities has been confusing, especially in comparison to the other novels I’m reading. Dickens keeps introducing characters and I can’t see how it fits together. I’m also completely unfamiliar with the facts, dates, and details of the French revolution, so that is a big negative to my experience. I’m certain the novel does all fit together – and that it is definitely worth reading – but I’m ready for a few non-Victorian novels before I tackle Gaskell’s Mary Barton for the upcoming Classics Circuit tour. The past few weeks of Victorians have given me a slight burnout. I feel guilty admitting it, as I’m the one promoting the Victorian Classics Circuit! Nevertheless, rest assured that I’ll revisit Two Cities in the next year at some point when I’m able to read it “fresh.” For now, I’m setting it aside.
Because Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell are both touring the Circuit in the coming weeks, I’ve kept these reviews brief. Check out The Classics Circuit to see where the two authors are going in the future!
If you’d like, you can skip to the review you’re interested in by using these shortcuts:
Although I don’t like mysteries, I am immensely glad I gave the first of the genre a chance. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins was one of the original, definitive mysteries. It was full of suspense, red herrings, misunderstandings, and drama.
I didn’t particularly love The Moonstone, but I enjoyed reading it. The things I disliked were an effect of the genre: mysteries tend to bore me. Like adventure stories, I get impatient and just want the writer to get to the point already. The Moonstone was no different, and since it was primarily a mystery (and not a romance on the side or anything), it just really wasn’t my thing. I found myself bored by the plot, I’m sorry to say! (To clarify: there are some elements of love, but for this Austen-fan, it was not nearly enough romance.)
That said, I loved the characters Collins created! For example, Betteredge is the butler who adores Robinson Crusoe – and uses it as his bible for seeking answers to life’s problems; Miss Clack is the evangelizing loner who thinks the family is depending on her to save their souls. I loved these creations, and it was for the rich people that I enjoyed reading The Moonstone. Further, despite the fact that I didn’t love the genre, I found myself turning pages hoping I could figure it out myself. (I did not: there were some odd twists I wasn’t expecting.)
While I don’t anticipate loving the mystery genre anytime soon, I’m glad I read The Moonstone, and I look forward to more Collins!
North and South was my second Gaskell novel, and it felt strikingly different from the subtle setting and characters in Cranford (reviewed here).
In some respects, North and South seemed a delightful mix of Jane Austen romance and Charles Dickens working class expose. In Gaskell’s novel, an upper-middle class young woman is uprooted from her idyllic setting in the South and brought to the Northern town of Milton, which is a mill town in the middle of the industrial revolution. Her nineteenth-century notion of “gentleman” is brought in to question, for the wealthy John Thornton, a self-made man, is not an inheritance-born gentleman. The Jane Austen romance comes in as Margaret’s obvious prejudice against Mr. Thornton comes into question, despite his interest in her. Margaret observes the Dickensian tragedy that is the life of the mill workers.
North and South was a painful book in ways that both Charles Dickens and Jane Austen are not. Of Dickens’ stories, I have only read Oliver Twist – which focuses not on mill workers but on the poor in London who take to thievery — but Dickens wrote with a humor that made it feel light. Jane Austen, on the other hand, writes her story (I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice) with plenty of romantic situations, and the political world around her is essentially invisible. But the pain that I felt as I read of Margaret’s struggles were incredibly real. Margaret’s situation was more complicated and more concerned with life and death than Elizabeth Bennet’s situation: the Bennets were worrying about their reputation, not their lives. Therefore, while I loved the light story of Austen’s novel, Gaskell’s novel felt more realistic.
A note on the end (highlight to read, as it contains spoilers): I was rather frustrated that it took so long to come to the happy romantic resolution I knew was coming, and I wished Gaskell had developed the last scene further. According to the footnotes in my version, apparently Gaskell complained about how Dickens (her editor) shortened the serial publication dates and rushed her to a conclusion. Nevertheless, she says in the end, “I am not sure if, when the barrier gives way between 2 such characters as Mr Thornton and Margaret it would not all go smash in a moment, — and I don’t feel quite certain that I dislike the end as it now stands.” (note 2, on page 449, Penguin Classics edition). That made me more satisfied (a little).
Are you joining either upcoming Circuit tour?
Have you read A Tale of Two Cities? Did you enjoy it?
Do you ever get “burn out” from reading a particular type of book?