Charlotte Bronte vs Jane Austen

I am a massive Charlotte Bronte fan, ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ being my two favourite books of all time. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the position Jane Austen has assumed in the English literary canon, and where she has been posited relative to Charlotte Bronte; the clever but fairly sedate narratives of the former strangely taking precedence over the powerful literary genius and profundity exhibited  by the latter.

I have no desire to rubbish Jane Austen. She was a skillful writer, her novels frequently being very witty, sometimes caustic and often amusing; pretty entertaining in short. But they were little else. One of the great (and very much understated) shortcomings of Austen’s work was her failure to engage in any substantive way with core questions of morality or any potent underlying philosophy. Matters of form, decorum and propriety retain almost supreme importance in her texts. In advocating the virtues of prudence, circumspection and moderation, Austen is very much in her element, and can be firmly positioned as an establishment figure. E.g. In ‘Emma’  the  propriety and appositeness of Harriet’s union with Mr. Martin is not only affirmed by Mr Knightley’s endorsement of it, but is also evidenced in the extreme perturbation and instinctive distaste Emma feels on later learning that Harriet aspires to marry Mr. Knightley.  For Austen the incongruity of Harriet marrying Mr. Knightley does not just stem from their distinctive personalities; Mr. Knightley being a mature with strong sense, and a distinguished mien, and Harriet being amiable but unformed young  girl and lacking both independence of thought and action. Their incompatibility also strongly proceeds from their class disparity. As much is evidenced by Emma’s lamentations to the effect of:

“Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her where she ought, and where he had told her she ought!—Had she not, with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong”

Here, the narratorial voice becomes conflated with Emma’s, such that we can quite easily identify the sentiments expressed with Austen’s own. Similarly, the heroine of  ‘Mansfield Park’, Fanny Price, encounters acute discomfort and even mortification, in the course of becoming re-acquainted with her relatively impoverished parents. Fanny’s highly distressed and agitated state of mind throughout the course of her Portsmouth visit does not ensue from any actual ill- treatment inflicted by her nearest of kin. Certainly, Mr. Price is no model of rectitude, but what disturbs Fanny was her father’s coarseness of manner, her mother’s lack of refinement and poor management in superintending a large household.  Most troubling for Fanny is her forced physical proximity to all of this, resulting from the small size of parent’s residence.

She was then taken into a parlour, so small that her first conviction of its being only a passage-room to something better…but when she saw there was no other door, and that there were signs of habitation before her, she called back her thoughts, reproved herself, and grieved lest they should have been suspected                      

Fanny has been characterised as a sensitive and empathetic young lady, who would be very unwilling to make her parents inferior station a subject of reproach. But it is again difficult to overlook the strong classist dimension of her experience, and the element of class prejudice which forms an integral part of Austen’s vision, deeply informing her notions of respectability. The lack of finesse and cultivation Fanny’s family demonstrates, and the cramped nature of their abode, is almost an inevitable adjunct of straightened means, and a paucity of resources.   While it would be unjust to call Fanny a rank snob, her longing and preference for Mansfield Park is predicated on the calm, repose and tranquillity which comes with affluence, and a removed country estate. For Austen, these material assets are necessary to accommodate Fanny’s sedate habits and reflective turn of mind. Even in the more ‘didactic’ of Austen’s novels, the thoughts uttered by her more contemplative protagonists, rarely manifest profundity or genuine sagacity, but border on the prudential rather than moral.What is most puzzling, is the contemporary appeal Austen retains, inspite of her emphasis on station, and heavy leanings towards the status quo.

