Charlotte Bronte’s criticism of Jane Austen continued two years later, in 1850, in her correspondence with William Smith Williams who was the literary adviser to Charlotte’s publisher’s, Smith, Elder and Co. George Smith, the owner of the firm had sent a parcel of books to Charlotte. The twenty books included the first three volumes of Cuthbert Southey’s life of his father, the poet, Robert Southey, the letters of Charles Lamb, and G H Lewes’ play,The Noble Heart. (Ahem….) Also included in the parcel were copies of Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Pride and Prejudice.
In her letter to Williams of the 12th April 1850 Charlotte, wherein she commented on these book, she again addressed her dissatisfaction with Jane Austen’s style, but I think in this letter, as opposed to the ones written to Lewes, there is less anger:
I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works, “Emma”- read it with interest and just the degree of admiration which Mis Austen herself would ache thought sensible and suitable- anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would ache met with a well-bred sneer, would have clammy scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating peole seriously 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 occasionally graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death- this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible ( not senseless) woman; if this is heresy- I cannot help it.If I said it to some people(Lewes form instance) they would directly accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics,but I not afraid of you falling into any such vulgar error.
It seems a pity to me that Smith failed to send her copies Mansfield Park and Persuasion. But…and do not beat me…I often wonder if there was some semblance of inverted snobbery at work here. Charlotte Bronte was criticised for delineating very poorly and with little accuracy the scenes in Jane Eyre where the local gentry were disporting themselves at Thornfield Hall. I wonder if she realised that Jane Austen could write these scenes-at Pemberley or Hartfield for example- with ease because she hailed from that same social sphere?
The only grudging compliment made by Charlotte to Jane Austen that I could find was contained in her letter to G. H. Lewes of 18th January of 1848. Lewes again irritated Charlotte by suggesting she should admire the style of Eliza Lynn Linton, shown below. Eliza’s novel, Azeth the Egyptian was described by H. F Chorley as overwrought, tedious and florid in the Atheneum of January 23rd, 1847.
You mention the authoress of ‘Azeth the Egyptian’; you say you think I should sympathise ” with her daring imagination and pictorial fancy”. Permit me to undeceive you; with infinitely more relish can I sympathise with Miss Austen’s clear common sense and subtle shrewdness. If you find no inspiration in Miss Austen’s page, neither do you find mere windy wordiness; to use your words over again, she exquisitely adapts her means to her end; both are very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd.
So there you have it: sadly, it is faint praise indeed.