Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

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.

Exterior view of Chawton House, formerly part of the estate of Jane Austen’s brother (Wikimedia Commons)

Repost of a piece first published 16th December, 2017 — all links are to my reviews

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28 thoughts on “Jane and Charlotte

  1. Jane Austen deals with the façade of relationships, the visible, Charlotte Brontë and her sisters with what is underneath that façade, the unseen or unsaid. That is why psychoanalytic interpretations are always associated to the Brontës rather than Jane Austen. After all, wouldn’t it have been amazing if Darcy ‘s dark side had been revealed? Pr

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    1. I agree, Stefy, which is why I imagine Austen as a Palladian mansion, emotions held in check beneath an unruffled surface, while the sisters give rein to a more Romantic and tempestuous sensibility (as I imagine, as I’m only partway through my second Bronte novel, Anne’s Agnes Grey).

      That said, I still see them all on a continuum — and they all are part of the 19C emergence of a distinctive female voice, at a time when marriage was the only guarantee of security and women like them could only gain a modicum of financial independence by activities like writing since inheriting property was withheld from them.

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    1. Thanks very much, Phyllis, glad you enjoyed the post and responses! Having just finished the last of Austen’s major works (I’m still working through the juvenilia) and still exploring the Bronte oeuvre I’m really interested in comparing and contrasting approaches and styles.


  2. It’s certainly hard to imagine a conversation between Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, let alone one between JA and Emily B. I can’t imagine what Jane would have made of that giant dog Keeper leaping up on her and plonking his paws in her lap. Charlotte seems astute in her observations of Jane Austen’s skill, but I doubt that Jane would have been keen on Charlotte’s or Emily’s work. What on earth would she made made of Heathcliff?

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    1. I can imagine an undergraduate exercise: “Write down Austen’s possible responses to Charlotte B’s critique, using Jane’s original phraseology or even apposite quotations from her letters or other writings.” I’d be imagining some terse, witty observations …


    1. That’s why so many Brits were confused when 9/11 happened: not only was it referenced an emergency number which we didn’t have but to us it meant the ninth day of November. But each version of English has its particular illogicalities…

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      1. Not dense at all very interesting! I understand Charlotte’s gripes and I don’t necessarily think she’s wrong, but she is ungracious – there is room for both, as you say it’s the progression of female writing. I feel a bit disappointed in Charlotte, was she too jealous of JA or unable to see any other form of writing than their own? but they are all talking about women and the marriage market. I definitely need to read this!

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        1. Yes, it is rather ungracious, Jane, I agree. But literary styles and expectations change, don’t they. When Austen was young epistolary novels were still as popular as they were earlier in the 18th century (Austen’s Lady Susan is a series of letters) but when she was writing her later novels that style was all out of fashion. I think fashion may account for much of Charlotte’s disdain.

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  3. I didn’t realise it’s an ambigram as well! What fun!

    Interesting how their settings also reflect their approaches–the Brontes’ moors and giving free reign to passions vs Austen’s more built and neat world reflecting more control.

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    1. It only really works as an ambigram in LCD display format, just as .07734 looks like ‘hello’ when the display’s turned upside down. 🙂

      I don’t know quite how much difference not just social and geographical backgrounds but also a gap of three decades made will have made on the way the two authors expressed themselves: Austen’s novels were published in the second decade of the 19th century while Brontë’s came out in the fifth. Regency manners must surely have felt very passé after Victoria had been a decade on the throne.

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  4. After your last note, I’m almost reluctant to leave a comment since currently there are exactly 22 of them which seems almost poetically correct! However, bah to Ms Brontë! I vastly prefer Ms Austen’s calm rational women to the Brontës’ hysterical and overwrought ones! If Austen had written Jane Eyre, Jane would never have been taken in by Rochester and would have found herself a much more suitable husband. As for Wuthering Heights, Cathy would have given Heathcliff a good talking to, and he’d have mended his ways and settled down to respectability, living happily ever after. Bah, I say again! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You forgot to add “humbug”!.😁 I have yet to read Emily’s work — it’s been on my TBR for a while now — but I will be on the look out for signs of hysteria and overwroughtness when I eventually do! Mind you, Austen has her irrational types too — Catherine in Northamger Abbey, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and of course Lydia in Pride and Prejudice — does she not?!

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