So here I am reading more Elizabeth Gaskell. Wives and Daughters, which is unfinished due to the death of the author (not in a metaphorical sense, she just died before she could finish it and also she had just bought a nice house to retire to with her overworked husband, which sounds hardly fair really).
The thing is that Gaskell makes gentle or not-so-gentle fun of many of her characters. Never as broadly as Jane Austen with, for example, Mrs Bennet. Gaskell's characters always have good and well-demonstrated reasons for being the way they are, for their good points and their faults and the ways they frequently grate upon each other's nerves. But unlike Austen, when you are reading about Gaskell's characters you can never be conveniently on the outside, pointing and laughing at the vulgarity of others. You cannot be Mr Bennet at all.
My overwhelming feeling when I am reading about Gaskell's characters is 'oh no, I hope I am not like that'. But fearing all the time that the vanity, pretension, selfishness and silliness are exactly what I am. I never, ever fear that I am like Lady Catherine or Mr Collins but I fear very much indeed that I am like Molly Gibson's selfish and manipulative step mother. I don't really know any other author who quite captures that fear and anxiety about self and uses it to propel the narrative along. The fear of doing wrong, and being seen to do wrong, is very strong in Gaskell's work. Jane Austen's characters either never think of it, or don't really notice that they have done wrong until it's all over and time to prettily repent. Gaskell's characters have to keep deciding to do right (or not to bother) over and over again.
It's clever and funny. But horrible.
(Some horrible people in real life have the same power of invoking 'oh no I'm not like that am I' as Gaskell's characters. I don't know how they do it, but it can infect even the most bubbly, the most serene and the most stable. It's some kind of negative gift, and could be used in warfare or at least espionage).