If 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.