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Thursday, 23 May 2013

Charlotte Bronte on Jane Austen

Addendum 11th June 2015: I later changed my opinion - refer to this blog post - Hello again!

Hello everyone who does me the favour of reading this blog (if there is anyone),

I have decided on a project to fill my summer vacation days. Inspired by this beautiful blog: http://thecaptivereader.wordpress.com/, I have decided to review a book a day. However, they shan't be new books; they will all be from my bookcase. There are many tragically unopened books on my shelves, and I intend to get cracking. I also intend to review many favourites (or, if 'reviewing' some classic greats seems too presumptuous, I shall merely write my reflections on them).




Before I get started, however, I want to talk about something I came across quite recently. I learnt that Charlotte Bronte disliked Jane Austen - in fact she was very vehement in her criticism :

"Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or 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 with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....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."

I was absolutely astonished and a little bemused when I came across this. I have never thought of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen in the same train of thought - they are so radically different in style that it never occurred to me to compare them. Had it, however, occurred to me do so, I have no doubt that I would have, without hesitation, concluded that Austen is far and away the superior. Austen's wit, humour, beautiful prose and  her 'normal,' yet so remarkably memorable characters - are unrivalled, in my opinion, not just by Bronte, but by any other author I have read. I have to admit that I have read only Jane Eyre by Bronte. But if this is indicative of her style and talent, why, then, they are, simply, not on the same plane. This is not to say that I dislike Jane Eyre; I like it well enough. But it has never been one of my favourites, and it has never filled me with awe at its mastery, or delight at the wit that I missed when I was younger. While reading Jane Eyre, one is quite carried away by the passion and emotion of it all. But, when one stops to reflect – what is there in Jane Eyre? I suppose Jane Eyre is very likeable; and for some mysterious reason Mr.Rochester captures the imagination of many girls, too – despite being rough, unprincipled (don’t tell me that you can justify his trying to marry Jane despite his already being married, because I think his reasoning there is twisted – ‘eccentric,’ Jane would say – and quite unsupported) and quite heavy-handed in his pursuit of Jane. But the plot, I think, is quite unremarkable, despite all the drama. And, while it is supposed to defy many conventions, it espouses many others. There is hardly any humour in Jane Eyre – or if there is, I have missed it – and when you actually think about it, this wild passion between two people of such different ages (Mr. Rochester is actually old enough to be her father) is slightly disturbing. Emma and Mr. Knightley are of different ages too, but there hardly seems to be anything ‘wild’ about their love, and I find their affection a lot more palatable. Mr.Rochester and Jane don’t ever seem to converse without undertones of something.  And when they disagree, it is on an issue of great moment, and Jane is about to be very heroic and sacrifice her love for principle and duty. Despite Bronte’s evident opinion that Austen’s works are bloodless, Austen’s characters seem somehow so much more real. They aren’t heavily dramatized or heroic – Mr. Knightley is noble, as is Mr. Darcy, but not so noble as to be un-relatable or unlikeable. And I heavily disagree with the opinion that there is no passion or poignancy in Austen’s works. These elements are simply far more subtle and understated in her books. Who could possibly say that Knightley or Darcy have no passion for their respective lady-loves? It is also incomprehensible to me that Bronte could fail so thoroughly to see the beauty of Austen’s seeming un-sentimentality, and the uniqueness and humour this lends her writing. Bronte’s characters take themselves so very seriously. Bronte’s tragic situations are unrelieved by any sensible, objective viewpoint. I can be engrossed in Bronte, but never delighted or surprised. Austen, to me, is an artist beyond compare; Bronte is a wonderful writer, but flawed, overly emotional (it seems to me) and definitely without the wit to match Austen’s genius.