In response to my post about the Haworth parsonage, some of you have asked me to explain what I meant by Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen.
Many of Charlotte’s quotes about Jane Austen are available on the internet, but they are rarely quoted in full and are very rarely explained. The bald truth is that Charlotte Bronte, as a romantic writer, seems to have had very little true sympathy or appreciation of Jane Austen’s novels. But her antipathy seems to have stemmed from her introduction to Jane Austen, which took place in a correspondence between herself- writing as “Currer Bell” – and the literary critic, George Henry Lewes and I will quote from her letters here for you to consider.
G.H. Lewes, above, known best today mostly for being the lover of George Elliot, was an influential journalist, author and literary critic of the mid 19th century. He incurred Charlotte Bronte’s wrath by intimating, after the publication of Jane Eyre, that she might profit by writing less melodramatically, and gave her Jane Austen as an exemplar and inspiration. Lewes was fond of Jane Austen and had written in Frazer’s Magazine that
“Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language”
In the Westminster Review, in an article entitled The Lady Novelists, he wrote that Jane Austen was
“the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end. and To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life.
Sadly his work did not come up to the standards of Jane Austen’s, or even of Charlotte Bronte’s novels. They were very melodramatic. For example, I have read his second work of fiction, Rose, Blanche and Violet, published in 1848,as it was part of my grandmother’s collection of books. It is quite poor, in my very humble opinion and is neatly summed up, in the words of Margaret Smith, the editor of Charlotte Bronte’s Selected Letters (OUP, 2007) as
A complicated and incredible plot, and a melodramatic villaness-an adulterous stepmother with “tiger eyes”
Charlotte’s reply, dated 12th January 1848, is very angry, in my opinion. I’m so pleased she had time to consider her reply. Imagine if she had been able to dash off an angry email! She was outraged by Lewes’ suggestions, and this was probably not the best introduction she could have to Jane Austen’s works, for it would seem she had not read any prior to that point. She seethes with scorn, and while her words pretend, in parts, to be meek and submissive, the tone of this letter is anything but, in my opinion:
If I ever do write another book, I think I will have nothing of what you call “melodrama”; I think so, but I am not sure. I think too I will endeavour to follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen’s “mild eyes”; “to finish more and be more subdued”; but neither am I sure of that. When authors write best, or at least, when they wrote most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master, which will have its own way, putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new moulding characters, giving unthought- of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. Is this not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we indeed counteract it?…
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say you would rather have written “Pride and Prejudice” or “Tom Jones’” than any of the Waverly Novels? I had not seen “Pride and Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with near 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 they elegant but confined houses.These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
Now I can understand admiration fo George Sand- for though I never saw any of her works which I admired throughout(…yet she has a grasp of mind which if I cannot fully comprehend I very deeply respect; she is sagacious and profound; MIss Austen is only shrewd and observant. Am I wrong – or were you hasty in what you said?
Lewes replied and Charlotte again took umbrage. In her letter to him of the 18th January 1848 she wrote:
What a strange sentence comes next in your letter! You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that “Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no “sentiment”( you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas) no eloquence none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry- and then you add I must “learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artist of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived”
The last point only will I ever acknowledge. Can there be a great Artist without poetry?What I call-what I will bend to as a great Artist, there cannot be destitute of the divine gift. But by poetry I am sure you understand something different to what I do- as you do by ‘sentiment” .It is poetry, as I comprehend the word which elevates that masculine George Sand and makes out of something coarse, something godlike…Miss Austen being as you say without “sentiment” without poetry, may be – is sensible, real ( or real than true) but she cannot be great.
I submit to your anger which I have now excited( for have I not questioned the perfection of your darling?) the storm may pass over me.Neertheless I will, when I can( I do not know when that will be as I have no access to a circulating library) diligently peruse all Miss Austen’s works as you recommend.
Lewes was one of the people who spread the rumour that Currer Bell was not a man but a woman, yet he was aware that Charlotte wanted to remain anonymous for her reputation’s sake. He did this at the same time that he was fiercely criticising Charlotte’s book, Shirley in his review in the Edinburgh Review. Charlotte had written to him, still as Currer Bell, intimating that should her real persona and sex become known she would
pass away from the public and trouble it no more. Out of obscurity I came, to obscurity I can easily return.
As Juliet Barker wrote in her biography of the Bronte Sisters:
In the light of this letter Lewes subsequent treatment of Currer Bell in the Edinburgh Review was little short of disgraceful. What was almost worse, throughout the review Lewes took every opportunity to gloat over the fact that he was privy to the secret of Currer Bell and suggested that he was on intimate terms with her.
In fact Lewes had just discovered Charlotte’s true identity. Either by persistent enquiry or by pure accident he had met a former schoolfellow of hers who had recognised the Clergy Daughters School in ‘Lowood” and Charlotte Brotne in ‘Currer Bell’…whoever this mysterious informant was Lewes not only made use of his newly acquired knowledge but positively boasted of it.
Poor Charlotte wrote to her publisher that the piece in the Edinburgh Review
…is very brutal and savage. I am not angry with Lewes-but I wish in future he would let me alone-and not write again what makes me feel so cold and sick as I am feeling now
She then wrote Lewes the shortest of notes
I can be on guard against my enemies but God deliver me from my friends.
(See The Brontes, Juliet Barker, pages 724-5)
Eventually Lewes redeemed himself by his review of Villette, but I hardly think this exchange and his actions cover him in any sort of glory. I when I first read about this and Charlotte Bronte’s eventually excursions into society, I wondered how Jane Austen would have fared had she lived and her secret had been well publicised? Perhaps Sir Walter Scott would have protected her from such outrages. Who knows?
And so, it is really no surprise, in my very humble opinion, why Charlotte Bronte disliked Jane Austen’s works so very much. There are more examples of her dislike, but I’ve already written too long on this subject. Stylistically the two authors are worlds apart, but the moral truths running through both writer’s books might have united rather than alienated them. The manner in which they were recommend to Charlotte, in an almost insulting way by a rather pompous and self-important man who was himself, a very poor writer of fiction, meant that Jane Austen was doomed to fail in Charlotte’s eyes. I think, however, that Jane Austen, whatever she thought of Charlotte disliking her works, might have applauded Charlotte’s vigorous defence of her own style, especially as she was under attack from such a pompous fellow as Lewes (and I’m certain she would have disapproved of his morals) ;)