The Voices of Men in Praise
Of Jane Austen
Messages on Jane Eyre - July 2002


9-11          

Here is the plot: A woman marries to disoblige her family, a daughter is born and is sent away to be raised in an indifferent, lonely situation. The daughter grows into a humble if strongly independent frame of mind, but falls in love with an older man who is kind to her but who appears to be in love with another woman—a beautiful and charming but morally obtuse woman.

At this site, the first reaction will likely be, "ah yes, Mansfield Park." But more generally, the reaction might just as often be, "Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre!" That is my goal today, to make my comparisons of Jane Austen's Fanny Price to the Brontë character, Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre will not suffer a great deal in this comparison; however, as is always the case with me, her creator will suffer a great deal in the comparison I make with our Lady, Jane Austen.

Jane Austen died in 1817 and Jane Eyre appeared in 1847.

The Orphan and
The Windbag

I actually like Jane Eyre, but only those passages from which Edward Rochester is banished. Perhaps that is akin to liking only those passages in Emma with no reference to George Knightley, but what can I say? (Incidentally, there are folks out there who like only those passages in Emma with no reference to George Knightley.) To me, Rochester is one of those characters in the classics that is incomprehensible if not implausible. I also think him morally bankrupt, whiney, clinically neurotic, and a windbag where I understand him at all. I strongly suspect that Charlotte Brontë must have been morally obtuse herself—how else to explain how she could imagine to present to us this character as a romantic figure and the object of love for her otherwise well-constructed heroine. Jane Austen would have put him in jail—for talking too much among other reasons.

The Picturesque

Charlotte Brontë complained bitterly about Jane Austen's popularity. One of her comments in that regard was that as she read Jane Austen, she found, "no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck." Well, in this way, Charlotte pointed to one of her own great abilities; Charlotte had a gift for this type of picturesque description. It was one of her great gifts but it may have been one of her downfalls as well. She overdid it—big time! The worst thing that can be said is that she exercised this talent when there was no motivation, and that was a grievous error.

The best example (the worst example?) is a chapter where Jane Eyre is at Lowood school and spring has just sprung, a fine excuse for Charlotte to describe the wonderfulness of it all—the effects on the flora, the fauna, and the girl. Well done—except, she then interrupts the rapture to tell us that sickness has broken out in the school, many girls are already dead, and many more will die. Even Charlotte must have realized she was making a mistake because she tries to justify this jarring juxtaposition with a transitional sentence that only a Brontë-devotee might accept. For me, it just supplied a good chuckle.

Charlotte might have better integrated this talent into her writing if she had studied Jane Austen more carefully. For, in spite of Charlotte's announcement, Jane Austen did possess this talent herself but used it to such an appropriate degree and with the utmost motivation so that some careless readers don't notice that it even happened. For example, I refer you to her descriptions of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice.

A Woman's Nature

Charlotte was not bashful, certainly not bashful enough to refrain from characterizing Jane Austen's nature,

The more amusing part of all this is not the fact that these judgments of Jane Austen are so very wrong; rather, because they most emphatically apply to Charlotte's chief creation, Jane Eyre. I like Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë made me like her orphan. I admire her courage, her industry, and her clear-headedness. However, I am amused at her lack of passion and her joyless prudishness.

On the other hand, Fanny Price was sweet and vulnerable and had not given up on the possibilities of joy and romantic love. Perhaps Fanny Price differs from Jane Eyre in many of the same ways that Jane Austen differed from Charlotte Brontë. Of course, the circumstances of the fictional women are quite different. Fanny Price falls deeply in love with her kind, older cousin. Jane Eyre's older, male cousin beats her up.

Family Life and
Domestic Violence

Incidentally, there is a great deal of physical abuse of women in the novels of the Brontë sisters. Jane Eyre is beaten by her cousin and then there is an implied threat of physical violence from Rochester when Jane Eyre explains to him that she will not become his mistress. Of course, this is nothing compared to the domestic violence described by sister Emily in Wuthering Heights. Emily's Heathcliff is a violent, sadistic, sociopath and his Cathy is not much better. I wonder if we are detecting a difference in the Austen and Brontë home lives?

