February 7, 2012

A Comparison

I am a Jane Austen fan.

I always feel very typical and oh-so girlish when I make that confession; it's like saying that pink is my favorite color or that getting a new pair of shoes is a form of therapy (neither of which is true for me). Every girl seems to like Jane Austen. But I figure that the poor lady couldn't help that, and so, popular or not, I am a Jane Austen fan. Her novels are my comfort books. I read them when I'm feeling blue, and just seeing them on my shelf is cheery. Jane Austen and tea are synonymous for "comfort."

Elizabeth Gaskell, on the other hand, is a different matter. A contemporary of Dickens, writing in the mid-1800s when Britain was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, Gaskell dealt with much harsher subjects than Austen. She also seemed to have a thing with killing characters; I think it made her happy. So many people died in her novel North and South that I came out on the other side very blue indeed, and even the lighter Wives and Daughters had its share of gloom. Light and comfortable her novels are not, and neither are the movies based on her works, particularly the grand miniseries North & South.

Whence, then, the comparison between the two authoresses? Actually, I don't mean to compare them at all. It would be like comparing tea and black coffee; the differences are so vast, where would you even begin? No, I mean to compare two of their characters who are in some ways remarkably similar. If you know about Gaskell and Austen, you have probably guessed which ones I mean. And you would be right: I am going to be cliche for the second time in one post and compare

fitzwilliam darcy and john thornton

The former is more famous than the latter, as Austen is more famous than Gaskell. Fair enough, I suppose, since Austen proceeded Gaskell by about forty years. Yet their two heroes have similarities that stand out even at a glance: dark and brooding types with the same sort of unwilling attraction to the heroine. Each is his own character, however, and they deserve a good look to see where their comparisons end.

mr. darcy

It is impossible to stay that Mr. Darcy is cliche, because he really began the cliche of darkly handsome heroes who have passionate hearts under their arrogance. In addition to that, he has more depth than such a simple generalization could give him: as he says himself, he was given good principles and then left to follow them in pride and conceit; he is selfish and arrogant at his core, and over the course of the story these things change. Yet even early on, he has his good points. He is an affectionate brother to Georgianna and a good, albeit meddling, friend to Bingley, and I consider it proof of his self-control that he was able to show respect to his extremely annoying aunt. He also has his weaknesses, being in his own eyes "unqualified to recommend himself to strangers." (Apparently Georgianna didn't get all the shyness in the family.)

mr. thornton

John Thornton is a more complex character than Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thornton was practically born into hard circumstances: schooled by a stern mother after his father's suicide, put in the position of "man of the house" at an early age. To me, one of the most significant things about his character was the fact that he worked, not merely to provide for himself and his family, but to pay off his father's debts and start afresh. That right there is a mark of courage.

At a relatively early age, Thornton manages to start his own cotton mill - and with his father's history looming over him, he will fight to keep it running. He is certainly biased against the workers and whatever kindness he shows them is rather self-serving; it takes Margaret to change that, as it took Elizabeth to change Darcy. (That seems to be a necessary component of romance novels.)

Of these two, Mr. Darcy is perhaps the grander. His witty comebacks are a riot, and the way Elizabeth slights him and Wickham drags his name through the mud for half the novel is painful for me to read. Yes, Darcy is certainly a favorite. What would the world be without him and Elizabeth Bennet and Pride and Prejudice?

Yet, all in all, I believe that Mr. Thornton is the better man. Despite his faults, he speaks more to an ideal: he works hard, honors his mother, provides for his family, and in time also learns charity in his dealings with the mill workers. I do not mean to read into the novel more than Gaskell, a Unitarian, meant to be there; but I come away from the story seeing at least these biblical values in Thornton, and they are what make me consider him the better character. In a sense, he is more real than Mr. Darcy.

