"Select two classics from your list (by different authors) that you have finished reading. Now switch the authors, and contemplate how each might have written the other's book. For example, what if Charlotte Brontë had written David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens had written Jane Eyre? How might the style, focus and impact change in a work of literature by a different author's pen? What about William Shakespeare writing Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Austen writing The Taming of the Shrew? Etc. If you discuss the story, please of course remember to warn folks plot details are forthcoming."
Pride and Prejudice by Émile Zola.
In it, Zola tells the story of sisters Elizabeth and Jane Benné, distant cousins of Gervaise Coupeau (née Macquart, who we meet in L'Assommoir, 1877), who was the daughter of Antoine Macquart and Joséphine Gavaudan (who we meet in The Fortune of the Rougons, 1870). Elizabeth and Jane's father, Monsieur Benné was once a wealthy man, however his wife, Madame Benné (née Macquart) who is typical of the immoral and unruly Macquarts, ruined him. Driven by frustration and envy, she sought to outshine her wealthy (though equally immoral) cousins the Rougons, and she encouraged her husband to speculate what little he had on shipbuilding, and by luck and sheer bloody determination he was successful, however, as we learn at the start of the novel, driven to despair at his unhappy marriage and to pay his wife's debts, he eventually ruins himself and his family with alcoholism, and he relies on the marriages of these two sisters in order to pay his many debts. His wife is unsympathetic and infuriated: trapped in a loveless marriage, she endeavours to ruin Benné, even if it means ruining Elizabeth and Jane's only chance to escape. She plays the fool, however we quickly learn her intentions.
The book begins in a prison cell: Benné has once again been imprisoned and his wife (despite secretly sitting on a fortune made from silk-smuggling) tells him she is unable to pay for his release. His future bleakly staring him in the face, Madame Benné remarks, "We all know, my dear, there are rich men, married or not, in Paris more than willing to pay a great fortune for a young wife - let one of them have our Jane". And so it begins, Madame Benné guides Benné into laying the foundations of Jane's marriage to Monsieur Le Charles, a wealthy and attractive man who has made his fortune in constructing the recently erected Eiffel Tower (1887). He is a good man, but lacks the confidence and spark of his close friend and colleague Monsieur D'Arcy of Aquitaine (south west France), whose fortune appears to know no bounds. Madame Benné conspires with her younger daughter Lydia, a prostitute working on the streets of Paris, and she, Lydia, bribes Monsieur Le Charles, into meeting Jane. Madame Benné, unbeknown to Le Charles, then poisons Jane, and he insists upon her staying at his home and being attended to by his own doctor.
Elizabeth, Jane's closest sister, visits her sister daily. She is a sharp tongued, sarcastic, and violent young woman, who, sadly like her father, inherits his love of alcohol and gambling. She first meets D'Arcy in the home of Le Charles, her feet filthy and covered in cuts and bruises from walking barefoot through Paris. D'Arcy is disgusted, barely disguising his contempt for her as he shows her in to see her sister. Recognising this, Elizabeth decides to get her own back, and from that day she regularly outstays her welcome (also partly to avoid a debt collector, Monsieur Collin, nicknamed "the Rev." owing to his frequent quoting of the Bible, particularly "Vengeance is mine" as he collects his debts) and the two sisters lie in bed together dreaming of a better future even after Jane has long recovered (Le Charles, in his naivety, mistakes Jane's laudanum addiction for illness). Though, essentially, they are not likeable characters (both are foul-mouthed, and are constantly in trouble for theft and, in Elizabeth's case, violence) I couldn't help but warm to them. As with the other Rougon Macquart novels, a great deal of the emphasis is on heredity and environment. Both sisters were brought up in the filthiest part of Paris and their manipulative and scheming mother has clearly had a great impact on their characters. One cannot help but wonder how different their lives would have been if, for example, they had been brought up in the countryside, with a father who loved books instead of betting, and a mother who really was as simple-minded as she pretended to be.
But this is not Jane Austen, this is Émile Zola, and he crafts a dark and bleak tale in which he rails furiously against the injustice and hypocrisy of Second Empire France. Ultimately, we learn of D'Arcy's own laudanum addiction, and Le Charles eventually loses all of his money as a consequence of trying to save his friend from losing his family's fortune. In Elizabeth, D'Arcy sees himself, and, in her revenge for his prejudice, she does all she can to distress and provoke him. Driven mad, he falls in love with her and begs her to marry him, sobbing how unwillingly he loves and admires her, but she rejects him. Humiliated, he takes to walking the streets at night, and one night he fails to return; a week later his body is found in the Seine. Whether or not he killed himself is for the reader to decide. Meanwhile, left destitute and racked with guilt over the death (or suicide) of his friend, Le Charles leaves Paris for London and is never heard of again, though there are some vague hints that Le Charles too dies.
Elizabeth and Jane are therefore left unmarried, and because of their various schemes they are left undesirable and so are of no use to Madame Benné. Their fate is unknown (perhaps to be revealed in the final of Zola's Rougon Macquart novels, Doctor Pascal). The book ends almost like it began: Monsieur Benné is once again found in prison, but this time his wife refuses to see him. It is Lydia who he turns to, and final words in this disturbing and distressing scene are from Lydia, who reminds him that they still have two other sisters, Kitty and Mary, to save them.
It is one of Zola's bleakest tales, and also one of his angriest. He highlights the hypocrisy of Paris's pride in its two representatives, Le Charles and D'Arcy, who are, in the former's case, intensely naive, and in the latter's, deceptive and prejudiced. Neither are any better than the Bennés, despite their money and despite D'Arcy's pretensions. Although the actions of the sisters essentially lead to the ruin and death of these two men, they are, conversely, the victims of Paris and the Second Empire. They are left homeless, however their craftiness will ensure their safety. How life will turn out for Kitty and Mary, however, is also uncertain.
L'Assommoir by Jane Austen.
The title literally translates as "The Stunner" and refers to Austen's beautiful heroine Gervaise, who is born and brought up in the Hertfordshire countryside. Her father is Anthony MacBennet, a country gentleman who is kind and generous, though often distracted by his studies, and her mother whose fortune supports the family. The novel begins with Gervaise sitting at the window of the nursery with her younger siblings pining after the dashing Captain Lantier, who has gone to war. Though passionate, Gervaise is an intelligent and reasonable young woman, essentially embodying the Neo-Classical philosophical inclinations of the turn of the 19th Century. Though she suffers at his departure, she keeps her feelings hidden: not even her best friend, Mrs. Boche is aware of the strength of her love. When Gervaise learns of Captain Lantier's marriage to the high society Lady Adèle, she strives to forget him.
Gervaise is a wonderful creation - she is bright, lively, and sociable despite her upset. Her joie de vivre and her love of books, her friends, and her sisters, as well as her willingness to adapt to circumstances ensures her happiness. Through Mrs. Boche she meets Mr. Coupeau, an attractive, rich, and deeply intelligent man, and despite the many twists and turns along the way she marries him (the description of the wedding procession and reception in Bath alone is worth reading this novel!). They live happily together in Bath, and have a daughter (Anna).
It is, as I say, one of Austen's warmest books, very witty, and it does indeed sparkle, however it is not to be dismissed as "fluff". Like many of her novels, she explores social class and its impact on marriage. However well-meaning Captain Lantier is, he proves unsuitable and the reader is ultimately left relieved that they did not marry. Gervaise's willingness to change and adapt prove to be essential to her happiness, and I believe she was most suited to Mr. Coupeau, and I wonder how their marriage (and indeed their daughter) turned out...
So there it is! If Zola wrote Austen and Austen wrote Zola, how different would the world of literature be....?