Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen. It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.
When pushed to read Pride and Prejudice she discovered an “accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place 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. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.” This is an unsurprising comment given the Yorkshire sisters’ predilection for bracing moorland walks and Austen’s familial connections with landed gentry in Southern Britain.
Charlotte then grudgingly manages to declare “Miss Austen … only shrewd and observant” where, say, George Sand is “sagacious and profound.” Shrewd and observant is certainly pertinent. “She does her business of delineating people seriously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting,” Charlotte admits, but remains critical because Jane “ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her.” One might doubt that Austen failed to convey passions, only acknowledge that she could be guarded in her language: Jane is more a sunny Palladian mansion where Charlotte is a dark Gothick pile.
Although she read Emma “with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable,” she thought that “anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or 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 and extravagant.”
So while Charlotte berates Jane for supposedly ignoring “the Passions” she at least praises her for indicating “what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly;” and while she opines that there is “no inspiration in Miss Austen’s page, neither do you find mere windy wordiness; […] she exquisitely adapts her means to her end; both are very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd.” Never absurd may be faint praise but at least it’s admiration, albeit grudging.
Had the exquisitely expressed Jane lived longer, what would the shrewd and observant, and never absurd author have thought of the Brontë’s fevered writing? Would she have welcomed the less strait-laced prose that the sisters were unleashing on their readers? Or would she have thought back to her own youthful reading, the Gothick romances that she referenced in her portrayal of Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey? For it is here that we find the young heroine’s romantic expectations lived out, in a precursor of Thornfield Hall, perhaps, and a landowner about whom there are secrets and mysteries concerning his wife.