This is a long, long book, and the first in a series, though I understand that they mostly stand alone so you don't really have to read them in order. It centers around three women: one married, one single, and one widowed, and for each of them, the central question is the same - do I go with Mr. Dull and Dependable or do I go with Mr. Good Looks Who Will Spend All My Money and Ruin Me?
It might have been a more exciting book if Trollope was a more radical author, but I'm not spoiling too much to say that Trollope was actually a very conservative author. Everyone ultimately Does the Right Thing in a very Victorian way, but not before flirting with impropriety enough to raise the question asked by the title: Can You Forgive Her?
Besides jilted suitors and gentleman wastrels, there is a bit of Parliamentary politics in this book which I believe assumes greater importance in the future volumes.
Anthony Trollope had the gift of narrative and character development, so if your only exposure to Victorian social drama is Charles Dickens, then give Trollope a try. That said, I would probably start with The Way We Live Now, which I thought was a better book with a more engaging story.
Simon Vance is one of my favorite audiobook readers, and he delivers great Victorian performances equally well with his readings of James Bond novels.
An easy test of whether you'll like this book is whether you like Gaskell's contemporaries: George Eliot and Charles Dickens are the most obvious, though the plot borrows a bit of Jane Eyre and a bit of Pride and Prejudice. Gaskell writes closer to Eliot's style, but with a bit of Dickens's social consciousness. In the end, North and South ends up a romance, but the romantic obstacle course navigated by the romantic leads is not the most compelling element.
North and South features as the protagonist 19-year-old Margaret Hale, whose father, upon having a crisis of conscience, quits his job as a country parson in idyllic southern England and moves his wife and daughter north to the industrial cotton-mill town of Milton. To say Margaret and her mother don't like their new home is an understatement — they hate it, and Margaret is certainly not enamored of the wealthy industrialist Mr. Thornton, who, undaunted by either her mannerly disdain or his mother's cold mercenary disapproval, is struck with love at first sight. (I felt this was one of the weakest parts of the book, as it's never explained just what made this prissy southern girl so irresistible to him.) He then spends the rest of the novel being in love with her despite resigning himself to not having a chance with her, and Margaret spends the rest of the novel denying that she feels anything but disdain for him, while constantly worrying about what he thinks of her.
This thread winds it way through much more compelling and illustrative social dramas: workers' strikes and grinding poverty, the bustling but harrowing rise of English industry that made many people rich and many more people soot-covered beggars. Here, Gaskell stays more refined and less comical than Dickens; her poor are not grotesque caricatures, but hard and not always sympathetic people.
Margaret is a well-educated country girl, and her mother is a typical upper-class housewife. The Hales aren't used to these northerners who speak bluntly, tell you exactly what they think of you, ask personal questions, and talk openly about money.
Mostly we see Milton and its northern ways through Margaret's eyes, and Gaskell invokes some of the social issues of the time, as when a poor family Margaret befriends gets caught up in a millworkers' strike. At first, Mr. Thornton seems like your basic hard-hearted capitalist oppressing his workers, but Gaskell slowly draws out more nuanced arguments: Thornton is a hard, proud, mercenary man, but he's upright and honorable and he's earned his fortune the hard way. And the millworkers, while legitimately oppressed, are not exactly angels and they believe some really stupid things. The tone swings back and forth between pro-capitalist parochialism and a more humanitarian saga; Gaskell writes about economics and class warfare more convincingly than most of her peers. She doesn't have Dickens's sharp edge, but she isn't writing social satire.
Honestly, I could have done without the obligatory Jane Eyre-ish happy ending altogether. And Margaret Hale, while she certainly has a voice and a personality, was a little too simpering at times (though not as bad as Fanny Price). I thought the social issues and the secondary characters were more interesting than the Lovestruck Capitalist and the almost-perfect protagonist. This was a fine novel - I'm only dinging it a star because Gaskell's writing didn't quite stand out enough to distinguish it from all the other books I've been comparing it to.
Juliet Stevenson, who does many of these classic British novels, was fantastic in this one. She handled the male characters as adeptly as the females, and her accents were perfect: she spoke with the northern burr of the Milton characters, and the southern country accent of the Hales, making the different parts of England distinct.
Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray tends to be classified as "horror" because the underlying premise is indeed one of supernatural horror: a dissolute young man is blessed/cursed with eternal youth, thanks to a portrait painted by an artist friend of his which reflects all the sins and depravities of his debauched life. As Dorian Gray stays young and beautiful, his portrait becomes more and more ghastly, until the karmic climax.
Nonetheless, if you actually read the novel, the "horror" aspects, particularly the supernatural parts, are understated. Dorian Gray, who begins as a rather callow but not evil youth, falls under the cynical influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a professional member of the do-nothing aristocratic class. When the painter Basil Hallward captures Dorian's Adonis-like perfection on canvas, Dorian is overcome with the tragedy of his own face growing old and wrinkled while the painting will always capture him as he was, young and perfect. He wishes it could be the reverse, and gets his wish.
Unlike in the movie versions, there is no magical Egyptian cat-god or explicit deal with the Devil that makes this happen — for Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray's selling of his soul was entirely metaphorical. He was apparently satirizing the Aesthetic Movement (though he was himself one of its more prominent representatives) which can best be summarized as "Art for Art's Sake." It was associated with decadence and disregard for social and moral judgments; Dorian Gray was a literal manifestation of the Aesthetic ideal: he sold his soul for Art (or rather, a piece of art).
Dorian becomes increasingly heartless after his cruel treatment of Sylvia Vane, whom he loved for her art but then jilted when she let him down artistically. After a brief attempt at redemption, he becomes one of the most notorious men in London, though notably, the precise nature of his many evil deeds is never described, leaving it all up to the reader's lascivious imagination. He ruins lives and destroys everyone close to him, yet still manages to keep a few close friends like Lord Henry and Basil.
(I definitely picked up some homoerotic vibes between Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil, which is interesting since apparently Wilde had to cut out some of the more overt homoeroticism when it went from serialization in a magazine to publication as a novel.)
So, read as a horror novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray is kind of lightweight — it's definitely not "scary" — and as a satire/criticism of the Aesthetic Movement, it is not terribly subtle. However, Oscar Wilde was most famous for his bon mots, and reading Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil exchange wry witticisms is the real pleasure of the novel, even if none of them talk like actual people having real conversations. This book could be mined for quotable lines on every page, and as a story of a man falling headfirst into Faustian temptation, it definitely has its literary moments. It is not perfect (it's awfully convenient how often Dorian escapes judgment by someone else's timely death, and the prose is a bit turgidly Victorian), but it's a solid 4 star book. Definitely worth reading for the one-liners and for absorbing a very readable literary classic.