Charlotte Bronte vs Jane Austen
Every once in a while, a post travels around Tumblr, declaring that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was inspired by the character of Jane Fairfax in Austen’s Emma.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the statement. Not only is it often presented as a defence of fanfiction, but the “fact” feels like a wonderful easter egg, bringing a sense of continuity and neatness to the female literary canon.
Of course, it’s complete nonsense. Charlotte Bronte hated Austen’s books, vocally and repeatedly. And even if she didn’t, her letters suggest she didn’t read any of Austen’s work until after Jane Eyre was published. But the persistence of this myth is interesting (or troubling, depending on your perspective), because of why Charlotte Bronte appeared to hate Austen so much.
In short, Bronte criticized Austen so fiercely because critics kept attempting to put her and Austen into the same category of “lady writers,” criticizing her not on the strength of her own work, but based on the idea that she and Austen must be similar and pursue the same narrative goals.
Kind of like how modern day readers would like to believe that Bronte was inspired by Austen, with the second 19th century female author that most people can name carrying on the novel-writing mantle left by the first.
The works of Austen and the Brontes have very little in common, beyond being set at some point in the 19th century and being written by female writers. Austen and Charlotte Bronte led very different lives, during completely different eras (Bronte was only one year old when Austen died), and they wrote very different books. Austen wrote social commentary through the comedy of restrained noble life, while the Bronte sisters wrote books that were as sweeping-emotion, dramatic landscapes, ominous rainstorms and forbidden romance-y as they come.
That isn’t to say that Austen had no influence on Charlotte Bronte whatsoever. Even if Bronte didn’t read her books until after Jane Eyre was published, Austen is often credited with “inventing the novel” as we understand it today, and the style she popularized would have been passed down to Bronte as the genre evolved. But she only influenced Bronte as much as she influenced any other 19th century writer, and less than many.
Yet Bronte dealt with harsh criticism claiming she should be more like Austen, apparently simply because of their shared gender. Most of this came from critic G. H. Lewes, who wrote to Bronte to tell her that she would be better off writing less dramatically, and should look to Austen for inspiration. Bronte was furious, and wrote back saying that she picked up one of Austen’s novels on his recommendation and found it emotionally cold.
Bronte’s replies to Lewes suggest that he basically told her that her novels were too emotional and sentimental, and that if she wished to be a Proper Writer, she’d copy Austen’s more restrained style — despite the fact that Lewes wrote rather melodramatic novels himself.
Lewes also spread rumors about Charlotte Bronte — aka author Currer Bell’s — true identity. She wrote to him, under her pen name, to tell him that she would leave the public eye if her true identity ever became known, in response to his rumors. He responded by spreading more rumors in a scathing review of her newest work, Shirley. And his problem with Bronte, inspiring both these rumors and his “advice” about Austen, seems to have been that some critics might actually mistake her for a man.
In his article The Lady Novelist, Lewes commented on the debate about Currer Bell’s gender, and the fact that other critics had said “none but a man could have written” Jane Eyre. He strongly disagreed, writing:
The lyrical tendency — the psychological and emotional tendency which prevails in Jane Eyre may have blinded some to the rare powers of observation also exhibited in the book; a critical examination, however, will at once set this right, the more so when we know that the authoress has led a solitary life in a secluded part of Yorkshire, and has had but little opportunities of seeing the world. She has made the most of her material.
In other words, he resented the suggestion that the author could be a man, and argued that not only did the book have feminine qualities (aka Austen’s powers of observation), but those apparently masculine qualities also only appeared because she was an isolated hermit who did not really know anything about the world. She was writing wrongly for a woman, but only because she didn’t know how to do so properly, poor creature. He simply had to write to her repeatedly and expose her to the proper feminine way to write.
No wonder Bronte was inclined to dislike Austen and disparage her less emotional writing style.
Lewes did seem to genuinely respect Austen’s work — in The Lady Novelists, he called Austen “the greatest artist that has ever written.” But he seems to have considered Austen a shining example of a particular subgenre of literature, the female novel, and expected other female novelists to fit themselves into that Austen-defined genre as well. Charlotte Bronte was female, so she could find inspiration from Austen, and work her talents into the same mold, with none of these silly dramatic emotions — which, somewhat ironically, were mistaken for a sign of her maleness — getting in the way.
And over 150 years later, we still find this unspoken category of “the female novel” appealing. As we now find “observation” to be a masculine writing trait and “overdramatic emotion” to be a female one, our impressions of Austen have been forced to change (she’s now all about emotion and romance in popular culture, despite what the actual books contain), but we still want to group these novels together, despite the fact that they’re separated by time, geography, focus, style, voice… pretty much everything except the author’s gender. It seems so neat and wonderful that the second female author we can all easily name was inspired by the first, because we would like to think of these Female Novelists as somehow separate from everything else happening in British literature in the more than forty years between the two books’ publications. But by forcing them together, we’re still constructing the same narrative that Charlotte Bronte fought against over 150 years ago — the idea that the works of female authors must be alike, and that they must all like and be inspired by one another, and one another alone.