Do we need to read or reread every book by our favorite authors? What happens when we read (or reread) all of Dickens, Trollope, and the Brontes?
First, on rereading Dickens. I was doing well until I got to Hard Times.
Mind you, I loved Hard Times when I first read it, and it would be a masterpiece if anyone else had written it. But Dickens’s best novels (Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend) are so exciting, vigorous, unpredictable and wildly comic that this reads like Dickens “lite.” Dickens does better when he writes long than when he writes short.
The plot is entertaining, if messy, but some of the objects of his satire–education, for instance–he has done better elsewhere (Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield). But I am fond of the characters: Louisa Gradgrind, a young woman educated to care only about facts and then married off in a state of emotional shock to a dishonest factory owner, Josiah Bounderby; Sissy Jupe, the abandoned daughter of an aging clownand is a failure of the Gradgrind educational system ; and Merrylegs, the circus dog who saves Louisa’s brother, Thomas.
Hard Times is amusing, it is stylishly written, and it is socially pertinent, yes. Set in a factory town, it is partially an exposé of the exploitation of factory workers. Dickens also satirizes education: Mr. Gradgrind raises the intelligent Louisa and her dissolute brother Thomas on facts, and oversees a school educating children only in facts. The moral: If you’re raised on facts and have no education, you are a psychological mess.
Dickens always makes brilliant use of rhetoric. In the first paragraph, the opening speech of Mr. Gradgrind, he repeats “Facts” five times and “principle” twice.
‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
Hard Times seems more suited to, dare I say it, high school classrooms. The same with Tale of Two Cities, which we read in ninth grade. Have you noticed how teachers so often pick the shortest books?
What is your favorite Dickens?
Should I read all of Trollope? Well, I am a Trollope fan. I love his long novels, especially Can You Forgive Her? and He Knew He Was Right. But I have not enjoyed his short novels.
Well, I recently embarked on The Golden Lion of Granpere, set in France. What kind of Victorian novel is set in France? I wondered. Not one I want to read, I decided. There’s an innkeeper, and he doesn’t want his son to marry his niece. But somehow this plot works much better in England!
It’s only 260 pages, and somebody will like it, but since Trollope lacks Dickens’s rhetorical brilliance and also needs space to develop his leisurely plots, his short novels seem blank to me!
Does this mean I like only long books? No.
Anne Bronte is a master of the short novel. I recently reread The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. You will be relieved to know that I enjoyed it.
Although her style is not as poetic or striking as that of Charlotte or Emily, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne’s feminist novel about the perils of romantic love. The frame construction reminds me of Wuthering Heights. We get to know the heroine, Helen Graham, through the narrator’s intense letters to a friend, and then through the diary she gives him to read, and then back to his letter. Helen, who says she is a widow, is actually one of the first “battered women” in literature: she has escaped from her violent husband and lives in a secluded house with her four-year-old son, supporting herself by art. And she is so passionate and wedded to her isolation that she reminds me very slightly of a female Heathcliff.
So it’s worth it to reread all the Brontes again and again!
Do you feel it’s necessary to read every book by a favorite author?