Austen vs. Gaskell

As I was reading North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about England during the mid-nineteenth century, I kept thinking that she had ripped off Jane Austen (my second favorite author after my mom) pretty much wholesale except for the humor, which was unfortunately lacking.

A brief synopsis: Margaret Hale has spent some years as the disregarded poor relation of a wealthy London family and has just returned to her parents’ home in Helstone in the agricultural south of England. Soon after she arrives her father has a crisis conscience and decides that he can no longer serve as a minister in the Church of England. On the strength of a recommendation from a friend in academia, the former Reverend Mr. Hale uproots his wife and daughter for Milton, located in the industrial North. There Margaret encounters the mills, which are making fantastic amounts of money for the owners while the employees work endless hours for little pay and succumb to all sorts of diseases, starting with brown lung disease from the cotton dust and moving on to black lung from the pollution of burning coal. Indeed, death stalks good and bad, well born and low, in this novel, which Gaskell published in serial form under the tutelage of Charles Dickens. Like him, she peoples her narrative with such characters as the mill worker Nicholas Higgins who could fit easily into Great Expectations or Oliver Twist.

A quick aside: Rev. Hale’s crisis stands outside the rest of the novel, and I did not realize until I read the introduction that Charlotte Brontë had a serious problem with this aspect of the book as I did, but for very different reasons. She was married to an Anglican minister. In any event I persevered with novel and noted with some amusement that Brontë’s comments allowed the professor who wrote the introduction to compare North and South to Jane Eyre and Villette.

Unlike the esteemed Martin Dodsworth (professor of English at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College), I see far more parallels between Jane Austen and Gaskell than between Brontë and Gaskell (or between Dickens and Gaskell). I have to confess that I read Jane Eyre long ago and struggled to finish Villette, which I found utterly unbelievable.

Having finished North and South, I no longer feel that Gaskell plagiarized Austen wholesale, but there are still vast areas of comparison. Pride and Prejudice and Emma are particularly on my mind as the Austen works.

Remind me never to try to do columns in this column again.

Austen                                           Gaskell

strong-willed heroine                  ditto

stuffy hero (esp. Darcy)             ditto

stuffier alternative suitor         ditto

heroine falls into

reduced circumstances*           ditto

class consciousness                     ditto; Gaskell uses it to better effect as social commentary

humor                                            mostly lacking **

poor girl adopted by

wealthy family ***                    ditto

heroine’s wealthy friend

has ideal marriage                     ditto

heroine’s mother absent/

dead, less important                 ditto

strong-willed female

antagonist                                   ditto

misunderstood brother****   ditto

brother in the navy****         ditto

heroine visits

the poor                                       ditto, again as social commentary

kindly, oblivious

father                                           ditto

stress on manners                    ditto but with an eye to social commentary

* Sense and Sensibility

**One flash of humor in an otherwise solemn work, echoes Austen. John Thornton, the erstwhile hero, is growing impatient with the criticism his mother and sister aim at Margaret.

Sister Fanny:  “And she’s not accomplished, mamma. She can’t play.”

John: “Go on, Fanny, what else does she want to bring her up to your standard?”

Mother: “Nay! John, that speech of Fanny’s did no harm. I myself heard Miss Hale say she could not play. If you would let us alone, we could perhaps like her, and see her merits.”

Fanny [murmuring]: “I’m sure I never could!”

The amusement of this scene is heightened by the fact that the son, who is at this point very wealthy, began his work life as a “stock-boy.”

*** Mansfield Park

**** Persuasion

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3 Responses to “Austen vs. Gaskell”

  1. What I’m Reading Now « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] most looking forward to the section on Jane Austen because of my adoration of her novels (see “Austen vs. Gaskell,”   “Glorious Day II,” “Killer Jane,” and because I know her works far better than those […]

  2. Phylly3 Says:

    Great comparison. I am also an Austen fan but lately I seem to prefer Gaskell. I would like to link this post to a post I am working on about Elizabeth Gaskell. Hope you don’t mind.

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