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In my last post, I was in the process of finishing up The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope. Trollope is a very Victorian writer in that romance is conducted in very formal ways. Gentlemen call on young ladies in the presence of another adult, typically an adult female. The bulk of the action takes place among the peerage, or people of station, and very little of it engages the general unwashed masses. The stories are quaint and entertaining.

The next novel on my list was Germinal by Emile Zola. I have read a good share of works by American realists and naturalists, but nothing prepared me for the raw nature of this book. The earthy descriptions of women are a stark contrast to the prim descriptions found in Victorian romantic novels. What was really amazing was how much in the forefront sex was. The characters are members of coal-mining families. After coming out of the mines, males and females would pair up and copulate. The girls would end up pregnant. The girl's family would look for the father of the baby to marry the girl; the father's family would avoid the marriage in order to keep the son's income in the family. Motivations are very basal. Food, shelter, sex.

Zola's description of the mine owners, aristocrats, is almost comical. Not necessarily the men, who seem to be striving to make the best of bad situations in terms of their struggling businesses. However, their women, and in particular the daughters, are almost caricatures of the typical Victorian heroine. They ride around in carriages to look at the great unwashed masses, especially once the strike in the mines breaks out. One young woman's idea of charity is to give the miner's families her old dresses. She is prohibited from giving them money or food, items the families would prefer and are more greatly in need.

The sharp contrast between these two novels got me to thinking - have you ever read two novels back to back which provided such sharp contrast? Post a comment and let me know.