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And oh, what a mercy it is that these women do not exercise their powers oftener! We can’t resist them, if they do. Let them show ever so little inclination, and men go down on their knees at once: old or ugly, it is all the same. And this I set down as a positive truth. A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry WHOM SHE LIKES. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did.

I like to post at least once a week, but to be honest, I’m only 100 pages into Vanity Fair.  Which means I’m only about 1/8 of the way through – the length of many 19th century novels is part of the fun and part of the challenge!

For one reason or another, I’ve found myself discussing 19th-century English literature a lot recently. Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, Trollope, Thackeray…

I enjoy them all for different reasons, and I think a lot of the difference has to do with the distinctive tones of the authors.

Dickens is the impassioned social activist, bluntly depicting the miseries of poverty and the inadequacies of bureaucracy in the middle of the 19th century. That said, his characters tend to be stock character types, as if taken from the traveling theatricals depicted in Nicholas Nickleby. To some extent, these stock types are the source of his humor and pathos, but it also explains the remarkable two-dimensionality of many of his female characters.

Austen, who’s chronologically the earliest of the group I’ve named, is quintessential romantic comedy. Her writing style is still heavily influenced by the 18th century, which is most evident in some of the stilted phrasing in my favorite of her works, Sense and Sensibility.

Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, is somewhere in between him and Austen in her style. Many of her novels deal with the impact of the new industrial world upon rural England, such as the introduction of railroads in Cranford and the reaction of country-bred Margaret to the cotton mills of northern England in North and South. Her tone is less impassioned than Dickens’, and takes the role of observer and recorder more than that of activist.

If Dickens is the impassioned social activist, Trollope is the inside-the-Beltway gossip columnist. His novels about politics and the political world of London in the second half of the 19th century are funny, wryly observant of human nature, and can be easily imagined as read in that posh London drawl that sometimes borders on speech impediment.  His characters, especially the women, are startlingly realistic. Laura Kennedy’s ambitious marriage and self-destructive love for Phineas Finn, Glencora Palliser’s struggle to choose duty and honor over love, Alice Vavasor’s difficulties in knowing her own mind and heart, and Marie Goesler’s self-sacrifice and deep-seated desire to love and be loved, are all situations that crop up all the time in the 19th century as well as the 21st. They are real women, prone to faults and mistakes as well as well-intentioned efforts, deep love, and extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Thackeray is an author I’m still getting to know. At 100 pages into Vanity Fair, he already comes across as far more cynical than any I’ve encountered up until now. Trollope may seem cynical at first glance, but he’s more prone to straight-faced explanations than true cynicism. In Becky Sharp, Thackeray has created an unabashedly self-serving and consciously manipulative anti-heroine. She digs her nails into every rung of every ladder she can find and hauls herself up, inch by inch. She flatters and simpers and pretends to whatever emotion is needed in order to do so. She performs demeaning tasks, gossips, flirts, and aims for advancement through marriage and connections. Anything to get ahead.

I’ve still got a long way to travel with Miss Sharp. I look forward to seeing where she’ll take me.