Mighty opposites

Dickensians amongst us have been celebrating the bicentenary. Some Dickens-sceptics have tried from time to time to be party-poopers, but they have been politely told to piss off.  And quite right too.

Personally, I rather like these anniversaries. Why pass over an excuse to celebrate the works of a writer I love? But while I have already been celebrating Dickens (I re-read Our Mutual Friend), I was considering also having another go this year at the author whose aesthetic values are so diametrically opposed to those of Dickens, that she could justly be described as his antithesis: Jane Austen.

I have long held a theory that each reader leans either towards Austen or towards Dickens, and no-one can love both equally. True, I know of at least two people who claim to love them both equally, and I believe them; however, I see no reason why facts should get in the way of a good theory. These two novelists – the greatest English novelists, according to Edmund Wilson, and I am certainly not going to pick a fight with him on that – split everything between them.  

I am firmly on the Dickensian side of the fence (as, I note to my delight, was Vladimir Nabokov, if his idiosyncratic Lectures on Literature is anything to go by). But, instead of sensibly saying that I am temperamentally not suited to Austen and leaving it at that, I have, I fear, said some very rude and intemperate (and frankly very foolish) things about her in the past; indeed, it is only the transient nature of internet posts that saves my appearing a complete idiot.

Feeling there was obviously something in Austen’s novels that I was missing, and being a type that doesn’t like the idea of missing things, I read through Austen’s novels a good five or six years ago. True, I wasn’t converted, but I did get some inkling, at least, of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on; and I find them now, rather unexpectedly, resonating in my mind. In other words, they have left behind an aftertaste. The time now is right for a revisit.

There are many other cases, I think, of writers who are so completely opposite to each other in terms of their literary and aesthetic values that a study in comparison can throw light on both. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, for instance, come very obviously to mind, as do, I think, Donne and Milton, or Ibsen and Chekhov. And, moving away from literature, another pair of mighty opposites suggest themselves: Verdi and Wagner. This pairing is one I think we’ll be hearing much about next year, as it happens, very conveniently, to be the bicentenary of both. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at them.

I know I am not qualified to write posts either on Verdi or on Wagner, but lack of qualification has never stopped me before. And in any case, I love Verdi.

Yes, I know, I know, that’s dispraise by omission… But it’s not that I don’t like Wagner: I do. But I don’t like liking Wagner, if you see what I mean. It’s nothing to do with his odious anti-Semitism, deeply unpleasant though that is: it is more to do with the very feature of his works that so entrances his admirers – the ability his music has of completely enveloping the listener, of making the listener forget the passage of time … to forget everything other than that blasted music. I know Wagner’s music can have this effect because I have experienced it myself. Many times. But whether I enjoy experiencing this sort of thing is another matter.

However, it’s still over ten months before the double bicentenary, so I’ll have plenty of time to think out my responses to these two undeniable giants. I think I already know what I’ll be saying about Verdi. As for t’other one, our teenage lad – already a Wagnerian, poor thing – has still to convince me. And who knows? – I may still be convinced. Why listen to music at all – or read books – if one is not prepared to expand one’s tastes?

10 responses to this post.

  1. The world of c10th Heian Japanese novels is dominated by the two entire opposites, Murasaki Shikibu (conventional) and Sei Shonogon (avant-garde) – though, to be honest, anything from Heian Japan seems fairly avant-garde, it was such a strange place. What’s more, they disliked each other too. – I should hopefully be getting around to reading them this year (I’ve started on the Shonogon – a bit like Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but better – and with less disquiet).


    • 10th century Japanes novels … ah, you’re going way beyond my field of knowledge on that one! There’s far too much to read … There’s no end to my ignorance…

      I’d be interested in your comments on this literature.


      • Posted by Di on January 19, 2021 at 1:50 pm

        I’m aware that I’m responding to these comments years later, but I only read The Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book last year and wouldn’t say that Murasaki’s conventional at all. She learnt from the romantic tales at the time and women’s personal diaries but from what I’ve read, there was a huge gap between Genji and everything that came before. Genji was built upon a very slight foundation and it’s very close to what we now call a psychological novel.
        Recently I’ve also read the 18th century Chinese novel Hong lou meng and it doesn’t even go as deep as Genji in terms of psychology.
        Also I often hear people say that Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon dislike each other but as far as I can see, Sei Shonagon never mentions Murasaki in The Pillow Book and we have nothing else written by her. It’s Murasaki who criticises Sei Shonagon in her diary.
        The main difference between them is temperament, or rather, Murasaki Shikibu’s mono no aware and Sei Shonagon’s okashi. Murasaki’s mono no aware influenced later writings and Japanese aesthetics even today, whereas Sei Shonagon’s okashi belonged to the Heian court alone.

  2. That’s exactly my worry about the upcoming Pessoa – too much disquiet.

    VN does all right with Austen in those lectures. As does Dickens – Mrs. Norris, from Mansfield Park, is a character written in a properly Dickensian spirit.

    And then there are all of Austen’s useless, absent, or even malicious fathers. Dickens apparently borrowed the theme from Austen. Or vice versa.


    • Glancing through the indexes (indices?) of various Dickens biographies, Austen doesn’t seem to feature very much. (The only bits of literary biographies I’m interested in is what books the subject of the biography read: for instance, I find it fascinating that Dickens was immersed in Wordsworth’s The Prelude when writing David Copperfield. But one may, I guess, find traces, as you suggest: the Wilfer family seems not too far removed from the Bennets (an impossibly stupid mother, a long-suffering father who is very close to one of his daughters, etc.) I think English writers of all shades always had a love of the eccentric and the grotesque!


  3. Obooki, Tom – i have to rush off now & will reply to you later, but I’ve just accidentally “liked” my own post, and have no idea how to “unlike” it again. Just thought I’d let you know, in case anyone thinks I’m a complete egomaniac…


  4. I can’t stand either. But if we’re talking about Austen and Dickens metaphorically, I’d say I lean more towards Dickens, even if I can’t stand his writing: crazy imagination, weird situations, humour, bigger-than-life characters; that’s my cup of tea.


    • Hello Miguel, if “crazy imagination, weird situations, humour, bigger-than-life characters” are your cup of tea, then I’d have thought Dickens would be right up your street! I really can’t think of any other writer who had quite so wild an imagination as Dickens.


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