Tag Archives: George Eliot

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.

 

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Well, we now all know that my predictions (based entirely on rumor) from earlier in the year were completely wrong. This was, most certainly, not a crime novel.  I struggle to categorize it actually, except that it was very definitely adult.  More on that later.

The New Yorker did a (long) piece on JKR and the new book last week. They called it Mugglemarch, which is an obvious combination of Muggles and George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I wasn’t crazy about the article, but that’s not really important. The name stuck with me. I read Middlemarch last year.  It’s considered a true classic, and is the most famous of George Eliot novels.  I have to say I didn’t love it, and even though it’s considered a classic I haven’t met anyone else who has actually read the thing.  Assuming you haven’t either, here’s a very brief description–Middlemarch follows the lives, marriages, and fortunes of a large ensemble of characters, all of whom live in the eponymous town.  There is room in the narrative for the poor and ignorant, for the wealthy and intolerable, and, mostly, for the middle classes.  There are lots of interweaving plots and themes, from the invasion of the railroad into the country to medical reform, from ill-advised marriages to scandals involving wills and estates.  It’s subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and that is very accurate–Middlemarch, the town, is the most important character of the novel.

Why am I yammering about Middlemarch?  There are obvious similarities.  It takes place in a small, picturesque town and revolves around the lives of locals. It features the terribly poor, a bit of the very wealthy, and a lot of the middle classes. The town, Pagford, is its own character in the novel–though in this case I found that the town was always described in terms of what others felt about it. Good or bad, accurate or not, their opinions and emotions were what defined the town, rather than the truth of the town.  There is a local election, just like in Middlemarch. 

Another big similarity: I am not sure I like it.

I was expecting to like it.  I was confident that I would like it.  I like to read, and very rarely do I dislike a book I pick up.  On top of that, I am a huge Harry Potter fan, as anyone who reads this would know.  I trust JKR as a storyteller, and I don’t limit myself to specific genres or types of writing.  I had no reason not to like this new book…unless it just wasn’t good. Which, to be honest, didn’t really enter my mind as a possibility.

I’ve been trying to pin down what I dislike about it.  Nothing. There’s nothing.  But it just pales so much in comparison to HP, that I find it hard to enjoy.

The writing is the same style, lingering between literary and popular fiction.  It sort of takes popular fiction and adds more depth, emotion, and strong storytelling.  But it never makes the jump to challenging, and that can sometimes mean it never takes on the role of being extremely meaningful.  When you’re in a world where fate and destiny play huge roles in the lives of your characters, that is less important.  Everything is meaningful and it’s easy to take allegory away from the characters and the stories. Everyone can see that Voldemort is like Hitler, without much prompting.  But when you’re dealing with ordinary life, and you have things like sex, drugs, child abuse, and banality, something is almost lacking.  The story is about ordinary people, and the writing never verges into the extraordinary.  Which means the whole novel feels a bit flat at times. I would still prefer this to pretentious stories about ordinary people (*cough*Jonathan Franzen*cough*), and if she hadn’t written Harry Potter first, then perhaps I wouldn’t be disappointed by this.  But she did, and I don’t think there’s any way to not be disappointed at something that doesn’t quite match that achievement.
Another thing that seems missing is the humor. I know that people described it as a ‘dark comedy’, but I think those people are loose a screw. This is a tragedy.  It even passes the “tragedy ends with a funeral, comedy ends with a wedding” test of ye olde dramatic categorization.  There are moments where particularly obnoxious characters are put in their place, but I did not find those moments funny.  Usually, in order to give those characters a much-needed ego check, someone else has to suffer.  In one scene, a pretentious council member is explaining that no government funds should go to treat drug addicts, because they are costing tax money when all they need to do is stop taking drugs.  His doctor then points out that if he thinks it’s so simple then why doesn’t he stop gorging himself on foods (he’s quite overweight) and asks if he knows how much his bypass surgery cost the taxpayer. There is a savage pleasure in hearing this man put in his place, and this scene made my jaw drop.  But at the same time, the hatred and anger everywhere is tiring and made me so anxious that my hands were shaking.  And of course, there were consequences for the doctor as she was breaking patient privilege saying these things in public.  Compare this to a scene in which Draco Malfoy or similar is firmly humiliated.  Of course, I found most of those scenes counterproductive and unrealistic.  But the realism of The Casual Vacancy was too much for me to feel comfortable with.  It made my palms sweat.

Much has been said about the sex scenes and the other explicit material.  I was a bit shocked by it, I’ll admit.  Then I asked myself, would I even blink if this wasn’t a writer I associated with a, frankly, sexless world.  No, I wouldn’t.  There was nothing so crazy or unusual in the scenes. It’s just that they were there that makes ripples.

As much as I feel conflicted about this book, there are parts of it that are so JKR and so well done that I would be amiss not to mention them.  Most obviously, her understanding of teenagers.  She has a great talent for describing any number of people and creating characters who are believable and tangible, but none more so than teenagers.  This book is no exception. They are all terribly visible, real, and easy to conjure in your mind. I don’t find that any of them reminded me of me, but I could see snippets of friends and crushes from high school in each one. I think much of it is her way of describing characters from their very first scene that lets you settle them in your mind as definite and tangible–never hazy or cloudy.  Even before you know much about them, you can see them.  She still has this ability.

She can also produce incredible emotional range in the audience (or, in me anyway).  I raged at times, I cried for sure.  I wish there had been more to laugh or smile about.

And so many of the characters are shown only as their worst possible selves, that there is little faith that they will really make things better.  It’s more realistic this way, but I apparently don’t read books for their absolute realism.  I just found it too depressing to want to read it again.

And I think that’s the real root of the problem. I suppose it’s a bit similar to Romeo & Juliet. The town is made stronger, but only through some incredibly senseless loss and tragedy. But even though it ends on something of an upswing, I find I’m too mired in the loss to move on and feel that it was worth it. The loss is too pointless and awful to make up for the meager offerings and motions toward a better world that are made in the last few pages.