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.

09 comments on “Charlotte Bronte vs Jane Austen

  • M.C. , Direct link to comment

    If Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte have anything in common, it’s that they both admired Ann Radcliffe and what she did for the Gothic Novel. But other than that…

    See, this is why I dislike the American film adaption of P&P so much: they took the plot of an Austen novel but filmed it like a Bronte novel with desperate encounters in thunderstorms.

    • Ivana , Direct link to comment

      They do something similar, although in a different way, with adaptations of Wuthering Heights – pretty much all of them, trying to make it into a more typical romance novel (which WH doesn’t fit either, but for different reasons, since Emily Bronte and Jane Austen as weiters are pretty much as different as possible). WH is wildly romantic, but in a very disturbing and harsh and above all wildly Romantic (with capital R) way, framed within the narration of two common sense observers who are quite horrified and put-off by the actions of the protagonists, because, well, they have good reasons to be. The film adaptations tend to remove all the harshness and brutality and other upsetting things, severely whitewash Heathcliff* (and Cathy, and even Hindley – I don’t think any adaptation ever dared to film the scene where he comes home drunk as usual and behaves in the way that makes Nelly Dean scared for his baby son’s life), usually cut off the entire second part of the story (which shows Heathcliff being terrible and abusive to the children of people he wants revenge on, and even his own son) and focus only on the romance elements of the book, changing whatever needs to be changed to make it more palatable to the wide audience.

      Speaking of Victorian critics idea of Charlotte’s writing “maleness”, Emily’s writing was considered even more “masculine” at first – some of the early critics even claimed that the author of Wuthering Heights seems like a rough sailor and that the book is not for gentle ladies. (This line of thinking seems to have persisted in some quarters, hence the theory that Branwell wrote WH since it couldn’t have been written by a woman. File it together with “Shakespeare’s plays were not written by Shakespeare since no non-university-educated commoner could have written such great literature” among my most despised literary theories.) Incidentally, those early critics who thought the author was called Ellis Bell tended to focus on the revenge aspect of the story, but later critics, who knew the author was called Emily Bronte, started to focus on the romance instead, which most do to this day. That says a lot.

      * I think he’s the only character in the history of literature who is routinely and constantly whitewashed in both senses of the word (and that’s a story in itself) in almost every adaptation, and nobody seems to have a problem with it.

  • ARandomPerson , Direct link to comment

    Thank you! Bronte/Austen comparisons irk me, exactly because they’re so different and the comparisons only exist because they’re women who lived within a century of one another. Well, I should say the comparison is so common because they’re famous women who existed within a century of each other. Seriously, can’t our culture let women exist in different spheres? Sometimes, I feel like feminist criticism can run into the same problem–we were reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in class and a lot of the criticism we discussed involved psychoanalyzing Shelley’s relationship with her parents and the gendered expectations she faced as a writer to try and frame Frankenstein as a story about women’s struggles. Not to say a feminist critique of Frankenstein is invalid (it has some issues, to say the least), but trying to box the work into ‘women’s issues’ is very reductive, just like boxing writers into ‘women’s writing’ is.

  • Eric , Direct link to comment

    I think Jane Austen’s popularity today is quite mysterious. There is no explanation for the kind of extraordinary fame which Austen enjoys, which I believe to be just one more example of the arbitrariness of history, blindly choosing – with no rhyme or reason – who will be remembered, and who will be forgotten.

    Why is Austen so freakishly famous, and not (for example) author Thomas Hardy? “Austenites” abound, but I don’t see any “Hardy-ites” about these days. Why don’t Emily Bronte or Eliza Haywood have the kind of fame that Austen has? (Eliza Haywood certainly deserves fame – she was a fantastically successful 1700’s erotic novelist and playwright, an important innovator of the novel, who is now almost totally forgotten. She wrote amazing amorous stories such as Fantomina, in which a young woman disguises herself as three different women, to seduce the same man over and over again – Haywood’s stories are BY FAR much more interesting and thrilling than anything Austen ever wrote.)

    What accounts for Jane Austen’s remarkable fame? And, come to that, why is SHERLOCK HOLMES so bizarrely famous today, either? I thought those old Holmes stories were dead and buried, the kind of stodgy, dry old things that nobody reads anymore, like Robinson Crusoe – and now suddenly both Austen and Holmes are shockingly famous – Austenites everywhere, fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock all over the place. I don’t see any Robinson “Crusoe-ites” having national get-togethers that are big business today. There is an “Austenland” (movie), but no “Crusoeland.”

    The only real explanation would seem to be that history is weird. Publishers frequently say that there are absolutely no rules in the publishing business, about why one writer becomes famous and another does not. It would seem that Austen’s fame today is just another example of that – a weird quirk of publishing history, that just happened because it happened, and for no other reason.

    I personally find Austen’s writing style to be astonishingly difficult to read. I believe her to be a fine storyteller, but with horrible, horrible writing – with impenetrable prose that makes my head throb with pain when I try to read it. I cannot truly imagine anybody having a genuinely pleasant or easy time reading such ugly, technically-demanding sentences; it’s like reading a computer-program printout, and about as interesting, from a dramatic point of view.

    Thus, with so many other better-written, fascinating authors out there, why Austen? Again, I would suspect there is no reason at all. When the American Thomas Paine died, he was seen by most of America as a rabble-rouser – arrogant, mean-spirited, and a dangerous atheist. Yet within a few decades of his death, his reputation inexplicably turned around, and today he is seen as one of America’s Founding Fathers. No reason. It just did because it did. Austen’s fame would seem kind of like that; she gets famous, while so many other more interesting writers do not, and I’m afraid that’s just something we’re all going to have to live with.

    • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

      Austen basically invented the novel as we know it today, thanks to her use of indirect discourse. So there’s that, for a start.

      But I would argue that Thomas Hardy is incredibly well known, and that Emily Bronte is certainly as well known as Jane Austen. I’m sure as many people have heard of Wuthering Heights as of Pride and Prejudice, and more people will have heard of it than books like Persuasion.

      • Gabriella , Direct link to comment

        You’re wrong. Jane Austen didn’t invented the novel as we know it today, there were several writers who wrote novels before Austen. Miguel de Cervantes for example.

        • Rhiannon , Direct link to comment

          I said that she’s often credited with inventing the novel as we understand it today, which is true. Loads of novels were published in English in the 18th century, but they don’t feel like “novels” as we would understand them, because the narrative voice is very different. Jane Austen was the first author writing in English to use free indirect speech to allow her to get into the thoughts of the characters, which some academics credit as the key shift in narrative style between early novels and modern novels. Other academics would obviously define “inventing the modern novel” differently — they are academics, after all. Disagreeing is kind of their thing. 😛

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