Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray

Charlotte Bronte imagewilliam-makepeace-thackeray image

Charlotte Bronte’s tremendous admiration for William Makepeace Thackeray is well known. Not only did she express reverence for his work and belief in his abilities in biblical terms in her famous preface to the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’, (1) but her personal correspondence is replete with praise of, and commentary on his novels. I liked Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but the zealousness and intensity of Bronte’s praise for Thackeray has always puzzled me a little. Several reasons underpin this slight perplexity at Charlotte’s almost boundless regard for the author of ‘Vanity Fair’.

There are radical discrepancies between the two authors in their conception and delineation of female characters; Bronte being far more naturalistic and egalitarian than her contemporary in this respect. Thackeray’s ideal women were not exactly simplistic but were heavily sentimentalised: ‘Amelia’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ is a loving, soft-hearted, doting wife and mother (she, in significant respects, embodies Victorian ideals of womanhood). She is also weak, undiscerning, and possesses no real notion of selfhood independent of her status as wife and mother. Amelia is wholly unintellectual. Thackeray decidedly disliked intellectual women, and while ‘Amelia’ is subjected to significant criticism in the novel, there is no denying that Thackeray was simultaneously drawn to, and in a large part upheld, the model of womanhood she represented.

Thackeray repeatedly sought to distinguish himself from Dickens by his emphasis on ‘realism’: resistance to drawing caricatures and eschewal of too many improbable plot contrivances. (2)  There are important thematic differences between the authors as well. Though Thackeray partially idealises Amelia, ‘Vanity Fair’ exposes the tyranny weak people like her can also exert, their capacity for selfishness and their desire for domination.  In a work of Dickens, it is probable that a character like Amelia would have been uncritically extolled until the final chapter. However, stylistically, Dickens and Thackeray are much closer than is often acknowledged. For all the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’,(3) gushing sentimentality is as much a fixture in Thackeray’s work as it is in Dickens. Indeed, in the case of the former, the narratorial voice not infrequently becomes tinged with smugness.  Lest I be misunderstood I do think that both Dickens and Thackeray were genuinely great authors, but aspects of their writing and characterisation do ruffle me.  Their heroines, be it ‘Amelia Sedley’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Florence Dombey’ of ‘Dombey and Son’ are a far cry from the ‘Jane Eyre’s’ or ‘Lucy Snow’s’ of Bronte’s novels. Bronte’s work is marked by a naturalism that is not measured up to by either Dickens or Thackeray. She exhibits the interior lives, and interesting and expanded minds of her heroines with a skill, eloquence, and power which is matched by few, if any, of her contemporaries. Bronte’s heroines were highly intelligent, intellectual women (indeed, how could they be otherwise when they often constituted varied versions of Charlotte herself at different stages of her life). As Jane observes as she wanders about the halls and grounds of Thornfield:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (4)

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Shirley’, Shirley (a heroine Charlotte modelled on her sister Emily) Shirley remarks to Caroline:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’” (5)

It can safely be assumed that Charlotte Bronte here is giving expression to her own objections regarding the way women have been characterised by her eminent male contemporaries. Indeed the ‘half-doll, half-angel’ woman and ‘fiend’ at the other end of the spectrum sound remarkably like ‘Amelia Sedley’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ of ‘Vanity Fair’.  I actually think that despite Thackeray’s emphasis on ‘realism’ Becky at times appears to be something of a caricature herself. Even amongst the passages of extensive praise for Thackeray, Charlotte did occasionally voice these objections.  She, however, never really expands on this theme. In an 1852 letter to George Smith she writes:

“As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring.”(6)

While Bronte had almost unabated enthusiasm for Thackeray’s writing and faith in his calling as the ‘first social regenerator of the day’, Thackeray’s own opinion of Charlotte Bronte and her novels was far more mixed. He was considerably moved by ‘Jane Eyre’ and recognised the genius of the woman who had penned it,(7) but their personal interactions were marked by an uneasiness and perhaps mutual misunderstanding. (8) George Smith, the publisher and close friend of both Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray offers the following significant insight:

“Thackeray’s wit was not a ready one and he had not the quickness necessary for repartee. A clever woman always, and easily, had the better of him in that respect, and, to tell the truth, Thackeray was not fond of the society of what are called “clever women”; women, that is, whom he felt to be critical and with whom talk involved any mental strain. For that reason he did not like Charlotte Bronte, and the two did not get on well together. She was vexed because he, in his talk with her, would never be serious about his literature. He would talk in a bantering and burlesque way, as though he were ashamed of it. But this was only by way of defence against Charlotte Bronte’s earnest and heroic views of the “sacredness” and “dignity” of literature.”(9)

On pursuing ‘Villette’ Thackeray stated “There’s a fire and fury raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me.” (10) His condescending and supercilious extended comments on the novel are contained within an 1853 letter directed to Lucy Baxter:

“So you are all reading Villette to one another- a pretty amusement to be sure- I wish I was hearing you and smoking of a cigar the while…. And it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with two men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at anytime. The poor little woman of genius! The fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good…she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country and eating her own heart up there, and no Tomkins will come…here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.”  (11)

I understand Charlotte Bronte’s regard for William Makepeace Thackeray to a significant extent. I do think he was a fine writer, even if his prose did (not infrequently) lapse into sentimental gush, and even if his female characters were at times poorly conceived. There are numerous passages of ‘Vanity Fair’ which I genuinely admire (most notably the confrontation scene between Dobbins and Amelia near the end of the novel). But I don’t think that the flaws identified above are insignificant, and accordingly I find it somewhat puzzling that Charlotte Bronte hero-worshiped him to the extent that she did. ©



(1) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Essex: Longman, 1991) xxvi-xxvii

(2) Charles Mauskopf, “Thackeray’s attitudes towards Dickens’ writing” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21 (1966): 21-33

(3) Bronte, Jane Eyre, xxvi

(4) Ibid, 113

(5) Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993): 264

(6) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1857)

(7) Richard Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray” Bronte Studies 36 (2011): 85-94

(8) Ibid

(9) Charlotte Bronte, “The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends: Volume II: 1848-1851”, Margaret Smith ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 416

(10) Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray”, 92

(11) William Makepeace Thackeray, The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Gordon N. Ray ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-46)

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”. ©