Brontë on Austen

I mentioned in my last that Charlotte Brontë was not an Austen fan. I had a vague recollection of some remarks she'd famously made on the subject, and went looking for them. They appear in letters she wrote to the critic GH Lewes, and to her publisher's reader WS Williams, both of whom admired Austen and encouraged Brontë to give her a try. 

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much?" she complained to Lewes in a letter of 12 January 1848. On his advice she had read Pride and Prejudice, but all she found there was 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... [George Sand] is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."

To Williams she wrote, in 1850, that she had just read Emma: “read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she 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; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

It's a difference of period as well as temperement, but it's also, I would venture, a misreading. Brontë's own preference for sturm und drang (the aspect of her novels I find least appealing) leads her to read Austen's calm as a preoccupation with surfaces. In fact surfaces are precisely what Austen is concerned to trouble and displace. Customs and courtesies cover a seething multitude of relational subtleties and human failings. Masks and impressions fall before knowledge and revelation. Austen's sharp penetration of civil surfaces makes for inspired comedy and an enduring social realism for which Brontë never strove. 

Eyre up there

I've just devoured Jane Eyre. Late last year, Nick mentioned that he was enjoying it, and I think I suggested that having devoured it as an adolescent, I hadn't bothered to return to it. I felt what I had relished as a fifteen-year-old would seem tawdry or overblown to me now. However, something made me pick it up last week, and I only put it down this morning.  

My enjoyment is somewhat qualified; my taste doesn't really run as far into faery as all that. So some of the purple passages are a little too purple for me, but you can't beat this one for sheer seat-gripping emotional intensity, and for cataracts of eloquence on the subject of love. I doubt any modern romance could rival Jane's first confession to her Reader that she, the insignificant slip of a governess, loves Rochester, her Byronic master:

“I feel akin to him, - I understand the language of his countenance and movements: though rank and wealth sever us widely, I have something in my brain and heart, in my blood and nerves, that assimilates me mentally to him...Every good, true, vigorous feeling I have, gathers impulsively round him. [Though] we are for ever sundered - yet, while I breathe and think I must love him.”

And here she is giving him a serve:

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you?...Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? - You think wrong! - I have as much soul as you, - and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you.”

Finally, when they are reunited, and he questions her ability to love him, blind and lamed as he is:

“Sacrifice! What do I sacrifice? Famine for food, expectation for content. To be privileged to put my arms round what I value - to press my lips to what I love - to repose on what I trust: is that to make a sacrifice?”

I feel ashamed that I didn't think this book would stand up to rereading; I'd be surprised if anything new could stand up to this book.