The Voices of Men in Praise
Of Jane Austen
Messages Beginning May 9, 2002
You might think that Charlotte Brontë was petty, mean-spirited, and jealous with her comments on Jane Austen's novels, but wait until you read what she said about her own sisters.
Before I begin, allow me, once again, to acknowledge that Charlotte and especially Emily Brontë were great writers - truly great artists. There is no doubt in my mind that the Brontë sisters' novels will be read and praised at least as long as those of Jane Austen. I should also confess, at this point, that I don't care for any of the Brontës or for their novels. For me, great artistic talent does not compensate for a faulty and unattractive vision of the world. My taste is such that I also require plausibility—nature and probability—in order to admire a novel. It is that point of view that makes me a Janeite and a detractor of the Brontës.
Let us revue a little background. The Brontë father was born in Ireland but had become a clergyman in the north of England where the family was raised. There were six children in the family, five sisters and one bother. Jane Austen's dad was also a clergyman, with a big family, but the similarities dead-end there. The Austens' lived south of London two generations before the Brontës, and there were six boys and only two girls in our Lady's family. The differences in terrain, climate, and the gender make-up of the two families might have contributed to the extreme differences in the visions of these women authors.
The differences in epochs might have contributed to those differences in vision as well, but that is less clear to me. Certainly, the differences in the technological eras were profound. The Brontës lived to see the advent of the railroads and telegraph and Charlotte even lived long enough to have read, possibly, of the first plans to lay a trans-Atlantic cable. No one in Jane Austen's era could even have imagined such wonders. Other new realities were the tremendous growth of polluting industries, the Irish famine, and the exploitation of industrial workers. The population explosion was in full bloom and was recognized for what it was. We cannot expect Jane Austen to have noticed such developments—she was not a astrologer—but we can expect a bit more from the Brontës in that context.
Charlotte Brontë was third in the birth order, but her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, died in their adolescence after contracting an illness at school (1825). The only brother, Branwell, was fourth in the birth order followed by Emily and finally by Anne. Of course, it was Charlotte and the two surviving sisters that were destined to carry the family name down to our time. (Branwell became an alcohol and opium abuser.) Charlotte became the only surviving Brontë when first Branwell, then Emily, and then Anne all died within one short eight-month period (1848-9).
Following those tragedies, Charlotte was invited to write a preface to a second edition of Emily's Wuthering Heights. She complied and then wrote an accompanying "Biographical Notice" as well because Emily and Anne (as well as herself) had been writing under pen names. In that sense, the "Notice" was much like Henry Austen's sketch of his sister shortly after her death in 1817. However, the effects of the two "Notices" on this reader can not be more different than they are. Henry's is moving and sad, Charlotte's is shocking and, for me, so ludicrous that it is funny—but then I have never been able to not laugh at Charlotte Brontë. I will excerpt from the "Notice" and let you judge for yourself. (You can find the full text for Henry Austen's "Notice" in many editions of either Northanger Abbey or Persuasion.)
While you are at it, you might also include William Godwin's obituary notice for his wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the mix. That was a long essay that is still in print, Memoirs of the Author of 'The Rights of Woman' (1798).
You can read Charlotte Brontë's Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell (1850) in its entirety and without comment on line. "Acton Bell" was the pen name of Anne Brontë and "Ellis Bell" was Emily Brontë (notice the correspondences in initials). Charlotte herself wrote as "Currer Bell" and so signed herself to the "notice". Charlotte explained why they chose these names:
"... Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because—without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called "feminine"—we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice; we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise."
"Adverse to personal publicity" is it? Well, we shall investigate that claim further. Give Charlotte enough writing space and she will reveal herself. Here is an example from the "Notice".
"About five years ago, my two sisters and myself, after a somewhat prolonged period of separation, found ourselves re-united, and at home. Resident in a remote district, where education had made little progress, and where, consequently, there was no inducement to seek social intercourse beyond our own domestic circle, we were wholly dependent on ourselves and each other, on books and study, for the enjoyments and occupations of life. ..."
For me, this is vintage Charlotte Brontë—the woman is a snob in the same set as Jane Austen's Lady Catherine or Sir Walter Elliot. I will never understand why so many of you admire her person. Again, I will concede that the woman was very talented novelist, a great artist; but, can we not say the same of an idiot savant?
Let us turn to Charlotte's treatment (mal-treatment?) of her sisters in the "Notice".
"I was then just completing Jane Eyre, at which I had been working ... in three weeks I sent it off: friendly and skilful hands took it in. This was in the commencement of September, 1847; it came out before the close of October following, while Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, my sisters' works, which had already been in the press for months, still lingered under a different management.