Certainly, domestic violence was not unknown in Jane Austen's time (see the entry for June 17), but Jane Austen gives no indication she had first-hand knowledge of same. I know very little about the biography of the Brontës'—and never will—so maybe someone else can post to tell us about papa Brontë about whom we must all be suspicious.

Progressive Attitudes?

Charlotte Brontë once said of Thackeray, "... I think I see in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognized; because I regard him as the first social regenerator of his day—as the very master of that working corps who would restore to rectitude the warped system of things ...".

OK, so that makes it seem that Thackeray might have been a social, perhaps even a political, progressive and Charlotte was as well for recognizing and praising that quality. I don't think so: here is an excerpt from Chapter 24. Jane Eyre has just become "engaged" to Rochester and he is so enraptured that he is willing to offer her half his estate. A slip of the pen then gives an insight into Charlotte Brontë's mind where she would have preferred that we thought of her heroine instead. This is Jane Eyre's reply:

"... What do I want with half your estate? Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land? I would much rather have all your confidence. ..."

This is not unlike the slurs that appeared in the novels that Jane Austen was reading in her youth. But, it is totally unlike Jane Austen's attitude: when Jane Austen put an ethnic slur into the mouth of one her characters, it was someone's like John Thorpe's, and with the intention of further developing his character as reprehensible. Charlotte Brontë gave this quality to her heroine.

Incidentally, it will be interesting to learn how feminists, who explain that the property of the wife automatically accrued to the husband in the olden days, explain that passage.

I have noticed that a portion of those who defend the poor against the outrages perpetrated by society don't always respond well when forced to live among us common folks. Mary Wollstonecraft was like that. Jane Eyre and, therefore, Charlotte Brontë may have been cut from that cloth: let me explain. Jane Eyre eventually takes a position teaching the children of poor workers and her attitude reeks of condescension. Begin with this excerpt from Chapter 31; Jane Eyre is beginning to assess her new students.

"... Some of them are unmannered, rough, intractable, as well as ignorant; but others are docile, have a wish to learn, and evince a disposition that pleases me. I must not forget that these coarsely-clad little peasants are of flesh and blood as good as the scions of gentlest genealogy"

Whew! What a relief. I mean that there is some hope for me and all those other unmannered, rough, intractable, ignorant, coarsely-clad little peasants. I thought I must always be like this! Wait a minute, I have known a number of those scions and so now I think I should not be encouraged.

The assessment is continued in Chapter 32.

"... Some time elapsed before, with all my efforts, I could comprehend my scholars and their nature. Wholly untaught, with faculties quite torpid, they seemed to me hopelessly dull; and, at first, all dull alike: but I soon found I was mistaken ... I found some of these heavy-looking, gaping rustics wake up into sharp witted girls enough. ... These soon took a pleasure in doing their work well; in keeping their persons neat; in learning their tasks regularly; and in acquiring quiet and orderly manners. "

I think that Jane Eyre is complimenting herself there. Well, Charlotte Brontë might not have wanted to keep her heroine in such low company for long; she bestows a surprise fortune on Jane Eyre and that allows her heroine to escape her schoolhouse inmates. Before Jane leaves, she tosses a bone to the "heavy-looking, gaping rustics"—this is an excerpt from Chapter 34.

"... I stood with the key in my hand, exchanging a few words of special farewell with some half-dozen of my best scholars: as decent, respectable, modest, and well-informed as could be found in the ranks of the British peasantry. And that is saying a great deal; for after all, the British peasantry are the best taught, best mannered, most self-respecting of any in Europe: since those days I have seen paysannes and Bauerinnen; and the best of them seemed to me ignorant, course, and besotted, compared with my Morton girls."

