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Saturday, June 4, 2011

What gives, Charlotte Bronte?

Last year we asked "What gives, Mark Twain?"  Our conclusion?  The old curmudgeon had to have liked our Jane, even if every time he read her, he wanted to beat her with her own shinbone.  (Every time, you say, Mr Twain?  Hmm...)

This year, we're confronting another hater, Charlotte mothereffing Bronte.  And just what does our good ole Lottie have to say?
"I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma—read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy—I cannot help it. If I said it to some people (Lewes for example) they would accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of your falling into any such vulgar error."
Well.  Tell us how you really feel.

But wait!  There's more...

Charlotte  was also known to passionately confront (via snail mail) anyone who professed a love for Jane.  In a letter to critic G.H. Lewes, she says:
"Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. ... I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? ...a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. ... These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk....Now I can understand admiration of George Sand ... she had a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."
And in response to his response:
"What a strange lecture comes in your letter! You say I must familiarize my mind with the fact that that 'Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no "sentiment" ... no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry'; and then you add, I must 'learn to acknowledge her as one of the great artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.'....That last point only will I ever acknowledge....Can there be a great artist without poetry? ... But by 'poetry', I am sure you understand something different to what I do, as you do by 'sentiment'. ..."

Strong words across the board here.  But wait a minute, lets go back to that first quote.  "I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works Emma."  So she read Pride and Prejudice, trashed it, then decided, You know what, I should give this Emma a try...?
Could it be that Lil' Lottie is angry that Lewes simply praised Bronte's Eyre, but wrote of Jane that she was "one of the great artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived"?

Anyone else have the feeling that Charlotte is an affronted Marianne, with all her "bonny becks" and "sentiment"?

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  1. I think Charlotte Bronte should have stepped back, especially considering only one of her novels ever gained any sort of literary fame compared to all of Austen's novels!

  2. This is an awesome post!

    I, however, agree with Charlotte for the most part. Jane Austen's books don't have the fervor that Bronte's Jane Eyre does. They are quiet and discreet, rarely stepping out of bounds of propriety. There isn't a lot of sincerity in Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's love the way there is between Mr. Rochester and Jane. I never really got a feeling why Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy loved each other, while Mr. Rochester and Jane showed me a unique, pure, and incredibly rare sort of love. They were of the same soul.

    Still, Bronte was pretty harsh. But, hey, she was an incredibly bored woman who didn't get out much. At least we know she had some actual spunk in her and didn't just infuse it all into her characters.


  3. Great post! I would agree that her novels are devoid of that same type of passion from Jane Eyre. But I think Austen's novels, as a whole, are so popular because they are really saying more than just romance. Her novels speak to all types of people for different reasons. Jane Eyre spoke to me because of the unflinching passion. While Austen's novels fascinate me for completely different reasons. I would say Bronte was a bit on the jealous side!

  4. I agree -- I think Bronte was just jealous. And like Virginia Woolf said, she's got a lot of anger. If only Char were alive now to see how beloved Jane Eyre is -- even over Austen, in many cases.

  5. Wow, I never knew Charlotte had any beef with Jane Austen! I like both authors equally, its hard for me to choose between Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre. I guess it would just depend on my mood and wanting something lighter or darker to read.

  6. Interesting. There might have been some jealousy driving Charlotte, especially since she seemed to dig in about her dislike of Austen. If I don't care for a particular author or book I just shrug it off and move on. Clearly Charlotte is like many contemporary critics who can't stop the barrage when they don't like a book. She would have fit right in with the online review and discussion places!

    Still, I can see her point. As others have pointed out, Austen was a sedate, subtle writer. I have often said that her novels are "boring" from a certain point of view, if one wants high action or adventure or passion that is. It is just a difference of style, in my opinion, and not that one is better than the other. Clearly Bronte did not understand that idea.

    Fun discussion!

  7. I've been trying to avoid weighing in on the discussion too much because I want to hear your thoughts, but I have to.
    I think our dear Char was a bit on the jealous side, but I think more so, she's just melodramatic. And I mean this in as little an insulting way as possible, because I do like Jane Eyre quite a bit. But I meant what I said when I called her a Marianne. To Marianne, if it wasn't external and bold and pushed on the world, it wasn't real. She couldn't understand Elinor and subtlety and restraint.
    Personally, I find Austen more powerful and romantic because of these things. I distrust anything that needs to announce itself, as Eyre and Bronte's writing do. (And I actually don't like Eyre as a romance, but that's another discussion.) I roll my eyes a bit at any tempestuousness and claims of passion, especially when those "passionate" people think it's the only authentic display.
    To me, to have characters who are falling in love against their expectations and even their wishes, while they try to deny it, is much more romantic and believable and powerful.
    To have Darcy, who is SO VERY proper and restrained burst forth with how "ardently he admires and loves" Elizabeth, and to change his character to be a better man for her - how does Charlotte not see that as real? And how is that boring?
    To have Wentworth, who is scorned and angry, say he is "half agony, half hope" - and all of the people who defy their parents and the wishes of those around them, and marry for love in a time when that wasn't encouraged -- these are powerful moments, and almost a little subversive. And they're made all the more so by the fact that they don't need to announce themselves, they just ARE.

    Okay, enough from me.

  8. +JMJ+

    Well, not everyone is going to like Jane Austen. And if you're the sort who writes books like the Brontes' novels, it's clear that you're just not going to be one of Austen's fans. LOL!

    What intrigues me the most is the line about Austen being "a complete lady" but not "a complete woman." Bronte was going somewhere with that and I wish she had elaborated on it.

    Of course, I'm sure there was a bit of professional jealousy thrown in as well. I had known what Bronte thought of Austen's novels, but not that she also wrote directly to critics who had praised Austen to argue with them about it. That's a bit much to make a habit out of! =P

    But I can also see why Bronte would have seen Austen's popularity as a dire sign of something bigger than a professional rival's success. In Jane Eyre, she writes about a woman's desire for action--something that is not addressed by anyone who thinks women should just lower their voices, behave like ladies, and get back to their knitting. Jane is an incredibly unconventional heroine whom everyone else tries to dictate to, but who insists on her own self. And so on . . .

    Well, someone who writes about such passionate beliefs is bound to be a bit put out by a heroine like Elizabeth Bennet--and really offended by one like Emma Woodhouse. (I suspect Bronte would have liked Anne Elliott a lot better.) Think of how a modern feminist writer might feel to learn that young women are identifying less with her own "strong women" characters and more with Bella Swan. (Which is not to say that Austen is anything like Stephenie Meyer: I'm just drawing an analogy.)

  9. I think Enbrethiliel completely hit the nail on the head! :)

  10. Have you read Jane Bites Back? That takes the Bronte/Austen feud to a new level!

  11. @Anna: No, I haven't. I've seen it around, but I had no idea Bronte was any part of it.


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