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.