They appeared at last. Critics failed to do them justice. The immature but very real powers revealed in Wuthering Heights were scarcely recognized: its import and nature were misunderstood; the identity of its author was mis-represented; it was said that this was an earlier and ruder attempt of the same pen which produced Jane Eyre. Unjust and grievous error! We laughed at it at first, but I deeply lament it now. Hence, I fear, arose a prejudice against the book. That writer who could attempt to palm off an inferior and immature production under cover of one successful effort, must indeed be unduly eager after the secondary and sordid result of authorship, and pitiably indifferent to its true and honourable meed. If reviewers and the public truly believed this, no wonder that they looked darkly on the cheat."
"Yet I must not be understood to make these things subject for reproach or complaint; I dare not do so; respect for my sister's memory forbids me. By her any such querulous manifestation would have been regarded as an unworthy and offensive weakness."
Notice that it wasn't Charlotte who said that Wuthering Heights was an "immature" work and a "ruder" attempt than Charlotte's own Jane Eyre. Oh no! it was some unnamed critic who did that. And poor widdle Charlotte was merely repeating the judgment here for some innocent purpose I suppose. Well, if you think that bad, then brace yourself: here is Charlotte writing about her sister Anne's novel.
"The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Acton Bell [Anne Brontë], had likewise an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer's nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life been called on to contemplate, near at hand, and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations) as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it. When reasoned with on the subject, she regarded such reasonings as a temptation to self-indulgence. She must be honest; she must not varnish, soften, or conceal. This well-meant resolution brought on her misconstruction, and some abuse which she bore, as it was her custom, to bear whatever was unpleasant, with mild, steady patience. She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life. "
Next, I excerpt some comments that Charlotte made about her sisters' natures.
"What more shall I say about them ? I cannot and need not say much more. In externals, they were two unobtrusive women; a perfectly secluded life gave them retiring manners and habits. In Emily's nature the extremes of vigour and simplicity seemed to meet. Under an unsophisticated culture, inartificial tastes, and an unpretending outside, lay a secret power and fire that might have informed the brain and kindled the veins of a hero: but she had no worldly wisdom; her powers unadapted to the practical business of life; she would fail to defend her most manifest rights, to consult her most legitimate advantage. An interpreter ought always to have stood between her and the world. Her will was not very flexible, and it generally opposed her interest. Her temper was magnanimous, but warm and sudden; her spirit altogether unbending.
Anne's character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted. Neither Emily nor Anne was learned; they had no thought of filling their pitchers at the well-spring of other minds; they always wrote from the impulse of nature, the dictates of intuition, and from such stores of observation as their limited experience had enabled them to amass. I may sum up all by saying, that for strangers they were nothing; but for those who had known them all their lives in the intimacy of close relationship, they were genuinely good and truly great.
This notice has been written, because I felt it a sacred duty to wipe the dust off their gravestones, and leave their dear names free from soil."
I leave it to you to decide if Charlotte left "their dear names" unsullied.
I mentioned that this "Notice" accompanied Charlotte's Preface to a second edition of her late sister's novel, Wuthering Heights. I will quote from that Preface because I think it gives further insight into Charlotte Brontë's nature.
Let me interject that I admire Emily Brontë's talent and artistry in the writing of Wuthering Heights. The inventive presentation of the narrative is truly remarkable, a masterpiece. It is also the story of a neurotic, obsessive attachment between two cruel, sadistic sociopaths. You might choose, as so many others have done, to call it a "love story". If so, what can you be thinking about? Even Emily Brontë thought to give Heathcliff a single name, as in the case of "Satan" or "Lucifer". I mean, it wasn't John Heathcliff or Heathcliff Jones, he was just "Heathcliff".
Charlotte began her Preface with this protracted sentence.
"I have just read over 'Wuthering Heights,' and, for the first time, have obtained a clear glimpse of what are termed (and, perhaps really are) its faults; have gained a definite notion of how it appears to other people—to strangers who knew nothing of the author; who are unacquainted with the locality where the scenes of the story are laid; to whom the inhabitants, the customs, the natural characteristics of the outlying hills and hamlets in the West Riding of Yorkshire are things alien and unfamiliar."
Charlotte then went on to characterize Emily's treatment of the Yorkshire countryside in terms that almost seem complimentary—almost.
"Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had no more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates. My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or to take a walk in the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feelings for the people round were benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with few exceptions, ever experienced. ..."
Curious recommendations for an author or a sister. Charlotte continues in this almost surreal way.
"... And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute,, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them was exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more somber than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine. Having formed these beings she did not know what she had done. ..."
