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”. ©