Well now, there are some words of encouragement for all you British peasants out there (I regret that there might not be much here for all you French or German peasants.) Charlotte must have been a wonderful ambassadress during her continental travels.

And, she did live near France, in Brussels, for a while before becoming a novelist. I wonder how she liked the French? A minor character in Jane Eyre is a young French girl, Rochester's ward and Jane Eyre's student. For some unexplainable reason, Jane Eyre eventually agrees to marry Rochester and, I guess, Charlotte decided the girl might be in the way, so she has the newlyweds send the youngster away to school. We learn of the girl's fate in Chapter 38.

"... she soon settled in her new [school], became very happy there, and made fair progress in her studies. As she grew up, a sound English education corrected in a great measure her French defects; ..."

Don't you just love Charlotte Brontë?

Religion and
Another Windbag

Charlotte Brontë introduces another male character in the last quarter of the book, St. John Eyre Rivers. St. John saves Jane Eyre's life when she nearly dies of exposure at his doorstep. (Incidentally, those are very moving passages—Charlotte was an excellent writer.)

St. John Rivers bears the exact same relationship to Jane Eyre as does Edmund Bertram to Fanny Price, he is Jane's first cousin. Rivers is also a clergyman and, therefore, is completely analogous to Bertram. Edmund Bertram is balanced and humane; his religion seems sincere and he is equally sincere about his calling. Rivers seems the worst kind of driven, Puritan ideologue and that surprised me; I thought that papa Brontë was Church of England as was papa Austen. In any case, the portrayals of the two fictional clergymen might tell us a great deal about the differences in the religious thoughts of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë. The differences are extreme.

Rivers is like Rochester in two ways, he is neurotic—way neurotic—and he is a windbag. Actually, when Charlotte first introduced this character, he didn't seem so bad. He seemed, at that point, to be in love with this beautiful Emma-Woodhouse-like character and his interactions with her seemed to be written with near Jane-Austen subtlety. "Finally," I thought, "after three quarters of the novel!" But no, Charlotte Brontë seemed incapable of sustaining that romantic thought and that relationship falls apart for a very peculiar reason. Rivers proposes instead to Jane Eyre, even though he doesn't love her, because she seems more likely to be able to help him in his great ambition, missionary work in "Hindustan."

Jane Eyre is deeply impressed with River's "ambition" and, I think we are supposed to be as well; although, I confess I have difficulty being impressed with nineteenth-century British cultural imperialism. Anyway, Jane's first reaction is "No way!"; but, Rivers is resolute and relentless and after many words, words, words, words, words, Jane seems almost ready to give in but only after she takes one last peek at Rochester.

Fortunately for Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë had made Rochester a more attractive prospect for marriage by burning his wife to death, lopping off his right hand, gouging out one of his eyes, and giving him only finger vision in the other. Yes, that would make him quite manageable and the change in his appearence is no big deal because, as Charlotte reminds us ad nauseam, Rochester is ugly in any case. His loss of eyesight has the added advantage that he doesn't have to continually notice that Jane Eyre is very plain. They lived happily everafter. Rivers dies after only ten years in India and Jane Eyre is happy for him too because he always wanted to die in the service of religion.

Fanny Price
& Jane Eyre

I suspect that some college senior somewhere, or even a master's student, might write a successful thesis by comparing Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram to Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers. I mean that, in this way, a great deal might be learned about differences or similarities in the writing styles, psychologies, and philosophies of the two authors.

Fanny Price and Jane Eyre began life in the same way; Fanny was sent away from her family home because she was a burden and Jane Eyre was taken away because she was an orphan. I once said this about Fanny.