Both characters fit their stories. Pride and Prejudice is light, whimsical, jaunty, while North and South is more gritty and realistic, and the same goes for their heroes (although I wouldn't exactly call Darcy "jaunty"). Mr. Darcy would no more fit in Milton than Mr. Thornton would fit in Pemberley.

...but that would make for an interesting story.


  1. When I saw the beginning of this post, I was hoping it would be about Darcy vs. Thornton.

    As much as I still love Darcy, Thornton, as you said, seems to be the better man. My first exposure to Thornton's character (though I have since read the vast majority of the book...and really should take the time to finish it...) was in the BBC miniseries.

    Unlike Darcy, he did not strike me as arrogant or selfish at the beginning--though he certainly has his faults, his fiery temper being one of them.

    Perhaps that's why I still vehemently debate with my friends that Thornton is better than Darcy. ^.^

  2. Oooh, what a perfect post. I have grown up with A&E's "Pride and Prejudice" with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle (though I've seen several other versions) as well as North and South featuring Richard Armitage. As my friend Keaghan up there states, she loves Mr. Thornton - while I love him, too, I love Mr. Darcy more. Mr. Thornton has little to no sense of humor, while Darcy does, once you scrape off the hard shell to reveal the diamond. I vehemently debate with her that Darcy is better than Thornton =)
    (Though I must agree with you - Elizabeth Gaskell killed FAR too many characters! Watching Cranford I was just happy they didn't kill William Buxton; because then I would have been severely distressed!)
    ~ Mirriam

  3. i ♥ Darcy!!!

    But, I think I'll give North and South a try anyway.


    Oh, be still mine heart.

  4. This is an interesting comparison, having not watched/read either of the two, I wouldn't really know. However, from what I've heard, I think I'd like Mr. Thornton's character from North and South more... I always enjoy those in-depth characters who react and act in certain ways because of the good/ill of their past, and how those past events can shape their future choices and character. Also, I agree that Mr. Thorton seems to have a lot more biblical traits, which I think is really great. It was fun reading this, Abigail, thanks for sharing =D.

  5. I've never read North and South, so I can't really vote. Mr. Darcy always seems to be able to make me laugh, though!

  6. Keaghan - Like you, I watched the miniseries "North & South" before I read the book. I actually came out liking the miniseries more; at least there was one less death in it than there was in the book!

    Mirriam - A girl after my own heart: the Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle "Pride and Prejudice" all the way! I agree with you that Darcy has a better developed sense of humor; Thornton has one, but it is rough and rather morbid. (I think his authoress was morbid, too.) Thornton is also terrible at negotiating, as exemplified by the scene with the angry mob outside his house...

    Ashley - "North & South" is an excellent miniseries (not surprising, since it's BBC), but be sure you're in a good mood before you start. It can get rather bleak.

    Joy - Glad you liked it, and I hope this might inspire you to read the books! They are both very good, Pride and Prejudice in a light and cheery way, North and South in a much more Dickensian way. And, as I mentioned before, I think that reading both characters in their contexts shows how admirably they are suited to their respective stories.

    Jenna - The wit of Jane Austen, and Jane Austen's characters, is irreplaceable. I've read Pride and Prejudice multiple times now, and I still laugh at Mr. Darcy's lines. I think one of my favorite scenes is when Jane is convalescing at Netherfield and Lizzy is sitting in the drawing room with the others, listening to Miss Bingley run on about Darcy's writing. That part has some marvelous dialogue!

  7. Oh yes. Finally a post that puts Mr. Thornton where he belongs! I admit I had not thought to love him as I do when first I encountered him, but I do. He has his faults, oh yes, but he is all the more lovable for them. :)
    Oh, incIdentally, I got your interview up on my blog! Thanks!