Another compelling criticism of Austen’s work is that she merely specialises in what may be termed ‘surface’ slights and incivilities, but has cannot go far beyond this and actually delve into the depth of human experience and feeling which even most ordinary people encounter in the course of their lives. Fanny is admittedly the most pressed upon and harassed person in the Bertram household. Sir Thomas’s stern visage, Aunt Norris’s cutting allusions to her dependency, Lady Bertram’s constant requisition of her services, and Maria and Julia’s loftiness, all have their due effect. Even so, the trials encountered by Austen heroines, be it Emma or Fanny Price, often assume a trivial sort of quality, and cause the reader to wonder about the complacent and assured world Austen inhabited. Having been termed ‘the only heroine in English literary history to get a headache cutting roses”,  Fanny’s deprivations include having her ride usurped and pony designated for Mary Crawford’s use on one occasion, and being unduly pressurised to participate in the home theatrical on another. For Emma, her rudeness towards Miss Bates on one occasion, and the resultant sense of shame she feels, constitutes the worst experience of her life.

Austen’s disdain for the artificial histrionics and contrived intensities of the fashionable novel churned out by her contemporaries, is understood. However, I believe that Austen goes beyond divesting her narrative of such overwrought kitsch, and actually shuns core dimensions of human experience.  Any sort of depth of feeling, fervour or earnestness emanating from the heart is quite absent in her sedate narratives. As Julia Kavanagh pertinently remarks “an elopement, a death, a seduction are related as placidly as a dinner or ball, but with much less spirit”.

Charlotte Bronte’s own observations on the limitations of Austen’s art are compelling:

She does the 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 by nothing vehement, disturbs with nothing profound; the passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood; even to 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.”  

Charlotte Bronte’s novels form a radical contrast to the work of her predecessor. Animation, pathos, and genuine wonder at her genius, are the feelings that accompany a perusal of Charlotte Bronte’s work. We are won over by her own earnestness and acute capacity for feeling, and the similar traits she endows her protagonists with. Like Mr Rochestor, we value Jane’s  sagacity and the wit and insight conveyed in her discourse. Her animated, yet subtle, sophisticated, yet natural, assertive yet ostensibly compliant conversation and mien, make her a deeply admirable heroine. Bronte succeeds where Austen does not: in representing genuine interiority or the subtle psychological processes which inform human behaviour. Importantly, her work rings true. When Mr Rochestor pronounces remorse ‘the poison of life’ and asserts that “when any vicious simpleton excites my disgust by his paltry ribaldry, I cannot flatter myself that I am better than he: I am forced to confess that he and I am on a level. I wish I had stood firm- God knows I do!”  it smacks of the truth; remorse is indeed the bane of existence and as Mr. Rochester affirms, ‘reformation’, not just ‘repentance’ is its cure. Of course the peripheral characters are no less skillfully depicted, and we retain a strong sense that they too emanate from truth; be it Bessie, Georgina and Eliza Reed, Mrs. Fairfax, Adele, or Rosamund Oliver.

Surprisingly enough, Paulina de Bassompierre of ‘Villette’ was entirely a product of Bronte’s imagination. Paulina seems so incredibly natural and believable, particularly as a child; we have to applaud Bronte’s intuitive abilities and powers of delineation.  Dr. John of ‘Villete’ is, I believe, one of the most attractive and sorely underrated hero’s of English literature.  Almost as appealing and deeply attractive to us as he is to Lucy Snowe, there is something painfully poignant about her unrequited love for him, and her inward, perhaps premature sense of resignation and knowledge that he cannot be hers. I have more to say about this, and it will form the subject matter of a separate post. But the acute consciousness Lucy Snowe always retains of  her unprepossessing exterior is analogous to Jane Eyre’s observation on first encountering Mr. Rochestor:

 “Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking young gentleman, I should not have dared to stand thus questioning him against his will, and offering my services unasked….I had a theoretical reverence and homage for beauty, elegance, gallantry, fascination; but had I met those qualities incarnate in masculine shape, I should have known instinctively that they neither had nor could have sympathy with anything in me, and should have shunned them as one would fire, lightning, or anything else that is bright but antipathetic.”