"A child's reaction to this sort of trauma can be expressed in several different ways. Fanny's adjustment was perfectly plausible; Fanny, early on, acquired a code of behavior and decorum, and she would cling to it. It is as if some abandoned children, seeking for justice and virtue, develop a strong notion of those things and refuse to be driven from this refuge. They insist on honesty and correctness from themselves, and they judge others on this same scale. A person who is not so disaffected, who must make compromises with those they are transacting with for status and recognition, is likely to be more flexible, not so idealistic."
In my judgment, exactly the same things can be said about Jane Eyre. A major difference is that Jane becomes hardened and resolute while Fanny remains open and hopeful. Jane becomes certain of her view while Fanny is never quite sure. So, the plainess of Jane's appearence becomes accentuated while Fanny's "puniness" transmutes and blossoms into beauty. These contrasting developments are equally plausible, so both characters are well drawn. (It should be said that all the characters in Mansfield Park are well drawn, while Jane Eyre is not so well supported.)

Fanny is ignored and discounted but we sense that there is always some potential for her at Mansfield Park—a number of the inmates there do exhibit at least the possibility for kindness, love, and consideration. In contrast, Jane is often placed in a hopeless situation where she is the object of active ill-will or exploitation. Jane Eyre becomes tougher and harder than Fanny Price, and it all makes sense. Jane Eyre seems capable of making her own way in the world and she does exactly that. Fanny Price seems more fragile—not, by any means, weak, but fragile. We fall in love with Fanny Price and admire her, but we respect Jane Eyre—well, except for her taste in men—and wish her well. Don't get me wrong, Fanny also displays courage but not the boldness of action of which Jane Eyre is capable.

"The greatest thing you will ever know, is to love and be loved in return." So, in the end, we must evaluate the love story. Fanny Price falls in love with a good man, a worthy, strong man and she marries him. Jane Eyre loves and marries a crippled man, sufficiently crippled to make him manageable. It is difficult for me to imagine a different or better fate for Jane given her nature and nurture—I will give Charlotte Brontë that much. So, in the end, both characters learn "the greatest thing" so, perhaps, we should be glad of it.

Let me conclude, get out of the way, and make room for you to make your counter-arguments.

My conclusion is always the same: in my limited and under-educated view, Charlotte Brontë was fit only to prepare Jane Austen's quills. Other opinions are afoot. Charlotte once went to a lot of trouble to help us understand that she was better writer than her sisters—Mm-mm-mm, no! Emily was better. Charlotte's remarks about Henry Fielding were as spiteful and as intemperate as anything she said about Jane Austen; and, she was fit only to caddy his quills as well.


Dear Salty PotAshton,

I really enjoyed the above referenced remarks, polemic, opinion?  You do a good job of pointing out Charlotte's character flaws as shown in her writing, and I guess her recorded remarks as well.  The worst is that she uttered most of these erroneous observations about JA's writing after the latter had already died, and couldn't rebut or defend herself!  [Charlotte obviously did not read S&S or Northanger Abbey.]

I am confused about one item of discussion you bring up.  Quoted here:

OK, I am a grammarian I'm afraid, I teach English.  What this sentence seems to refer to is "a portion of those who actually APPROVE of the outrages perpetrated against the poor." (they defend the outrages.) But then it seems you are referring to those who stick up for the poor verbally but don't like close contact with them.  Am I right?  Please clarify.

Since my oar is already in, I also want to draw attention to what I see as a major difference in Fanny and Jane's situations, namely that Fanny was brought into a family environment.  True, she was treated as less than a member, she was shunted aside and almost totally ignored except by Edmund, and except in her usefulness to Lady Bertram.  But eventually, Sir Thomas, son Tom, and even non-family members like yucky Mary Crawford joined Edmund in appreciating Fanny's worth.

This family environment was also enhanced by luxury (even though Fanny had no fire in her room for a long time, her surroundings were luxurious compared with Portsmouth), and culture - books, paintings, education, etc.  Jane Eyre had no such comparatively soft berth, although she did become an educated woman with an appreciation of the intellectual arts which life had to offer.  She had to become tough in ways Fanny didn't.  Fanny even found it difficult to return to Portsmouth after living so many years with the Bertrams.

I'm sorry you hate Mr. Rochester so much.  He was a jerk, but George C. Scott gave a good rendition of him!


