I'm just about to start rereading Gaskell's last, unfinished novel, Wives and Daughters (Penguin Classics), and so last night started the Introduction in my Penguin Classics version by Pam Norris. In this Introduction, Norris presents a completely wonderful idea that delineates W&D from Middlemarch, another one of my favorite novels.
Both novels turn on what Norris terms "ironic reversals." For example, in W&D "Osborne Hamley's plan to reconcile his father to his secret marriage is, in the event, effected by his untimely death, not by literary immortaility as he had dreamed. This ironic reversal is deeply sad, but on the whole the persistent upsetting of human scheming imbues the novel with an optimistic spirit of comic regeneration...This makes a striking contrast to George Eliot's Middlemarch, in which the determining minutiae of social mischances imperceptibly bear down with tragic force upon human hopes and aspirations. In Wives and Daughters many seemingly arbitrary circumstances form the chain of cause and effect that lead Mr Gibson into his ill-judged proposal, but the resulting marriage is represented by Gaskell in a predominantly comic light of human fraility, compromise and self-deceptions. The result is survival not destruction."
Many lovers of Austen's novels have found another author to love in Gaskell, particularly W&D, which many say is closest to Austen. And in this aspect of ironic reversals leading to a comedic world view rather than a tragic one, I have to wonder whether this might be the nugget in Gaskell that grabs Janeites and holds them fast.