As noted by one of Brontes’s early reviewers, both heroines, are versions of Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre constitutes a younger, more ardent Charlotte Bronte, who has been more fortuitously circumstanced. Lucy Snowe’s situation, is in many senses, deeply analogous to Bronte’s own. Written following a period of  deep depression, ill-health, and melancholia experienced on the early deaths of her siblings, the novel also explores the reality of Bronte’s unreciprocated love, both for her professor in Brussels, M. Heger and her handsome and dynamic young publisher George Smith.  The painful awareness Jane Eyre and Lucy Snow retain of their appearance, is Bronte’s own. Nothing could diverge more from the intense and vehement feelings these women were privy to, than the relative placidity and security characterising the lives of Austen’s protagonists. As stated by the ‘Victorian historical View’ of 1870′

“Tears are bestowed only sparingly upon the heroines, and they are such as a little eau-de-cologne or cold water judiciously served speedily obliterates….sorrow never reaches any great climax and the certainty of a serene conclusion is always present.”

Bronte has been lauded by feminists for her depictions of unconventional,  intelligent, independent spirited women making their way in the world through their talents, without recourse to the traditional feminine allurements of beauty and charm. Even so, Bronte was, like Austen, deeply conservative. However, unlike Austen, her conservatism wasn’t predicated on an adherence to ritual and form, a maintenance of class distinctions, and an inordinate emphasis on propriety and decorum. Bronte was herself deeply religious and tried to bear the tragedies in her own life with a Christian stoicism. For all the grossly misapplied labels of ‘coarseness’, her heroines always acted in a very principled way, and were both inspired and deeply influenced by their religious convictions. Religion typically assumes a perfunctory sort of character in most of Austen’s works. This emphasis on form rather than substance in the domain of religion can be deemed to be more broadly reflective of Jane Austen’s outlook and vision relative to Charlotte Bronte’s. As has been aptly remarked in the ‘Victorian Society View’ of 1866 “Charlotte Bronte wrote like an inspired woman, Jane Austen like a cultivated lady”. ©


Maid Abuse: The Black Mark on the Gulf

Much of my adolescence was spent in Kuwait, a tiny Gulf State which then had a population of two million, half of which was composed of expatriate workers from the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia. I think in the six years I spent there, scarcely a week went by without at least four to five fairly horrific incidences of maid abuse being reported, ultimately culminating in either serious bodily injury or incipient death. News of the Indian driver hanging himself or the Filipino maid purportedly committing ‘suicide’ by throwing herself off the balcony of the third floor apartment were and are still reported on a daily basis in the local papers. Of course, they never make it to the headlines or feature on the front page, but occupy a small paragraph in the ‘local news’ section on page eight. Needless to say, these figures are staggering for a country the size of Kuwait, and because they reflect only the relatively few reported cases, it is safe to infer that they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Of course the problem not confined to Kuwait, but is endemic to the entire Gulf.

The predicament of some of these domestic workers, or members of the labour underclass has often been likened to modern day slavery or indentured servitude, and there is now general concurrence that this state of affairs, in a large part, accrues from kafala or ‘sponsorship’ system prevailing in the region. Basically this sponsorship system entails that the initial recruitment of a worker, her stay in the country, terms of employment, capacity to change employers, and ability to leave the country, is totally contingent on the acquiescence of her ‘sponsor’, who has the untrammelled ‘right’ to withhold consent on a whim. This sponsor, often also the employer, will be a GCC citizen, company or ministry. Indeed, the expatriate employee’s right to reside in the country is premised on this very ‘sponsorship’, the withdrawal of which leaves the worker vulnerable to instant deportation. This obviously gives rise to potentially exploitative situations, where an employee will have to endure much fearing the instant revocation of their right to remain in the country, earn a living and send remittances back home.

