Tag Archives: Camus

Author Feud: Brontë vs Austen

480If asked to name two 19th century female authors, most people (if they could name 2 at all) would say Jane Austen and at least one Brontë.  Right?  Those really in the know might mention George Eliot, Frances Burney, or Elizabeth Gaskell.  I suppose people who read more American literature than I do would list Alcott or Dickinson, but Jane Austen and the Brontës are the heavyweights in this category.  I suspect this is because of the number of  movie versions of their books. Movies with ladies in bonnets and men with sideburns and waistcoats. The two last names are synonymous with those movies and are inseparably linked in our minds. So it’s strange to think of a feud between them.

I read an article last week discussing the feud between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.  I say feud, but it was more unrequited vitriol on the part of Brontë, who loathed Austen for her popularity and for her frivolity. Austen had no opportunity to dislike Brontë, as she was long dead by this point. Here are some of Charlotte’s thoughts on Austen and her writing, that we know from her letters:

‘The passions are perfectly unknown to her’

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.  She has no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry

Brontë, after reading Pride and Prejudice, compared it to a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden, with no open country- no fresh air

I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books, some multiple times.  I’ve read several of the Brontë’s novels-Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heights by Emily, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. I also have a vague recollection of doing a 9th grade report on Anne’s poetry, so I’m practically the world’s most preeminent Brontë scholar.

I have read enough of their writing to compare them from the reader’s perspective, rather than a scholarly (re: pretentious) way.  So, are they so terribly different?

Yes.  Those who don’t read this sort of literature might see them as fancy romantic stories, sort of proto-chick lit, the progenitors to things like Harlequin romance novels, Sophie Kinsella, and Bridge Jones.  Certainly they have similarities.  Female protagonists for whom marriage is of extreme importance.  The time period, though separated by 30+ years, is similar enough that most people wouldn’t really know the difference.  I get very strange looks when I try to explain that Jane Austen was during the Regency period, whereas the Brontë sisters were in the early Victorian period.  No one cares.  There are bonnets, long dresses, a lot of societal rules. Pot-ay-to, po-tah-to.

But anyone who has read them knows that the they are as dissimilar as The Color Purple and the Help.  But I radically reject the idea that this means one of them is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’.  Just like I reject every preposterous notion that fiction which is more difficult, more realistic, more depressing is always more ‘valuable’ than fiction that is enjoyable or escapist or imaginative.  What more would you expect from a Harry Potter fan?

Jane Austen wrote about the world of a very small subset of humans; this is undeniable.  There is  little acknowledgment of a world outside the upper classes of Regency era England, except for a few vague references to the troublesome French (usually to explain the presence of handsome soldiers in uniforms). In modern equivalents, I suppose an Austen novel would be about the cheerleaders and the football players–people born quite lucky and shining in the lovely light of youth, beauty, and naiveté to the world’s evils.  After I read Charlotte’s criticism that Jane’s writing is like a well-tended garden, I tend to think of it that way myself; she embodies the sophisticated, cultivated farmlands of the South of England.

The Brontë sisters, on the other hand, are like the wild moors so ubiquitous throughout Wuthering Heights.  There is passion in their writing, but also an equal amount of horror, of pessimism and cynicism, and of truth.

Anyone who has seen senseless violence, or tragedy, or loss, cannot continue to believe that life is the cultivated garden presented in Austen’s works.  In short, anyone who has lived long enough, with an IQ over 60, will realize that life doesn’t make as much sense as our parents lead us to believe.  The wildness and randomness and senselessness of the real world are always in the back of our minds, much as we try to focus on weeding the metaphorical weeds from our rosebushes. Are the Brontë works more realistic?  Yes.  Emphatically yes.  They portray not people with minor flaws that are often laughable (as Austen’s books do), but people who are seriously and irrevocably flawed. Is that more realistic?  Sadly, yes.  Is it fun to read? no.

Aristotle wrote in Poetics that he thought characters should always be good and admirable.  He thought people should see heroes in fiction, so that they will act like heroes in real life.  If they saw bad characters, they would emulate bad characters.  I have to disagree with Aristotle there.  If you’re a deeply flawed person, reading about the trials of another flawed person is much more compelling than reading about a paragon. Of course, in what we think of as a ‘novel’, there is rarely a paragon to be found.  All characters are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum from good to bad.  Austen’s tend toward the good side, the Brontë characters are very close to the other end.  So much so that it seems that redemption is impossible for them; they are fated to be miserable and to be bad.  Not all of them, of course, but certainly nearly everyone in Wuthering Heights is wholly irredeemable. When you compare Mr. Darcy to Mr. Rochester, you see the differences pretty clearly.  One has some superficial and fairly-easily overcome problems that don’t make him a bad person.  The other is deeply flawed; bad-tempered, pessimistic, sometimes dishonest, and already married.  If you think he’s a brilliant romantic hero, please read Wide Sargasso Sea and reconsider.

Sometimes we need to read things that are awful and have veracity on their sides.  But if that were the only type of thing we read, it would be horribly depressing.  If you spend all your time reading Proust, Kafka, Camus, and Franzen…you’ll be pretty depressed, I would imagine.  If you spend all of your time reading nothing but Stieg Larsson, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer, you won’t be as inclined to depression–you’ll be entertained.  But you won’t be challenged.  None of those books are going to remain in your thoughts, weeks later, when you think about the nature of love or grief or violence.

Everyone finds their own balance and seeks entertainment somewhere between verisimilitude and escapism.  We’d all do better to have a good mix, and to not judge others for where they find their satisfaction in literature. That includes Charlotte Brontë.

