Deborah Yaffe

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Two hundred candles for Charlotte

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 21 2016 07:28PM

Two hundred years ago today, one of the world’s greatest novelists was born in a small village in rural England.


I refer, of course, to Charlotte Brontë.


Despite the frequent, idiotic conflation of Jane Austen with Brontë’s most famous character -- most recently by a hapless contestant on a British TV game show – these two writers really don’t have anything to do with each other. Yet I fear it may count as radical and provocative for a Janeite like myself to point out that I love Charlotte Brontë.


All too often, Austen fans seem inclined to dis the Brontë sisters (and possibly vice versa, although I haven’t spent enough time around Brontë aficionados to know). Arguably, Charlotte Brontë herself started the whole thing with her kinda clueless anti-Austen statements, but Janeites have since joined the fray.


At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s 2011 conference, a JASNA official known for her anti-Brontë sentiments was introduced to the audience with the announcement that, despite her recent retirement, “she has not yet stooped to picking up a Brontë novel.” When her own turn came at the podium, the JASNA official welcomed “one last chance for Brontë-bashing,” which she called “a great tradition.” (The line drew enthusiastic applause, though not from me.)


Now, it’s easy to understand why a fan of the cool, restrained Jane might not warm to the extravagantly emotional Charlotte, Emily and (to a lesser extent) Anne. These artists differ radically in sensibility, use of language, and approach to plot and character.


But so what? No law requires us to match up our enthusiasms like socks. Just as we enjoy the friendship of different kinds of people, many of us enjoy the work of different kinds of artists. It shouldn’t seem remarkable to find Jane Austen and Jane Eyre sharing a bookshelf of treasured favorites.


I’ve said it before: The weird insistence on pitting Austen against the Brontës in some kind of death-struggle is purely sexist. No one insists that fans of, say, Dickens and Trollope must inevitably find themselves locked in mortal combat. Male writers are seen as individuals; female writers are still, alas, too often seen as members of a group that only gets to send one guest to the party.


So, fellow Janeites, let’s refuse to play that silly game. Join me in wishing a very happy two hundredth birthday to a great novelist who happens not to be Jane Austen.


8 comments
Apr 21 2016 08:19PM by A. Marie

I'm with you. Happy two centuries, Charlotte!

Although I find myself becoming more Austenian than Brontean as I age, I'm still the kid who read Jane Eyre at a single sitting at age 14, and walked through high school in a fog for three weeks after seeing the George C. Scott/Susannah York version on TV. (NB: The John Williams soundtrack for that one still stands up to scrutiny after all these years, although several other aspects of it now look pretty creaky. Also, there isn't a good-quality DVD of it to be had for love or money.)

Finally, have you noticed that although many Janeites profess scorn for the Brontes, the line "Reader, I married him" gets ripped off among us with some regularity?

Apr 21 2016 08:36PM by dyaffe

Glad to hear there's another Janeite Bronte fan out there! I've never seen the Scott/York version of Jane Eyre -- I'm sorry to hear it's hard to find. I still haven't seen a perfect screen version, though I do like the Ruth Wilson/Toby Stephens one quite a bit.

Apr 22 2016 04:35PM by Ian Miller

I am glad of those who are high-minded enough (and broad-hearted) to love them both. I do not (though I do admit that Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a beautiful novel), mostly because I find Mr. Rochester so frustrating (though the Toby Stephens interpretation of him makes him somewhat palateable, giving him a sense of playfulness instead of joyless manipulation and dishonesty).

In my own literary experience, I mostly meet Bronte fans who mock Jane Austen, so that confirms me in my own (somewhat irrational) antipathy.

Apr 22 2016 05:34PM by dyaffe

It's inevitable that not every book works for every reader, so I certainly wouldn't insist that every Bronte fan must love Austen, or vice versa. I've mostly been puzzled by the insistence that you have to choose one or the other, which seems to me fundamentally sexist. (As is, perhaps, the lumping of the three Brontes into a single unit, despite the significant differences among their novels). I'll defend Mr. Rochester to the death, though -- when you fall in love at 14, I guess you never quite recover. :-)

Apr 22 2016 07:05PM by Ian Miller

I'm not convinced that all of them are sexist - I feel the same way about Star Wars and Star Trek as I do about Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte (I do agree that lumping the Bronte's together isn't very clear thinking) - they appeal to a very specific set of things that resonate with my experience and values. I never fell in love with Rochester, though I do love Jane Eyre herself (especially with either Charlotte Gainsbourg or Ruth Wilson playing her). I think the reason people pit Austen and Bronte against each other may occasionally be due to sexism, but also because unlike Dickens and Trollope, people usually love them quite intensely. I've met a few Trollope fans, but none of them care about The Way We Live Now the same way people care about Emma or Pride and Prejudice (or even Mansfield Park), or Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. The passion simply isn't there for people to care whether Dickens or Trollope was better (especially since Dickens won that match pretty easily a hundred years ago in the mind of popular culture).

Apr 23 2016 04:57AM by dyaffe

That's an interesting point. Austen certainly provokes intense feelings of possessiveness and identification (didn't I write a whole book about that?) and I guess Bronte does too (although I haven't written a book about that!) But they aren't the only authors that's true of -- I'd argue that Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Conan Doyle and probably some others also evoke these intense fan attachments, without leading to the cage-match smackdown syndrome I've noticed between Austen and Bronte. I do think that there's a tendency, probably unconscious in some cases, to feel that only one female author gets to claim a spot in the canon, and therefore we must argue with particular vehemence for our chosen candidate.

Apr 23 2016 01:10PM by Ian Miller

Well, all of the people you mention have very different relationships with each other than Austen and Bronte. The Trollope/Dickens rivalry is probably closest in genre to the Austen/Bronte rivalry - there's a distinct similarity in project between each pair (subject matter, setting, economic issues dealt with, chronological closeness, etc), but unlike Austen and Bronte, Trollope is more of a footnote, while DIckens is the main show. Austen and Bronte both have their own devoted fanbases, with multiple films, stageplays, book clubs, modernization rewrites, fanfiction, and otherwise indicators that their works remain cultural touchstones.

Like I said, I do agree that occasionally, there are people who try to only allow one woman into the canon with this kind of rivalry (though I don't know what they do with George Elliot), but usually those are the type who denigrate one or the other as not worthwhile. My own "rivalry" between the two has more to do with which one resonates with me. I fully acknowledge Charlotte Bronte's talents - Jane herself is a really awesome creation, and I can understand, even if I dislike, the appeal of her relationship with Rochester. It's a very complex novel with great insights into human nature and society. I just happen to love Jane Austen more, and the fact that people tend to use Bronte as a stick to hit Austen with tends to embitter me against her.

Apr 23 2016 04:42PM by dyaffe

Ha! I don't think we should blame the author for the transgressions of her fandom -- goodness knows that poor Jane Austen shouldn't be held responsible for the insanity of us Janeites.

As for your larger point: I guess my feeling is that Austen and Bronte(s) wouldn't necessarily be seen as closely related to each other, and therefore in some kind of implicit competition, were it not that both/all of them are female. Lots and lots of 19th century novelists wrote books that were similar in subject matter, setting, economic issues, etc. to both Austen and the Brontes, but it's only these two/four who are linked in this way. (George Eliot often gets treated as an honorary man, either because she wrote under a male name or because her books are more overtly cerebral.)

But hey -- all these people are fantastic artists, so as far as I'm concerned, it's all good.

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