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August 21, 2003

The Pride and Prejudice of the Mayor of Casterbridge

This weekend was a good one. A&E played both Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice and Thomas Hardyís The Mayor of Casterbridge. Neither had any car chases, or even horseback or carriage chases. There were no gunshots or explosions, no swordfights. Everyone, protagonists and antagonists alike, had English accents. The closest thing to nudity was Darcy without his jacket after a dip in the lake in Prejudice, and one of the Mayorís workers in his underwear (when he woke up late and was made to get to work dressed as he was). Neither can in any way be called an action flick. Yet both were more engrossing than most films.

Both follow their parent works fairly well, considering the limitations of time and the conversion in medium. The productions values were high. But it is the plot and the characters that make the works.

Had I a choice I would have reversed the order. Hardy is dark; Austen is light. It would have been nice to come off the weekend on a lighter note than Hardyís bitter pessimism. Still, he always has a somber beauty that grips the throat.

I came to both authors late. I read Hardyís poems first, some time ago, but it wasnít until I went back for my degree that I read any of his novels. My Victorian lit class, taught by the prof who later agreed to be my advisor on my honors thesis, had us reading Dickens, among other things. I had read only A Christmas Carol to that point, and I so enjoyed Hard Times that I decided to read them all. Professor Schmidt was amused, when I told him my intention. A quarter later he was stunned when I stopped by and told him I was done. Well, all but for the last, unfinished one. That one I have avoided for some odd purist impulse.

Itís hard to pick a favorite Dickens. Little Dorrit is high on the list. That one is more tragic than most. Bleak House. But looking over the list I find it hard to rule out any. Pickwick Papers holds a dear spot because of Sam. Thatís one thing that makes Dickens stand out from Austen and Hardy: he creates unique and uniquely memorable characters. They can live outside the works. Austen and Hardy create more organic works, where the characters and story are tightly coupled. I donít think of characters, I think of books. With Dickens I think of characters and then try to remember which book they are in.

Reading the Dickens out of that quarter touched off an interest in the fiction of the period, so I went on to Hardy. Jude the Obscure is, to date, my favorite. I think Jude reaches me for the protagonistís struggle with art. Thatís a theme that I find compelling no matter who is the author.

But I can read, at most, one Hardy novel at a time. I tried reading two in a row; didnít work. Itís just too hard to read in all that darkness. I still havenít read them all. While I canít say I donít become engrossed, and that his mastery of prose isnít amazing, itís hard to actually say that I enjoy the Hardy novels. ďIt hurts so good,Ē is reasonably accurate. For all that the hurt is good, thereís still only so much hurt I want.

I donít know how I managed to dodge Jane Austen all those years. I guess we didnít have any on the shelf in the Amazon, and when I was back in the States there was always so much else to read. I canít claim prejudice against female writers; I read everything I could lay my hands on when young. That included some Ďromancesí (as opposed to romances such as those Cervantes parodied). So Jane must simply not have been available. Iíve since learned sheís one of Momís favorites too, so itís amazing I didnít stumble across at least one of her books.

It was when reading criticism that I realized I had a significant gap in my reading. Austen kept coming up. So I finally hit the used book store (always a sure place to get classics cheap) and grabbed Pride and Prejudice. Wow. I read Emma while my hardback set was on order. Sheís due for a rereading.

Austen is lighter in mood than the other two. For all Dickens comic antics, he can be pretty dark too. The aptly named Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Tale of Two Cities all fit this category. Austenís protagonists see some dark moments, the evening sky may red up in scary fashion, but they win through to a promising dawn, something nonexistent in Hardy. All Hardyís mornings are full of red skies.

Comedy and tragedy, Austen and Hardy: their masks face in opposite directions. Combined they are the writers that are to the 19th century what Shakespeare is to the 17th. Then thereís Dickens. Where Austen and Hardy have strong main characters, itís in the secondary characters, the supporting roles, that Dickens shines. That is the trait he shares with Shakespeare more than any other: Dickenís supporting characters can steal whole scenes from the stars. And they usually do it by making us laugh, often through the masterful use of dialect, so we recover, or are prepared for, the pain that is behind the curtain.

Posted by dan at August 21, 2003 02:08 PM
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