Was it jealousy? Charlotte Bronte’s comments about Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Charlotte Bronte

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…she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her

It is interesting to consider the stereo-typical reader of Jane Austen. There is that general image of women, mostly young and looking for a world of romance and lightheartedness into which they can escape their modern-day lives. Do these readers seek relief from their troubles, flitting in and out of a fantasy world of ballrooms, dresses and frivolous gossip? And is there that ultimate reason for reading Austen’s works: knowing that they always end in a dream of happiness and marriage?

In my usual way of reading, I find much darker undertones to Austen’s novels. Jane Austen is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, satirical writers. Paying attention to the language and techniques rather than the storyline reveals that she generally likes to make fun of the naive and unsuspecting minds of her characters. The most obvious example is ‘Emma’; Miss Woodhouse’s confidence and even arrogance is utterly destroyed by her own mistakes, and the reader is made aware of the ironies of her situation throughout by our cunning author. In ‘Northanger Abbey’, also, we have Catherine Morland, a victim of her love of Gothic fiction and wild imagination. Funnily enough, readers of ‘Northanger Abbey’ probably would have shared Morland’s love for Ann Radciffe’s Giothic novels, so in a way Austen presents her own audience as comic. She subtly makes criticisms of class and society (she was from a lower class herself) despite the fact that as a female writer it would have been very difficult to openly do this at the time. She therefore has one of the cleverest and strongest voices in all of literature. Most sad of all aspects of her novels is her portrayal of the difficulties of relationships and marriage. Whilst her characters enjoy happy marriages, Austen and her sister never married. The drama ‘Becoming Jane’ is loosely based on their lives.

Charlotte Bronte, whose comments on Austen are shown above, was writing after Austen had died. Bronte did not like the lack of passion in the works of Austen, and was possibly bored by what could have seemed to her to be trivial events. They were writing in very different environments; Austen with the heavy pressures of society, forcing her to write anonymously throughout much of her career, whilst Bronte, whose controversial events of ‘Jane Eyre’ would still have been quite shocking, was working amongst her sisters who were also writing ‘passionately’, in a rural Yorkshire setting and with contemporaries in literature who were finding greater freedoms in expression. I reckon that Charlotte Bronte simply didn’t understand the restrictions on Jane Austen’s writing, and didn’t have time to look deeper for her fiercely passionate voice.

I feel that this too is what prevents many modern readers from getting through to what Austen was really saying. She is as brilliant a writer as any in her way of looking at society, and showing the victims and heroines of it.

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One thought on “Was it jealousy? Charlotte Bronte’s comments about Jane Austen

  1. Pingback: The Second Stanza Stone | Ididn'twantanyflowers

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