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Home: The Toast

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 10.46.02 AMNo, I know, I KNOW, we said no more Harry Potter this year, but I forgot that I had accepted this ages ago, and I think you will enjoy it very much. And imagine the joy you’ll get from vociferously disagreeing with their choices in the comments!

Jane Austen 

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(Sorry – how many bedrooms did you say it has?!)

We’re starting off with a softball here – Jane, beloved Jane, is an easy choice. Her novels, occasionally dismissed by illiterate ninnyhammers as romances, are ultimately about the triumph of reason and order over flightiness, sentimentality, and impecunity. Her archly observant style, her mathematically precise sentences, her evident delight in a wry, cutting comment (“It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves“) — these things speak volumes. We’re talking about a novelist who openly mocks her heroine’s Gothic-novel addled naivete (Northanger Abbey), who saddles another capricious protagonist with an ancient naval colonel to keep her in check (Sense and Sensibility), and whose most familiar heroine famously falls in love only after seeing her suitor’s sweet-ass estate (Pride and Prejudice.) And if you will let me indulge in a little biographical criticism for a moment: Austen’s most impressive stylistic innovation is free indirect discourse, which is a structure all about peeking inside people’s heads and then getting to be the All Knowing, All Seeing Puppetmistress.

Verdict: Ravenclaw

Charlotte, Emily, and Anne (Poor Anne) Bronte

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Charlotte Bronte: I mean. Are you joking. Like it’s even a question. We’ve all read Jane Eyre.

Verdict: Gryffindor

Emily Bronte: My first thought was Gryffindor because: hot-headed. Absolutist. Stubborn, oh god, so stubborn. But everyone– absolutely every single last character!– in Wuthering Heights is a monster. And not Gryffindorrish monsters like Harry Potter, who have at least some notion of moral righteousness that they ultimately warp or discard while casting Crucio curses on their innocent classmates. Like selfish, nihilist monsters who inflict pain on everyone around them because they cannot be bothered to do otherwise. Beyond her work, little is known of Emily, for she died so young and knew so few people. In her preface to Wuthering Heights‘ second printing, Charlotte attempted to hold Emily’s character separate from the book’s “horror of great darkness,” stating that Emily “having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done” and claiming that “had [Emily] but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree, loftier, straighter, wider-spreading, and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom.”

But reading these words, I can’t help but agree with Anne Carson’s observation (from her flawless poem “The Glass Essay”) that “Charlotte’s preface to Wuthering Heights is a publicist’s masterpiece. / Like someone carefully not looking at a scorpion/ crouched on the arm of the sofa.” Read between the lines of this preface, and an image of Emily emerges that is so Tom Riddle I could just die: a “nursling of the moors,” with an imagination “more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive,” consumed by collecting the “tragic and terrible traits” of her neighbors’ lives, but speaking to no one, crafting “vivid and fearful scenes” which “banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day.” No matter how hard Charlotte tries, it’s simply impossible to deny this plain fact: Heathcliff and Cathy could never have come from the warm heart of a Hufflepuff, the logic of a Ravenclaw, or the just mind of a Gryffindor.

Verdict: Slytherin

Anne (Poor Anne) Bronte: Poor Anne. Toiling forever in her tempestuous sisters’ shadows. Hardworking, scarcely noticed, staunchly unconvinced that any man who could keep a mad wife locked in his attic would ever be worth anyone’s time. Writing poems with lines like this:

Oh, I have known a wondrous joy
In early friendship’s pure delight,
A genial bliss that could not cloy
My sun by day, my moon by night.

“Self-Communion” by Anne Brontë (1820-1849)

Can there be any real question?

Verdict: Hufflepuff.

Charles Dickens

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(Sorry, Oliver Twist. You are highly symbolic, but do not get to be an actual person.)

“Oh, Charles Dickens? You mean the most famous social activist author of probably all time? The infamous puller of heart-strings? With all the starving orphans and broad-shoulder heroes? He is practically Godric Gryffindor’s right hand man.”

So you might assume. But have you ever looked at one of Charles Dickens’ plot outlines? Peppered throughout, you would not find thoughtful notes on how best to develop, say, the distinct character of Jo, the tiny orphan crossing-sweep from Bleak House. No. What you’ll find is Dickens’ consuming preoccupation with when Jo should die for maximum narrative effect. This is not the behavior of an author alive to the worth of every living human, but to the worth every person can have towards furthering his career if killed off at just the right moment. (The notes move from “Jo -… pointing hand of allegory”, to “Jo? Yes. Kill him.”) Poor people were only plot points to him and it shows.

As for how his social activism is depicted in his books, I don’t think I can put it any better than Philanthropy Daily, a conservative website for aspiring oligarchs:

“Dickens describes a comfortable philanthropy in which the rich can retain their status so long as they generously share their wealth…” In other words: Are you a wealthy middle-aged man looking to sponsor an attractive young ward? Bully for you! Here’s hoping she marries you someday! Are you a middle-aged wife and mother who has the temerity to concern herself with the plight of starving African people? ISN’T THERE SOME HOUSEWORK YOU SHOULD BE DOING?

And finally, no thorough account of Dickens is complete without a glance at his obsessive side-career as a performer of his own works, something he loved perfecting until he could drive his massive audiences into hysterical frenzies. Of particular note (or rather, concern) was Dickens’ monomaniacal focus on the Sikes and Nancy murder scene from Oliver Twist, which he absolutely delighted in reading aloud. In a letter, Dickens described the experience of reading the gruesome scene: “…there was a fixed expression of horror of me, all over the theatre, which could not have been surpassed if I had been going to be hanged to that red velvet table. It is quite a new sensation to be execrated with that unanimity; and I hope it will remain so!”