One is almost glad to hear it, but Charlotte left out mention of my favorite, Hareton, who once amused himself by hanging a litter of puppies by the neck from the back of a kitchen chair.
"... If the auditor of her work when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, [Emily Brontë] would have wondered what was meant, and suspected the complainant of affectation. ..."
Well, far be it from me to accuse Charlotte Brontë of affectation. And, I can agree with many of her judgments of Wuthering Heights. The point that puzzles and—yes—amuses me is that Charlotte would have put these observations and judgments in print and, of all places, in the preface to a second edition of her own sister's novel.
My dear Meister, what have you done to me? I was all set for a relaxed Thursday night to catch up on some sleep, and now just look, here I sit typing again! Here's the story.
This morning I picked up a book given to me by my Australian friend on her recent visit (she succumbed to my puppy dog look at the sight of it) namely, Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction by Margaret Kirkham. I thought it only the courteous thing to do to at least give it a 'once over' within a decent time interval to let her know that I had looked at it and appreciated it. Well, I could not stop reading until the grandkids woke up. It blew me away. I was going to let it sit until I could give it the attention it deserved. BUT - this afternoon I saw your post on Charlotte Bronte. As I was preparing [goodness, my vocabulary is improving, I didn't say 'fixin'] dinner, the thought occurred to me that Kirkham might have something to say about Charlotte. Unfortunately for me, she did. Now I have to make a post. I did a search in the archives here and at RoP and could not find her mentioned. I must have done something wrong, because it is hard to believe that the book has not been discussed.
I insist that you must (if you have not already done so) put aside your inhibitions/prejudices/attitudes towards the word "feminism" and read this book. Let me whet your appetite with this sample: "To suggest that the sainted spinster-aunt of Chawton was a feminist who agreed, on a number of issues, with Mary Wollstonecraft, might seem little short of blasphemy." And she gives us the similarities. She explains in a different light several of the accepted views, and most especially her view of "the gap" in JA's letters, etc. that you have pointed out. She does make some sense.
Now let's get to Charlotte Bronte and that quote about Jane Austen for which she is famous. Keep in mind that the following paragraph is at the end of the book. She has already laid the foundation of JA's feminism, discussed many women writers, including Wollstonecraft, and given alternative explanations for many accepted beliefs about Jane. Here is what she says about Charlotte Bronte's quote:
"The unfounded belief that Jane Austen admired Madame de Stael, yet refused to meet her, has proved misleading in more ways than one. It helped to lend substance to the idea of Austen as exceptionally retiring; it obscured her active interest in an important literary conflict of her own time; and it made it more difficult to understand the estrangement of the mid-century women novelists, particularly Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, from her work. To a generation which admired Madame de Stael and saw her as the predecessor of George Sand, Jane Austen's pointed avoidance of 'genius', both in her presentation of herself as narrator and in her heroines, could not be sympathetic. And, since by the 1840s Mary Wollstonecraft's works had become difficult to obtain - George Eliot seems not to have known that she had written novels - it was no longer intelligible as a mark of feminist anti-Romanticism. The most gifted women novelists of the mid-century - Emily and Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot - were all, in different ways, critical of the romanticisation of sexual relationships, and of heroines, but they had come to see themselves as 'femmes de genie' and this, in itself, made a barrier between them and Jane Austen, who did not. Henry Austen's 1833 treatment of his sister's declining to meet Madame de Stael, together with his unplaced, and therefore misleading, quotation of the 'little bit of ivory' letter, can only have added to the alienation of the later English women novelists from the predecessor to whom, despite their coolness about her, they owed much. Women as literary artists had become detached from feminism as a political issue, and, whereas the odd Miss Harriet Martineau, born in 1802, re-read all the Austen novels before starting on Deerbrook (1839) and recorded that she had done so, the major women novelists acknowledged no important debt to Pride and Prejudice &. But Harriet Martineau had no pretensions as a woman of genius and she, at the age of sixty-four, supported J. S. Mill's 1866 petition for female suffrage, whereas George Eliot, born in 1819, did not."
If I have the straight of it, she is saying that "times and the issues had changed", especially the issue of 'feminism', to create a different outlook in the later women writers. As you say: "The differences in epochs might have contributed to those differences in vision as well, but that is less clear to me." Maybe this can clear some of it up.
Getting back to your post, yes, Charlotte was a wee bit rough on her
sisters. I still have to compare what they wrote with that Anne Bronte
poem. Something is not jiving there. Luckily, I managed to pick up
some of the Bronte books at the used bookstores in N.O. That is another
study unto itself.
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