Why do so many people who write about Jane Austen feel compelled to referee an imaginary smackdown between her and the Brontë sisters? The latest example is Alan Titchmarsh, writing recently in the UK Telegraph. In a mostly unremarkable tribute to Austen (heartfelt love stories, appealing characters, snarky narrative voice, etc., etc.), he begins by explaining why, despite his Yorkshire roots, he prefers Darcy to Heathcliff.
I just don’t get it. When Austen died, Charlotte Brontë was a toddler; Emily and Anne weren’t even born yet. Austen was a Georgian; the Brontës were Victorians. Austen wrote ironic, restrained courtship novels; the Brontës wrote extravagantly emotional romances. I love the Brontës, but they’re not trying to beat Austen at her own game; they’re playing another sport entirely.
True, all four novelists wrote stories in which heterosexual romance plays an important role, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. And heterosexual romance plays an important role in works by any number of male novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Yet male writers aren’t lined up for head-to-head competition this way. Articles about Dickens don’t lead off by adjudicating his merits vis-à-vis Thackeray or Hardy, as if there were no point in writing about someone who wasn’t certifiably Numero Uno. No, it’s just with women novelists that we're required to pick a single winner. Apparently, there’s only room for one girl in the clubhouse.