I always read Jane Austen on holiday in northern climes. It is both the perfect pairing — my favourite part of the world with my favourite author — and a small act of literary rebellion.
The wild north of England, and Yorkshire in particular, is associated with the Brontës, a fact which has caused me great personal angst: I remember a few years ago, on my first trip to Northumberland, trying to describe the landscapes and the experience of falling in love with Britain all over again to my mother. I must have over-egged it, or perhaps I should have chosen a more salubrious medium than text message, as she wrote back “Are you becoming a Brontë-lover, too?”
These are tart, fighting words in my family, where a certain orthodoxy of opinion is expected regarding the relative talents and palatability of the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen. A preference for the work of the former is taken as a sign of reckless sentimentality and the moral turpitude it brings, and also, most damningly, the lack of a sense of humour.
It is not that the correct opinions were dictated to me ahead of reading the books. In fact, it was my mother who gave me Jane Eyre when I was about fourteen. I had already read Pride and Prejudice at least half a dozen times. The cover of Jane Eyre suggested it was the same sort of story, so I settled down to read it one rainy Saturday, and found the opening line — “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” — to be relatable, if lacking the piquancy of Austen.
The book was hard going after that, but I pressed on through page after page of humourless gothic sentimentality to the point of “Reader, I married him.”
Reader, I sent that book sailing clear across the room to the clothes hamper, where it remained buried in socks for some months.
I never saw the romance in the Jane and Rochester story. The way he softens her up for his proposal by convincing her he is marrying someone else and she must leave Thornfield is creepy. Then, when she declares her intention to go, he kisses her, forcing her to protest his feigned intention to wed another, before he proposes to marry her instead, saying “You–you strange, you almost unearthly thing!–I love as my own flesh. You–poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are–I entreat you to accept me as your husband.” Literature is full of villains more likable and with stronger moral fibre than Charlotte Brontë’s hero. Jane Eyre devotees may balk at this description, but how else can you describe a man who attempts to marry his young daughter’s governess whilst his first wife is locked in his attic?
Every time I reread that proposal scene I hope that somehow the words on the page will be different and that Jane will rebuke Rochester as Elizabeth Bennet rebuked Mr Darcy when he proposed with a speech dwelling on “his sense of her inferiority–of it being a degradation–of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination”. Sparky Lizzie demands to know “why with so evident a design of offending and insulting me you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?” Fair question.
Unlike the would-be bigamist Rochester, Darcy is required to reform himself to get the girl. This is what reading Pride and Prejudice before Jane Eyre had led me to expect of romantic fiction. Musing on the marriage of Wickham and Lydia, Elizabeth wonders “how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue.” Yet it is precisely the triumph of passion over virtue that Charlotte Brontë proposes when Jane returns to Rochester before she even knows he is a widower, for no depth of passion can make claiming another woman’s husband a virtue. Their subsequent conjugal bliss is born of a technicality, albeit an important one — with Bertha dead the union is legal — not of the reform of Rochester or the persevering moral strength of Jane.
For her part, Charlotte Brontë disliked Jane Austen’s work. Her correspondence with GH Lewes in January, 1848 records this:
Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point…. I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find?… [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…
There’s this, as well, to WS Williams (in April 1850):
[Miss Austen] ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition.
Having maligned Charlotte Brontë as a writer, I feel some guilt in also questioning her abilities as a reader, but these words strike me as doubly-wrong insofar as they are mostly false, but to the extent they are true they are virtues rather than deficiencies of Jane Austen’s work. Pride and Prejudice abounds with feeling — verily, even Feelings — but their expression is not accompanied by the press of lips or the scent of jasmine on a midsummer’s evening.
Mr Darcy himself resists the idea that deep feelings always inspire many words. Elizabeth demands to know why he was so reserved when he came to call:
“Because you were grave and silent and gave me no encouragement.”
“But I was embarrassed.”
“And so was I.”
“You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.”
“A man who felt less might.”
I imagine that Charlotte Brontë would have preferred to read every word of Mr Darcy’s professions of love, which Jane Austen describes with great economy (or perhaps, “graceful, but distant recognition”):
The happiness which [Elizabeth’s acceptance of his addresses] produced was such as he had probably never felt before, and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eyes, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight diffused over his face became him; but though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affections every moment more valuable. They walked on, without knowing what direction. There was too much to be thought, and felt, and said, for attention to any other objects.
What sets Pride and Prejudice apart from other romances of the era is not any deficiency of tender or passionate emotion, but rather something in Austen’s tone that is completely foreign to Charlotte Brontë’s writing: playfulness. All of Jane Austen’s novels have arch, ironic, or wryly observational elements, but the idea of romantic love as something of which laughter and play are natural elements comes to the fore in Pride and Prejudice. It’s not merely a worthy tale of virtue, but one filled with laughter without being written for the sake of the jokes:
“Elizabeth’s spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her…
“…Now, be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”
“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”
“You may as well call it impertinence at once….To be sure, you know no actual good of me–but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
It is difficult to find any playfulness in Jane Eyre. (There might be an argument that Rochester’s erratic behaviour is meant to be playful, but it doesn’t lead to laughter. His whims are too cruel for this.) The passions are an extremely serious business.
Having read Charlotte Brontë’s assessment of Pride and Prejudice, I have often been curious what Jane Austen would say about Jane Eyre. Would she have been seduced by its savage passions, its vivid physiognomy? Or would she find a bit of pruning and cultivation would do it a world of good? Of course we can’t know for certain, but I like to imagine her reply would have been along the lines of Elizabeth’s words to Mr Darcy early in their acquaintance: “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies, do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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