Dear Bree,

First of all, thank you for correcting that error in my posting; I have rewritten it and now apply for extra credit.

Actually, Jane Eyre was sent to an uncle and aunt to live exactly as Fanny Price. The problem is that the kind uncle died and Jane was left to the mercy of a cruel aunt (not Aunt Norris) who then sent the girl to an orphanage. I agree with the things you say about the differences in the situations of the two girls and of the resulting effects on them; in fact, I thought that I had said those very things in my original posting.

I am not sure I "hate" Rochester so much as I make moral judgments of him. What can be said of a whore-monger who seals his wife up in an attic, and then doesn't mention that fact to the woman he is about to "marry" and make his de facto kept woman. (This is not to mention his veiled threats of physical violence to Jane Eyre.) Of course, the whole thing about that attic inmate is so implausible, so ludicrous that it is unintentionally funny. Well—actually—maybe I do hate windbags.


Dear Oshkosh B'goshton,

I looked over your corrected posting with interest, and you get an A. Grammar is our fiend...I mean friend, yes!


Dear Ashton,

As much as it pains me to say anything nice about Fanny Price, you're right that she's a much more sympathetic heroine than Jane Eyre. (But you ignore JA's other plain heroine: Catherine Morland.) Jane Eyre is the sort of young woman who, if she lived today would absolutely revel in her plainness, due to the almost universal (mistaken) premise that "different" or "untypical" is good.  Sometimes it is, of course, and sometimes it isn't but most often it's neither.  Jane almost seems to take personal credit for her "defect" as if it were something she worked at like playing the piano or mastering French.  In fact, thinking back on the book I do think she works pretty hard at it; clearly she's not indifferent to her own appearance or that of others.

I think Jane Eyre retains its popularity because its target audience—13-15 year old girls—all see themselves in Jane.  It's hard to explain just how unpleasant those years are for girls without sounding like a spokeswoman for the "women as victim" group, but what with the bleeding, the cramping, and the swelling it doesn't take the Evil Media Empire to make girls feel like mutants.  It's not a modern phenomenon...try reading the biographies of the Catholic saints for instance and you'll find that most of the women (and a surprising number of the men) were anorexic.

It doesn't help that boys that age can't quite figure out how to treat these new creatures or that any compliment (no matter how innocent) from a male older than 20 comes across as a creepy pervert uncle sort of thing.  You'll notice that Mr. Rochester never physically compliments Jane or makes any sort of a sexual comment at all during his courtship though I noticed that as soon as she revealed her feelings, he seemed eager to treat her as just the latest in his long line of prostitutes.

As for Charlotte's comments on Jane Austen, they merely reveal Charlotte's feelings of inferiority.  She attacks Jane's writing, Jane's breeding, and Jane's taste.  In the ironic just desserts department, in venting her feelings Charlotte reveals her true inferiority to Jane: that of intellect.  To refuse to read Jane Austen is one thing, but to have read her and not recognized the passion in her work can't be excused, particularly in another writer.
Cheryl


Dear MuchAbAshton,

No apologies needed!  At least Linda and I have been having a good belly laugh lately!  We would never have had this much fun with Charlotte Bronte!  Though right about now I could use some "open country", "fresh air", "a blue hill" and maybe "a wee bonny beck".

Re-perusing your comparison of Fanny Price and Jane Eyre, I realize how much each of these characters reflected at least a side of her author's character.  Maybe more.  I'm sure Fanny had characteristics which, if JA didn't have herself, she admired.  And there's old Charlotte turning Jane Eyre into a new version of herself - but she made you like her anyway!  So she must have had some claims at being a good writer.

I think Fanny lived every moment of her life with passion, beneath her quiet exterior.  Jane E. was by necessity more hard headed and contained, but still an admirable being.

How many of the respective authoresses' family members do you think were included in each of these novels?  I know William Price was based on JA's brother Francis.  Did you see any others, or Charlotte's relations thinly disguised?



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