The local courts or tribunals are usually inaccessible, unresponsive and unaffordable for such workers. The mistreatment encountered by lower level expatriate employees ranges from salaries being unpaid for months or even years on end, to the infliction of gross physical and sexual violence. Indeed, in the infamous case of the Sri Lankan maid whose Saudi employers hammered nails into her body after she complained of fatigue, the maid in question, Lehadapurage Ariyawathie, only reported the abuse, and had the numerous nails and metal objects surgically removed, on returning home because ‘the compliant mechanisms in Saudi Arabia remained inaccessible’ to her. Those who do escape and are courageous enough to approach the local authorities for justice and redress, frequently encounter further humiliation and harassment, and become liable to deportation on the mere ground of having ‘absconded’ from their sponsor. They also often become the recipients of the mostly concocted counter-charges of theft, witchcraft, or immoral sexual behaviour.

Unfortunately, the limited labour protection which does exist, does not apply to domestic workers, with Jordan being the sole state in the region to extend the ambit of its labour laws to domestic workers via a 2008 legislative amendment. Moreover, while maid abuse has become a much talked about topic, and the regulation of this sponsorship system is ostensibly being considered by several Gulf States, the likelihood of real political will being exerted to not just legislate but actively enforce new protective measures, remains quite dubious. Not only has legislative reform in this area typically been extremely slow and incremental, but the broader legal framework only serves to further entrench the extremely disparate power differentials at play. E.g. In 2009 after years of prolonged and exacerbated debate within the organisation, Saudi’s Shura Council finally resolved to implement significant reforms governing domestic worker’s terms of employment, by passing an annex to its labour code. However, ultimately key provisions including the entitlement of workers to rest between 10pm and 5am were rejected, because they “contradicted the needs and traditions of Saudi families”.

What renders potential reform more problematic and difficult to achieve in the concerned States, is the absence of strong civil societies or grass roots movements which can be mobilized to exert pressure on the authorities. Saudi has placed a comprehensive ban on the establishment of any trade unions, while other Gulf States largely follow suit in barring most forms of collectivist action. Again, such action renders worker susceptible to instant expulsion from the country. The diplomatic spat between Malaysia and Indonesia earlier this year was occasioned by the large scale exploitation and abuse of Indonesian maids in Malaysia. However, what propelled the Indonesian government to action and enabled the cases in question to obtain such a high profile, was the activism and lobbying of various Indonesian NGO’s and labour groups. Under pressure, Malaysia issued a formal condemnation of the abuse inflicted by some of its citizens, and undertook to prosecute the perpetrators involved in the most publicized cases. Indonesia has also instituted a complete ban on sending domestic workers to Saudi following the widespread public indignation generated by the beheading of Ruyati binti Sapubi. Sapubi had been beheaded for murdering her Saudi employer. She had been subjected to routine abuse throughout the course of her employment, with the Indonesian Embassy remaining uninformed of both her conviction and sentencing. Moreover, the likelihood of the Saudi government publicly condemning even the vilest and most outrageous acts of its citizens, is highly tenuous, with prosecutions of reasonably prosperous and well-connected Saudi’s remaining largely unthinkable.

I remember that during my time in Kuwait, well-meaning advertising campaigns would occasionally be broadcast in Ramadan, invoking the fear of God and encouraging people to treat employees and domestic help in an equitable and kind manner. “If you seek Allah’s mercy, show others mercy” or “Do to others as you would have done unto yourself’ were the underlying themes of these broadcasts. There are also small but active bands of conscientious individuals trying to influence public opinion on the issue. However, it is important to remember that general moral exhortations and admonition can only go so far in the absence of any real legal sanctions, or punitive action being brought against the offenders. When a person with an underdeveloped sense of humanity knows that they can engage in brutal and unjust behaviour, with few attendant consequences and good chances of getting away Scot-free, there is no incentive for them to cease and desist. The condition of maids and expatriate workers has frequently, and very aptly, been described as the black mark or stain on the Gulf. It didn’t spring up recently; but has been brewing for over four decades, with little or no progress. The problem is one which has assumed massive proportions, and particularly for those living in the region, our silence or practical acquiescence to it renders us all complicit. ©

Next Newer Entries