 

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London Fields, a ‘whydunnit’ by Martin Amis

01-Random-HouseBritish authors can do bleak and hopeless better than anyone I know.  Most people think it is the French or the Germans, your Sartre or Camus or Nietzsche, but I think it’s the Brits.  They know how to really mix the nihilism and the absolutely tragic to create a cocktail of bleak pointless hopeless cloudy grey depression.

I can’t tell if I liked this book, but I can tell you it was one of the more depressing books I’ve ever read.

The novel is sort of ‘meta’.  There are chapters which make up the murder mystery, but there are also interludes narrated by the author of that murder mystery.  He talks about how he gets his information, how he writes, his interactions with the characters.  The novel he is writing is all true, all happening in real-time.  Worse, we know the outcome from the very first page.  We know the ‘murderee’ and the murderer. We know who will kill whom and on what day.

Let me say first that Martin Amis specializes in antiheroes, and these are some of the least heroic people I’ve ever read about.  First, there is Keith Talent.  He is identified in chapter 1 as the murderer.  Keith is a truly despicable person, and the more we learn about him the more despicable he seems.  He beats his wife, he sleeps with 5 or 6 women at a time, he has raped women, he steals from old ladies, he cheats everyone he’s ever met. His calling in life, the only thing for which he has respect and morality, is darts.  What a perfect game for such a man.  Played in pubs, while drinking.  Such a pointless game; no strategy, no difference between playing someone good or bad because all you do is play the board.  Darts is like golf, if all 18 holes were exactly the same.  But Keith thinks it is the only thing worth caring about, probably because it’s the only thing he’s ever been marginally good at.  As truly heinous as Keith is, after 500+ pages of living in his world you do notice small redeeming features about him, and things which make you sympathize and empathize with his situation.  Tiny things, like trying to correct his semi-illiterate spelling, or deciding he should stop hitting his wife, or his general ignorance about the world that belie a truly appalling education level. It’s a tribute to Amis’ writing that, by the end of the book, you feel more sorry for him than you would think possible.

Nicola Six is introduced as the ‘murderee’.  I found her to be the least likable character in the book, to be honest. By the end of the book I figured she pretty much deserved it.  Nicola is a ‘sexpot’, according to the narrator.  I’d call her a misandrist.  She uses all of her beauty, her intelligence, and her skills to manipulate and hurt two men in the story, Keith Talent and Guy Clinch (more on him in a minute).  With Keith, she makes him pornographic videos and lets him masturbate to them in her house, becoming more and more the personification of the naked girls in The Sun or in Keith’s favorite porn videos. With Guy, she tells him she is a virgin and slowly lets him teach her how to kiss, how to french kiss, and …that’s about as far as it gets.  As a woman, I can comprehend that men have two main fantasies about us–the virgin and the whore.  Nicola seems to think they don’t want anything in between.  She is manipulative for no reason, she is cruel and heartless, and terrified of showing her true self to anyone.  I really, sincerely disliked her.  I’m a feminist, and I think women like Nicola set women’s rights back 20 years for every step forward the rest of us take.

Guy Clinch is perhaps the least complex of the characters in London Fields. He’s a titled aristocrat, rich and married.  His child is possibly the anti-Christ.  He is desperately unhappy with his easy life, and goes ‘slumming’ at a pub called the Black Cross.  This is where he meets Keith and Nicola (and the author/narrator).  As I mentioned, Nicola claims to be a virgin (to Guy only). He sees her as a complete innocent, and falls entirely in love with her, despite a niggling idea that she might be too good to be true.  She works him into a sexual lather which amplifies over weeks and weeks. Like a dog, he follows her, obeys her every command.  He is incredibly pathetic, weak, lacks all courage to change his life.  When she humiliates him at the end, I don’t feel he deserves it, but…I do feel he should have known better.

Amis calls the book a ‘whydunnit’, because he tells us who will be the murderer and who the murderee on that very first page.  This means that the 500+ pages of the novel can sometimes feel far too long, because there is no need to find out ‘what happens next’. Not only that, but Nicola (through a strangely undefined psychic power) knows that she will be murdered.  She actively participates in manipulating these two men with full knowledge that it will end in her death.

But why?  At the end of the book I was most frustrated by the fact that I hadn’t a clue why the murderer had killed her, nor why she had done any of what she did.  The frustrating pointlessness of these events greatly diminished my enjoyment of the book.

Amis’ writing is spectacular, to be honest.  He plays with language in a Vonnegut-esque way, he establishes some very human, complex, and comprehensible characters.  He mixes the ‘murder mystery’ chapters and the ‘meta’ chapters with relative ease.  That being said, it is not an easy read. It requires thought, input, a comprehension of the world.  I don’t think I could have read this book 10 years ago and understood half as much.

I was watching Midnight in Paris last night, and when I think back about this book a quote from the movie’s version of Gertrude Stein comes to mind:

“We all fear death and question our place in the universe…it’s the artist’s job not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote to the emptiness of existence.”

Of course, Stein was speaking from a time before the postmodernist and very nihilistic trends in fiction really took hold, but I still entirely agree.  Amis has inevitably captured a more accurate and realistic version of human life than a fairy tale would be.  To be honest, though, if I wanted despair and pointlessness, I’d just watch the news.  I don’t particularly enjoy it in my literature, no matter how well written.  I thoroughly appreciated the technical expertise that went into this book, but I did not enjoy it.