Victorian Second Helpings (The Moonstone by Collins and North and South by Gaskell)

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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:

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

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 by Elizabeth Gaskell

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?

Reviewed on November 3, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • A Tale of Two Cities was my first Dickens (after A Christmas Carol) and it was a chore to get through. I really liked parts, but then got bogged down with characters, history, etc. I’m reading/listening to Great Expectations now and love it!
    Looking forward to Gaskell…

  • Sorry you had to give up on A Tale of Two Cities. I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around it for a while, but in the end it turned out to be one of my all time favorite books.


  • I get burned out on different types of books sometimes. I think it happens to all of us.

    I’ve heard, though, that the Moonstone is just not as good as the Woman in White. Not that it’s bad, just that it’s not as good. I still want to read it, though. On the other hand, I have no desire to read Dickens…

  • I’m loving the Wilkie Collins tour so far – thanks for organizing! And I’m glad you liked The Moonstone. Like you say, it’s the characters that make it fun. Miss Clack alone is worth the price of admission. 😛

  • I get reading burn out all the time, and find that I really can’t read too many books from a certain genre all in a row or that definitely fatigues me. Just recently I felt tired from having read too many male authors in a row, so that just goes to show you the extent to which I like to diversify my reading.

    I am trying to read more Classics, but I think that it’s possible to maybe even heighten my enjoyment by spreading them out so that they each get a chance to stand on their own, rather than them potentially all bleeding into one another. Maybe I’ll even get around to tackling Dickens… you know he’s my literary arch-nemesis after all! 😉

    Really enjoying the Classics circuit, and it’s lovely to see that everyone who’s posted so far seems so enthusiastic as well!

  • A Tale of Two Cities is the only Dickens I have only read. I couldn’t stand it–easily one of my least favorite books of all time. I put it down when I was almost done with it, which seemed silly at the time but I could not read one more word!

  • Tale of Two Cities is one of the few books that sort of redeems Dickens for me. I remember liking it.

    And yes, I think we all get burned out on certain types of books from time to time. 🙂

  • I loved Betteredge and Clack, too. I think Collins really excels at crafting lovable (or irritating, but fun to read) characters. I’m becoming really intrigued by Gaskell; I haven’t read anything of hers, but I was recently tempted by the beautiful Vintage editions of North and South and Mary Barton. A shallow but effective incentive to read a new author! 🙂

  • Hang in there with A Tale of Two Cities. The influx of new characters will stop and their connections will be revealed. Though I have my doubts about Carlyle’s historical philosophy, on which the book is based, it was a thrilling story in the end.

  • I’m so glad you liked North and South! Despite my flippancy when writing the review, it’s a book that’s stuck with me. I had to love Ms Gaskell for trying so had to tell the truth. I like Oliver Twist, but in many ways, I liked North and South more, because with Dickens, you know everything will sort of end up with Tiny Tim up on Scrooge’s shoulder, you know? Gaskell has a beautiful way of letting people remain imperfect, but still find their happiness – particularly I enjoyed this in her relationship with her father, which felt really poignant – looking back now after reading, for instance, Building Jerusalem, and getting a bit more background on nonconformism, and Northern vs Southern living mores, I like it even more. Gaskell was always willing to admit that the bpeople who aren’t like her are okay too. I don’t feel that way with Dickens.

    That being said, I love Tale of Two Cities, and am sorry it didn’t work out for you! I still think we should do a French Revolution Classics Circuit sometime :).

  • JoAnn, The Gaskell was so delightful! I hope you enjoy which ever is on your schedule.

    Lezlie, I’ll get back to it! just not in the next two months.

    Amanda, I did enjoy The Moonstone, just wasn’t a favorite. I hope you like it when you get to it! (PS I know you don’t want to read Dickens but I did enjoy the others I read! I seriously think it was just a matter of burnout this time around.)

    Chris, oh yes, enjoy N&S! The spoiler is kind of an expected thing, so not too spoilery.

    Jenny, oh yes, that Miss Clack. Gotta love her presence in the book!

    Steph, I’m glad I’m not alone in the reading burnout. I don’t pay attention to the gender of the authors of the books I read. I’m more interested in the novel and characters and plot! Interesting though that the male classic authors have just not enough romance for me. North and South was more satisfying in that way. Hmmm. I’m thinking I’m craving Jane Austen right now actually….

    Maybe don’t start with Tale of Two Cities….it seems rather complicated…

    Stephanie, I wonder if we knew more about the revolution we’d enjoy it more?

