Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dueling Authors: Jane Austen vs. Charles Dickens

Today I am participating in the Classics Circuit Dueling Author tour. Participants had the option of reading Jane Austen OR reading Charles Dickens OR reading both Dickens and Austen. For this tour, I decided to read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.

I've been a fan of Jane Austen for almost six years now. I've read Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Lady Susan. (Persuasion is my favorite and best, by the way. Emma is probably my least favorite.)

For many, many years I was decidedly NOT a fan of Dickens. Why?! Well, I had been forced required to read Great Expectations in high school. And it was so traumatic--perhaps--that I blocked it from my memory. Same thing in college when it was once again required. It seemed to me that Great Expectations was the novel that could not--would not--stick in my memory. But my dear, dear friend gently but firmly persuaded me to change my mind. Not all at once. Little by little. And when I finally gave Dickens a chance, when I came to him without prejudice, I found out something about myself. I really do love and adore bearded Victorians. I love Dicken's style. I love his asides, his ramblings, his descriptions. I love his characters. I even love the way he names his characters. I love the complexities of his writing. Sure there might be people out there who don't think Dickens worth their time, worth their effort. But. For me. I couldn't imagine feeling that way. Last fall, I read Bleak House, and this spring, I read Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit. Of those three, my favorite and best is Our Mutual Friend.

Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen. 1817/1992. Everyman's Library. 288 pages. 

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. 

I love to reread books. And I love to write new reviews of the books I reread. In the case of Northanger Abbey, I get to see how much I've changed as a reader. I can't believe that just a couple of years ago I thought that this Austen book was "just okay" and "not one of my favorites." That I didn't find the romance between Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland to have any spark or sizzle. You can say my opinions on this one have changed considerably!!! For one, Henry Tilney is now one of my favorite, favorite, favorite Austen heroes. And I've come to find the whole novel--not just the first chapter--delightful and charming and delicious and oh-so-satisfying. One of those novels where I could almost open it to any page, start reading, and find myself thinking, "Oh I love that part!"

Our heroine, Catherine Morland, is on vacation with Mr. and Mrs. Allen. They've gone to Bath. And Catherine is longing for something to happen, something exciting, something new, something wonderful. Something worth remembering. At home, well, nothing all that special happens. Certainly nothing as dramatic as what happens in Catherine's favorite novels. There have been no young men, no would-be-heroes, to win her heart. But Mr. and Mrs. Allen aren't the most social of couples. And they don't happen to know any one at Bath when they first arrive. So her adventures are put on hold--for the moment. But when Henry Tilney enters the scene, when the two are introduced, Catherine KNOWS that her life will never be quite the same again. At least not if Tilney is really, truly hero material. And oh how he seems to be!

And then there is the Thorpe family. Isabella Thorpe befriends Catherine quickly and enthusiastically. You'd think they'd been best friends for years and years instead of just ten minutes. There's something almost desperate about how Isabella clings to Catherine at the first. Like she just has to have someone to talk with, to gossip with. And what can I say about her brother John? I truly think that even if he hadn't been a liar, hadn't been so selfish, hadn't been so weird, Catherine would still have never considered him as a love interest. Because. It was always ever Tilney in her thoughts, in her heart. She spent her time with John Thorpe wishing that she was somewhere else, with someone else! Unlike the brother-sister team in Mansfield Park--Mary and Henry Crawford--I feel no sympathy for John Thorpe. He's just not hero material.

The novel focuses on Catherine's adventures and misadventures in the world. Will Catherine meet a true friend that could be closer than a sister? Will Catherine find her hero? Will she live happily ever after? Will real life prove better than any novel?

So the plot of Northanger Abbey is relatively simple. But I found it oh-so-satisfying. Just a joy to read this one.

Favorite quote:
"She had reached the age of seventeen without having seen one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility; without having inspired one real passion, and without having excited even any admiration but what was very moderate and very transient. This was strange indeed! But strange things may be generally accounted for if their cause be fairly searched out. There was not one lord in the neighborhood; no, not even a baronet. There was not one family among their acquaintances who had reared and supported a boy accidentally found at their door; not one young man whose origin was unknown. Her father had no ward, the the squire of the parish no children. But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."
 The Pickwick Papers. Charles Dickens. 1836/1837/1999. Penguin Classics. 810 pages.

The first ray of light which illumines the gloom, and converts into a dazzling brilliancy that obscurity in which the earlier history of the public career of the immortal Pickwick would appear to be involved, is derived from the perusal of the following entry in the Transactions of the Pickwick club, which the editor of these papers feels the highest pleasure in laying before his readers, as a proof of the careful attention, indefatigable assiduity, and nice discrimination, with which his search among the multifarious documents confided to him has been conducted.

