Charlotte vs. Jane?


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On November 3rd, I launch a new book, The Bronte Plot, and, as the title implies, it holds very little Austen within it and instead lives within a more Bronte-esque landscape. That said, The Bronte Plot does not parallel the plots of those books. Fear not, you’ll not find any wives hidden away, abusive men stomping about or lovers roaming the moors (Okay, that’s not true… but they’re taking a walk and not enjoying the moor at all.)

So just for kicks, I wandered the Internet to see what Charlotte Bronte thought of Jane Austen. I’m a little embarrassed to say I didn’t know. Well, let’s just say Charlotte was less than kind about Miss Austen. One article said she stated the following to George Lewes and another said she printed this in an introduction – either way here’s Charlotte:

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped [photographed] portrait of 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 [stream]. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.

She says more, elsewhere. None of it flattering.

Okay, I’m going to lay it out right here… I get not spending time with Austen. She may not be one’s cup of tea… but to say she shows you a “commonplace face” or no feeling, no understanding… ? Those statements feel off the mark to me.

Yes, Austen kept within “a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden.” She kept within her direct sphere and cuts with surgical precision. But we feel the rest of the world swirling around her, without embellishment, as she pulled the curtain only slightly here and there. And I think her portrayals of human nature are not only precise and succinct – I think they are all the more so because she never droned on about them.

So while I have thoroughly enjoyed the Brontes over the past year and I love the story I wrote drawing upon their influences – I was a little dismayed to find dear Charlotte less than charitable about Jane. In the end, I’ll stand with G.K. Chesterton who asserted the following, with a clear understanding that the world of literature changed dramatically from Jane’s time to the Charlotte’s:

Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains That Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. There was precious little of truth protected from her.

What are your thoughts?

And have a great day!



17 Responses to Charlotte vs. Jane?

  1. I think it’s helpful to keep in mind the context of Charlotte’s comments. Bronte dealt with frequent criticism in her male-dominated literary world, constantly being told she should be more like Austen. For example, G. H. Lewes, wrote to Bronte to tell her basically that she should be more “ladylike” and advised her to look to Austen as an example of how a female writer “should” be. Naturally, Bronte was furious. Imagine writing something brilliant and wonderful and revolutionary and then being told it’s no good because it’s not like a novel another woman wrote several years ago. While Charlotte certainly could have been more charitable, I have always felt her comments had more to do with distancing herself from that other “lady writer” as she tried to carve out her own identity.

  2. Congratulations on the upcoming new book, Katherine!! So exciting!

    As for Bronte and her comments, as I noted in a reply to Jen Red below, remember that at the time Bronte said what she did, Jane Austen was long since dead. Her books were in print, but barely, and her rating as one of greatest English authors of all time was several decades away. Would Bronte have been as scathing if Austen’s genius was already established? Hard to say. But it is much easier to toss mud on someone who isn’t a direct rival. For all Bronte knew at that time, neither she OR Jane Austen would be heard of in the future. Not saying that gives her meanness a pass!

    Maybe Jennifer Petkus should have Charlotte apologize to Jane on the After Net. LOL!

  3. I have read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but have not been overly fond of the story. Her criticism of Jane Austen’s work I find harsh. I also find some modern day reviewers overy hash, too. Mostly, I feel harsh eviews come from someone who is insecure and needs to put someone else down to make them feel better about themselves.

  4. Well, let’s look at it from the musician’s standpoint. Austen lived in the Classic Era where simplicity, control and beautiful musical phrases primarily in the major key were loved, particularly after the complexity of the Baroque Era. The comic opera was favored. There was a return to the simplicity of the Greek’s that was expressed in clothing as well as architecture. This was reflected in literature as well as the various art forms. We had Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven who for the most part followed structure. It was only at the end of Beethoven’s life that he pulled away from that structure and began to break the rules as he transitioned into the Romantic Era. Bronte did not live in that controlled Classic Era but in the Romantic era where emotion and passion was paramount. There was a boon in literature and poetry which strove to express feelings and the hardships of the common man. The minor keys were very popular for this reason. The poetry that found its way into the “Art Song” as well as written collections often expressed the realism of unrequited love, death, and the hardship of life in general. In addition, authors were fascinated with mythology, eastern cultures, the gypsies and even the occult. All of this filtered its way into music and literature. It is no wonder that Bronte was not inspired by Jane Austen. Both women were a product of their times. In my opinion it is no wonder Bronte didn’t think too much of Austen. Just saying … my 2 cents. Jen Red

    • I’m so sorry that it’s taken me so long to reply… but what a lovely comment you’ve made. And so true! The culture shifted so rapidly — something to remember as we look to the past and evaluate the art, music, politics, life etc. of the times.

    • Very well put, Jen. I love the analogy to music. It is also true that at the time of Bronte giving her opinion of Austen, Jane was long dead and her novels not as yet ranked as highly as they are now. Simply put, Austen wasn’t a phenomenon as yet. Would Charlotte have said differently if Austen mania and scholarly praise was at the levels they came to be a few decades later?

  5. How harsh was Charlotte with dear Jane!! Don’t get me wrong, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of my favourite books but I find her words too mean.

    I am looking forward to read your book, it is already on my TBR list! Good luck with the launch!

  6. While i have always loved Jane Eyre and have read it over 8 times, I have put much more time into all of Jane Austen’s books and, subsequently the spin-offs, the variations, sequels, prequels, etc. I have read Wuthering Heights but not Agnes Grey. Charlotte’s words do echo as sour grapes in my opinion.

  7. I have read a lot of opinions about Jane Austen by her peers and those following and in my view the bad ones were sour grapes. They could have been written by any number of the people who populate the Amazon reviews, who think they are the ‘guardians’ of what is good and what others should like. It makes me think even less of them. Thanks for the very interesting post and I look forward to reading you new book! 🙂

  8. I am a through and through Austen fan. But there is a special place in my heart for the Brontes. I have read these quotes from Charlotte and find them to be a bit over the top in opinion. Jane Austen wrote the world as it really was with a hint of a happy ending. Charlotte’s work though interesting and different was drama brought about by her own contained life. I feel she is overly harsh in her criticism. Honestly though of all the Brontes, to me the best work came from the little heard of sister Anne who wrote Agnes Grey. I have a feeling Charlotte may have been hard to share the lime light with. I look forward to reading your book.

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