In defense of unsentimentality

Hello everyone! I’m Anna Hurley, most commonly known as “Matthew’s sister.” I just recently joined this blog, and, being rather technologically impaired, I’ll leave the tech part to other writers and stick with stuff I understand. Without intending to be typical girl here my first post is actually about Jane Austen…I know…surprise! But it may be a bit different take than you might expect so bear me out.

Thoughts on this subject have been mulling around for some while in the deep recesses of my brain, but they really came to a head this weekend. I was up in Moscow visiting my brother hanging out in Bucer’s (of course) and I got in to a discussion with Matthew’s roommate, friend, and Austen-lover Isaac Madsen. Through the course of the discussion he pointed out how much he disliked authors like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, but loved Jane Austen. Perhaps his reasons for disliking them are different than mine, but I know that I have always enjoyed Austen better as well. (I don’t as strongly dislike Dickens though, and I actually enjoy Gaskell). In my opinion, the greatest difference is one of flavor.

Dickens and Gaskell (to a lesser degree) flavor their works with tragedy, sorrow, pain, suffering, despair and overall bleakness. Austen, while tinting her pieces with hints of grief, really has a much more positive and upbeat view of life to the point of possibly bordering on the sentimental. Sentimentalism is something which I have come to strongly dislike. Whether it be manifested in the flowery artwork of Thomas Kinkade or the cheesy WWJD bracelets I just can’t stand it.

Here, I think is Austen’s pitfall. She tends to write in a rather fanciful style. Pleasant, enjoyable, romantic, sweet? Yes. Realistic? Not so much. I do not mean to discredit her as a writer and I fully admit to being a Jane Austen fan. BUT, I can get too much of her. I can overdose on her dream-like fairy tales. When the characters have to face no worse tragedy than being uninvited to a ball, being snubbed by the prideful rich, being forced to endure the ridiculous proposals of men they do not love…what is there to relate to? Granted there are occasionally real difficulties to overcome, but nonetheless, one cannot help feeling there is something lacking to her “reality.” Every once in a while, one can enjoy getting away from the mundane routines of life, forget the petty trials of the day and immerse oneself in the romantic world of Jane Austen, but it is not without fault (despite what Isaac may say).

However, back to the original subject: why is Austen better than Charles Dickens? Dickens tends to fall into the other ditch…and not just a little bit. He plunges whole-heartedly, almost gleefully into misery and despair. He delights to portray the lowest strata of life in their worst garments. He paints characters in such bleakness and sorrow as to destroy any fanciful notion of hope remaining in his poor reader. Is this just? To be sure, the world is a fallen place and it has it’s share of tragedy, sin and darkness, but such despairing and tragic stories are not what I consider pleasure reading. I will admit to Dickens having his moments of light, just as Austen had her flashes of reality. I can honestly say that I enjoy “A Christmas Carol” and some parts of his other works, but on the whole, one cannot help feeling oppressed and depressed by the gloom which characterizes the greater part of his books.

All this to say, Austen is a phenomenal writer, but with a tendency to slight sentimentalism, which in too large a dose can be overbearing. Dickens, probably a good enough writer in his own way, is too much gloom, depression and darkness to be seriously healthy reading. So, is there a middle ground?

In my own opinion, Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is an excellent example of reality mixed with romanticism, despair and tragedy mingled with hope, goodness and beauty. Elizabeth Gaskell is far nearer this medium than Dickens, especially in her excellent book Wives and Daughters. Austen is only slightly misplaced and there are many other authors who strike a good balance.

The purpose of this post is not to tell you not to read certain books or to read other ones, but really, my point is that to be a really good work of art (in any sense of the word; book, painting, etc) there must be an expression of sadness, sin and evil…otherwise the observer has nothing to relate to. But there must also be an element of hope and redemption which Dickens missed in so much of his work. This is necessary to the good piece of art work, because it tells our story to us. It does not deny sin and suffering, but declares to a fallen world that there is hope. Even a picture or a book with no intentional Christian message, by portraying this dichotomy of sin and redemption, paints the gospel story with more clarity than a Precious Moments “love your neighbor” scene or a plastic Jesus nightlight.

Hope you liked it. If so, maybe share it, comment, or link. Many thanks.

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