Did I love Pickwick Papers? Yes. Did I love it as much as Our Mutual Friend or Bleak House? Well, I'm not sure I could honestly say that I love it that much. But the subject matter seems to be much cheerier than his other works. Pickwick Papers focuses on a circle of friends. Mr. Pickwick, of course, is at the center of this circle. Mr. Snodgrass, Mr. Winkle, Mr. Tupman are fellow Pickwickians. They accompany him on some of his journeys. They witness some of these adventures. They lead the group into some trouble, into some fun. Mr. Winkle is probably the most important of his friends.

But the character that I came to love the most--that is if I had to choose just one--would be Sam Weller. Sam Weller is a man we meet in one of the adventures, a man that becomes Mr. Pickwick's valet, a man that becomes a true friend when Mr. Pickwick's life turns a bit topsy-turvy.

Is there ONE central story to The Pickwick Papers? Yes and no. I mean the adventures are very casual, a bit spontaneous. But they're not unrelated. For me, the ONE story is Mr. Pickwick being sued by his former landlady, a widow named Mrs. Bardell. Readers witness what seems to be an insignificant scene, a comical misunderstanding that really only readers understand, a scene that ends with Mrs. Bardell fainting into Mr. Pickwick's arms. Months later Mr. Pickwick learns something startling. He's being sued for breach of promise. Mrs. Bardell is claiming that Mr. Pickwick led her to believe that he was going to marry her. She believes she's entitled to some of his money for the emotional damage he's caused her. He disagrees of course. The thought of his marrying her--of his marrying anyone--never ever ever occurred to him. And he certainly would remember if he ever spoke tenderly, romantically to her. If he ever once said that he cared for her, loved her, wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. No, she's lost it. And come what may, no matter what the court says, he will never ever ever ever give her any money. Not if it costs him his freedom, not if it costs him his reputation. (The court scene had me hooked. From that point on I just couldn't put this one down.)

I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed the characters and character sketches. I didn't love *every* story within The Pickwick Papers. There were some stories, some asides, that just weren't for me. In his adventures, Mr. Pickwick was collecting stories from others, so Mr. Pickwick would meet someone new, and often times, that someone new had a story or two to share with his new friend. Some of the chapters were quite funny. And The Pickwick Papers does have a little bit of romance--just not with Mr. Pickwick in the lead!

For the most part, I enjoyed this one. It made me smile in many, many places. I would recommend it.

Favorite quotes:

There are very few moments in a man's existence, when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. (62)

Out came the chaise -- in went the horses -- on sprung the boys -- in got the travellers. (122)

© 2011 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Karen K. said...

I love it when I find another Dickens lover! I had Fear of Dickens and also read Great Expectations in college, but unlike you I loved it. I haven't read OMF yet but I can't wait to read it. So far my favorites have been Bleak House and Oliver Twist.

I'm so glad you liked Pickwick, I've heard differing opinions so I've been waffling about him. I'm posting about Dombey and Son for the Circuit on Saturday and hopefully I'll actually finish it on time.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant!:) L.

Lenasledgeblog.com said...

I don't know where you get the time. But I'm always impressed. I am reading Great Expectatons for the first time on my kindle phone to help pass time while waiting. It's interesting so far. Not in love with it, but I'm still reading so I guess that says something.

Sam said...

I had to read Great Expectations in middle school for an advanced English class. I hate it.
And I'm actually in the middle of my first Jane Austen right now. I'm not really sure how I feel about it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I love all of Austen's work too (Persuasion is my fav too), but I thought Northanger was "ok" as well. I've got to reread it!

I didn't like Dickens when I first read him, but as I've grown older I've grown to love his work. It's interesting how our tastes change.

Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic said...

Interestingly I read most of Dickens' work before reading Austen's. I enjoy both. Great post.

Anne said...

I just love that you love Bleak House. :)

BRENT said...

I loved The Pickwick Papers. It is remarkable considering that Dickens was only 24 when he wrote it!! And it was his debut novel which is even more remarkable!! My only niggle is it was atouch too long. By about the 700th page I felt that that was enough and I slogged through the last 200 hundred pages. It felt like a movie that was just a touch too long.
He is far away my most favorite writer/novelist even though I still have a number of his works to get through. I prefer his earlier works as once he came home from his American tour his novels became darker and a bit bleak in nature. So far I like Pickwick the most, followed by Oliver Twist.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing the reviews, and once I get a chance, now I want to read Pickwick Papers.

I read my first Dickens novel last year, for a project (high school). It was Oliver Twist, and I rather liked it, and the adventure in it. Now I'm reading my first Austen novel, Emma. I like her style, and the romance aspect of it. If I had to choose a favourite author out of the two,I'd probably pick Dickens.