  8. I always saw such similarities in characters, and hero&heroine relationships between P&P and N&S, myself. I even commented once, I think to Anna, that it seemed like Gaskell knocked off Austen to a certain extent.
    Have you noticed such same similarities in Wives&Daughters and Mansfield Park? (note: I have only seen the BBC series for W&D to count for my knowledge...I have the book, but it's in my "to read" pile, still.)
    I found quite a bit of similarity in the relationship triangle (and even some of the characters themselves) of Roger, Molly, and Cynthia in comparison with Edmund, Fanny, and Mary Crawford.
    What think you?

  9. Rachel - I'm glad you approve! Mr. Thornton and North and South deserve some limelight, I think; they're underappreciated. And thanks for letting me know about the interview! I had so much fun answering the questions.

    Rhoswen - Eh, well, there are only six plots in the world that have to be circulated among authors! But really, I do agree with you: there are marked similarities between Gaskell and Austen, at least in their romantic plots and subplots. Wives and Daughters really is remarkably close to Mansfield Park, more so than North and South is to Pride and Prejudice. Ah, well, they're both good stories, so we'll forgive Mrs. Gaskell if she happened to plagiarize!

  10. I have the exact same copy of Pride and Prejdudice as the one in that photo!! :D

  11. Do you? You just need an owl pendant to go with it! It looks like a beautiful copy. I'm a sucker for embossed covers like that.

  12. This is interesting, Abigail!

    Mr. Darcy, hmm. Colin Firth, hmm. Are they not one and the same?

    I've read Pride and Prejudice and seen nearly every TV or film version. Sadly, I didn't enjoy the book as much as the A&E. I do think that's sad. Austen did not show me enough of the world these wonderful characters inhabited. But I do love the story, and believe it is a work of comic genius, that being a true inevitable happy ending all around; with a judicious sprinkling of judgment -- take that, Mr Wickham, Lydia is yours...for life.

    About Mrs. Gaskell. All I've read is her bio of Charlotte Bronte, who is probably one of the most beautiful writers ever. Mrs. Gaskell implied or stated (it's been a while since I read the bio) a criticism of Charlotte because she married a Church of England clergyman. For some reason I find that hard to forgive (Lord, forgive me!). Charlotte had suffered so much, and it seems that she found a lovely happy ending herself, albeit brief.

  13. I tagged you in a post on my blog. Here's the link: http://theinkstainedparchment.blogspot.com/2012/02/tag-your-it.html

  14. Maria - Austen's style is based heavily on dialogue. That was something I had to get used to - and perhaps it did help that, having seen the A&E production, I already felt like I could "see" everything. However, I am of the opinion that, although Pride and Prejudice may still remain my favorite of Austen's novels, her style is not fully developed; her later novels show more of her skill.

    I haven't read Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Bronte. Gaskell was Unitarian, though, so that probably influenced her opinion of Charlotte's marriage. I think her religious views also show through in North and South, in which the main character's father, a clergyman, dissents from the basic tenets of the Church and abandons his parish. (That's a minor part of the story, though, being more background than anything else.)

    Gabrielle - Thanks! I enjoyed reading your answers.

  15. You're welcome, Abigail. I'm glad you enjoyed reading my answers. It was a lot of fun.

  16. I love to drink tea and read Jane Austen when I feel down too. I love her novels they always cheer me up (apart from Mansfield Park which I stopped reading half way through because I found it dull.) I love Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth is one of the best heroines ever written. She is feisty and witty but eventually falls in love with the proud and as it turns out, very rich and lovely Mr. Darcy.

    I first read Pride and Prejudice in my mid teens and like every girl in England, fell in love with Mr. Darcy. I am always delighted when Elizabeth and Darcy go to live at Pemberley and live happily ever after. I love the 1995 adaptation!

    North and South on the other hand, is very difficult for me to read as I have tried to do on three separate occasions without success. I find it hard to read and the plot is very bleak. I own the adaptation and I do like it but I prefer Jane Austen's novels and adaptations as I love her characters, wit and writing style. :)



meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
find me elsewhere
take my button


Follow by Email

published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

Bookmarks In...

Search This Blog