In short: Don’t be taken in by his Gryffindor drag. Charles looked out for #1. And was weirdly into playacting murder scenes.

Verdict: Straight-up Slytherin

Wilkie Collins

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It would be easy to cast Collins as a Slytherin groupie a la Crabbe and Goyle. He was the kind of guy who clung to Dickens’ coattails as the most efficient and effective way to gain literary success. But unlike Dickens, Collins was not out there screaming about his success to the world; he was inside, writing letters to his mother, eating jam tarts with his tiny child-sized hands and doing tons and tons of opium. Collins worked hard, but he was paranoid and sickly and literally terrified of his own shadow (in the form of a doppelganger he named “Ghost Wilkie.”) He was also so bonkers that he could write a novel called Armadale featuring not one but four characters named Allan Armadale. The characters in his novels who make it out alive tend to be sensitive, loyal types who’ve been put in terrible circumstances through no fault of their own, and the villains are all grasping, greedy, maniacal charlatans with names like Count Fosco (Woman in White.)

Verdict: Hufflepuff

Elizabeth Gaskell

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(Shocked – just shocked – at the state of the working conditions in this cotton mill.)

Mrs. Gaskell is initially a solid contender for Hufflepuff on the strength of her cozy pastoral novels Wives and Daughters and Cranford, where no one is evil and no one is cruel. They are just people being funny or getting into trouble because they are very focused on their needs and don’t understand anyone else. She manages to generate sympathy (not much– but some!) for a man who attempts to blackmail a girl into marrying him by threatening to publish private letters in which said girl wrote him when she was 16. THAT is some Hufflepuff kindness right there. PLUS she willingly published under the name “Mrs. Gaskell” for her entire lifetime, which is the Hufflepuffiest way to Victorian lady author. “No male pseudonyms for me, thanks– I don’t even need a first name! Just call me Mrs. Because, above all things, I am a wife and mother.”

But then, dear friends, but then. I remembered Margaret Hale. A character so canon Gryffinfor that I will never again be able to imagine her without eight S.P.E.W. buttons pinned to the front of the pointedly plain frock she’s surely wearing. The character whose life story (child of a dissenting minister, banished from the rural south, shocked and adrift in the callous industrial north, befriending labor firebrands left, alienating wealthy mill owners right) closely parallels Gaskell’s own and suddenly only one answer seemed reasonable.

Verdict: Gryffindor

Anthony Trollope

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Trollope’s genius was in his reliability, his steady and apparently boundless ability to churn out novel after novel, and the quality of his work, which is simultaneously human and unassuming. Trollope sweated the small stuff. Time after time, his characters are stuck in some impossible social morass that they cannot escape but which started just because someone owed someone else a little bit of money (Framley Parsonage, and really most Trollope novels), or got an undeserved promotion (Barchester Towers), or wrote a slightly unkind anonymous piece about someone else in the newspaper (The Warden.) No one clutches poorly secured gutters while dangling from rooftops in Trollope. No orphans moan piteously as they whisper their true mother’s name with their last breath. And unlike some other guys we know, who tended to fly by the seats of their pants while constructing things slapdash for serial publication (*cough* DICKENS *cough*), Trollope wrote almost everything beforehand by following a strict personal timetable and often writing while riding the train. Once he became successful, Trollope claimed to be interested in all sorts of big achievements – “to sit in the British Parliament should be the highest object of ambition to every educated Englishman” – but look at the construction of that phrase. It “should” be. But was it, really? Wouldn’t it be better to just go hunting three times a week?

Verdict: Hufflepuff

George Eliot

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Dear reader, you might think Eliot would be a shoe-in for Gryffindor, but you would be wrong. Oh sure, she ran off to Europe to live with her married lover because he wasn’t allowed to divorce his wife, and she writes with such indignation about social injustice and the plight of… unmarried pregnant women (Adam Bede), women in loveless marriages (MiddlemarchDaniel Deronda), the Jews (Daniel Deronda) – take your pick. These are the kinds of grand gestures that would seem to have Gryffindor written all over them. But the dominant quality of George Eliot’s prose is her unshrinking, unstinting observation of human character, shaped by a style that is unbelievably balanced, precise and gloriously meticulous. This is an author, after all, who breaks off from the momentum of her storytelling to deliver an entire masterful chapter on the art of the novel, comparing her work to that of a surgeon and a Dutch painter. (“The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing a griffin – the longer the claws, and the larger the wings, better; but that marvelous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to forsake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion.”) And let’s further consider her relationship with George Henry Lewes: a real Gryffindor would’ve stuck it out in England doing a whole foolhardy campaign to change the divorce laws and generally making a stink about things. Eliot and Lewes chose instead to opt out of that whole social system, maintaining contact where possible without letting it consume their work or daily lives.

Finally, I give you the nail in Eliot’s Sorting coffin: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. “To judge from their writings, there are certain ladies who think that an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions. Apparently, their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this: Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.”

Verdict: Ravenclaw

Thomas Hardy

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In Gryffindor Tower, far from the warmth and laughter of the common room, there is a dark and dour corner where a select few gather. They are men of morals, men of character, men with too-full hearts in a too-cruel world. Men who burn with anger so brightly and so briefly, only to fade into ash forevermore. These men are the Saddest Gryffindors. Thomas Hardy sits among them, a group that includes David Foster Wallace, Vincent Van Gogh, and Charlie Brown, discussing the myriad ways this world can let you down; a sad dude among sad, sad dudes. And don’t you ever try to tell me otherwise.

Verdict: Gryffindor

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Margaret is a librarian, Kathryn is trying to do the whole academic thing. They score almost exactly opposite on personality quizzes, but it works for them. You can find them at @mrsfridaynext and https://twitter.com/kvanaren">@kvanaren.

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