    WordLily, I’m so glad to hear that so many people love Tale of Two Cities. I’m definitely going to get it again in a few months.

    Emily, I have the Vintage edition of Mary Barton from the library for the Classics Circuit, so I will get to that (but maybe in another week after I’ve taken a break from Victorians!).

    Sylvia, thanks for the encouragement! I’m so glad you like it so much!! I actually took Two Cities back to the library this week but I will revisit it next year or maybe in a few months when I’m feeling ready to tackle Victorian literature again. I just need a break now.

  • Jason, I am all the more excited to read Mary Barton now after reading North and South because like you said Gaskell did such a great job of capturing the people in a real way.

    I like Dickens, at least the few I’ve read, because of the rosy outlook that comes in the end. I wouldn’t call Dickens realistic, but then again I wouldn’t call Austen realistic either. I like them both. Gaskell so far seems a nice combination of the two styles!

    You mentioned Building Jerusalem before; maybe I need to look it up sooner rather than later.

  • Now that you’ve read North and South, you should grab the BBC miniseries. The ending is a little bit different, and you can see a bit more of the attraction between Thornton and Margaret growing as the story goes on. 🙂

  • I’m almost done with The Moonstone and agree that the characters make the story rather than the plot. I actually thought the Betteridge section was dragging after awhile and I got impatient to move on. I wonder whether the serialization method of writing was a detriment in this case as with editing, I think this could have been a better novel.

    Unlike Austen, whose works are polished and tight and not a word in excess, Collins got a bit long-winded…and I like long Victorian novels!

    I think Oliver Twist is the best Dickens for first time Dickens readers, but Dickens is no longer my favorite Victorian by a long shot. I much prefer Gaskell and Eliot and the Brontes to Dickens.

    I’ll be contributing to the Gaskell tour on Nov. 17 (top 10 things you should know about Gaskell to enjoy her works) but I plan to visit all the blogs on the Collins tour as a reader/responder.

    I do get genre burnout–in fact I started Julie & Julia a few nights ago because The Moonstone was dragging and I need something easy to read to balance my psyche while I finished it 🙂

  • While I enjoyed the plot of The Moonstone more than you did (It turns out I’m a mystery fan! This is recent news to me :P), I agree that the characters absolutely make the book 😀

  • Jane, In retrospect I suspect I thought Betteredge was dragging too — I kept flipping to see how many pages until the next narrator!

    Yes, I’d have to say, I’m really enjoying reading Victorians more than I thought I would. And Dickens was not as favorite as I thought he’d be. Ah well, I’ll keep revisiting him!

    Yeay! That Gaskell post sounds really fun. I’m looking forward to it!

    Nymeth, Oh I’m glad you’ve learned you love mysteries!! I’ll look forward to hearing about whatever you read next!

  • It is definitely the characters in The Moonstone that make the story. Collins just created these beautifully unique voices in the novel. My review of it goes up on the 17th.

  • Yep, I first read The Moonstone about 10 years ago or so. I just thought it was so fitting you mention the characters as that was my connection to the book as well.

  • The first 3/4 of Tale of Two Cities is a little slow, and then all of the excitement is in the last quarter of the book. I think in the end it’s worth it. It’s dramatic and unrealistic and I love it! Oliver Twist is actually my least favorite of his, while David Copperfield is my favorite. If you’re in the Victorian mood again, give it a try.

  • Trisha, looking forward to your thoughts!

    Shelley, I’ll definitely revisit it! Glad you like it.

    Tuesday, it was abrupt. I think Gaskell’s point (in the spoiler section above) is appropriate, but still, I too would have liked more romance!!

  • I’ve read many classics, but have never been able to read Dickens. I love movies based on his novels (Bleak House, David Copperfield, Nicolas Nickleby, etc.) but have not been able to make myself read the books. It’s not the genre–I’ve read Elizabeth Glaskell, Winkie Collins and even tackled Middlemarch (and enjoyed it too). I don’t know what it is about Dickens–I seem to read 10 pages and think “what did I just read?”

  • I’ve read many classics, but have never been able to read Dickens. I love movies based on his novels (Bleak House, David Copperfield, Nicolas Nickleby, etc.) but have not been able to make myself read the books. It’s not the genre–I’ve read Elizabeth Gaskell, Winkie Collins and even tackled Middlemarch (and enjoyed it too). I don’t know what it is about Dickens–I seem to read 10 pages and think “what did I just read?”

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