Both Alike in Dignity

Over the weekend my friend and critique partner Gen Turner started a Twitter imbroglio when she confessed that she doesn’t really connect with the novels of Jane Austen. I was traveling so I didn’t get to follow all the nuances of the ensuing discussion, but several of us posited that there seems to be a schism in romancelandia (and probably the broader culture) between folks who love the novels of Jane Austen and those who prefer those by the Bronte sisters. Elisabeth Lane compared it to the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate.

If so, it makes sense. While Austen died in 1817 when the Bronte sisters were infants, Charlotte Bronte famously disliked Austen’s novels, saying Pride and Prejudice was “An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face” or, in other words, realistic but boring. In another letter Charlotte Bronte wrote, “The Passions are perfectly unknown to [Austen].”

There’s a lot I could say here about how Austen is more properly grouped with the 18th century novelists than the 19th century ones. Austen has a more Enlightenment view of human nature and love, not to mention that she wrote novels with strong romantic elements not genre romances per se. In contrast the Brontes–who are hardly a united front as my favorite Kate Beaton cartoon spoofs–were more influenced by Romanticism and Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” They also wrote for a vastly different audience.

But that’s not my area of expertise and so I’ll refrain.

Instead I want to suggest that Austen/Bronte debate is unnecessarily adversarial. Genre romance descends from both, as Pamela Regis explicates nicely in A Natural History of the Romance Novel, but I’m going to argue that genre romance uses Austen and Bronte for different things. To my mind, Austen provides a set of plots for romance and Charlotte Bronte provides an aesthetic for romance prose.

Consider Austen’s major novels: they provide us with excellent examples of friends-to-lovers (Emma, Sense and Sensibility), enemies-to-lovers (Pride and Prejudice), second-chance-at-love (Persuasion), and opposites-attract (Northanger Abbey). Hell, I’d argue that Marianne/Colonel Brandon and Fanny/Edmund (no one likes Mansfield Park, do they?) have marriages of convenience romances and that if we imagine a happily ever after for Lydia/Wickham, that’s a lust to love elopement romance.

Fine, that last one is too far, but you get my point: lots of now-standard romance plots appear in Austen. If we expand to consider backstories and secondary characters we even get secret babies (Sense and Sensibility), wounded heroes (Persuasion), and vicars. Oh so many vicars…

I’m not saying Austen invented these plots–as Regis demonstrates, Austen did not–but for many contemporary American readers, Austen is the earliest novelist they read. I wrote a fifth grade book report on Pride and Prejudice. It and Much Ado About Nothing were my first exposure to banter-y, enemies to lovers romances, and I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

But even with my early love of Austen, I understand how Austen could seem cold and reserved to a modern reader. She stands apart from her creations. She judges them. She judges everyone. (Read her letters if you don’t believe me.) She sees the foibles of her characters. And while romance drives her plots, she’s curiously uninterested in it, or at least uninterested in consummated, accepted love. We never see a woman in an Austen novel say yes to a marriage proposal. And once the central couple (or couples) are engaged, it’s over: Austen is done with them. There’s no wallowing in the happily ever after here for all that we get some rushed epilogues. I almost wonder whether she’s distrustful of the HEA itself as there are so few happy marriages in her novels.

Compare this to the Bronte’s novels. Here, I mean primarily Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which seem like the most widely read and adapted of their books. In comparison to Austen, the point-of-view is much closer (first person!) and the descriptions of interior and exterior spaces are much more psychological.

As just one example, in Jane Eyre when Rochester confesses his love and rain starts to fall; lightening splits a tree: “But joy soon effaced every other feeling; and loud as the wind blew, near and deep as the thunder crashed, fierce and frequent as the lightning gleamed, cataract-like as the rain fell during a storm of two hours’ duration, I experienced no fear and little awe…the great horse-chestnut at the bottom of the orchard had been struck by lightning in the night, and half of it split away” (Chapter XXIII). When people complained that the 2005 film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice had been Bronte-ized, I think that’s what they meant.

In some cases in the Bronte novels, we even get point-of-view shifts (Wuthering Heights). The emotion is there, spilled all over page in Bronte. But it’s not just a shift in how the books are written: major plot points like Jane Eyre getting locked in the red room are simply impossible to imagine in Austen. I know people who disliked or misunderstood their partners when they first met. I don’t know anyone whose beau had a first wife literally locked in an attic–and I’m not even going to touch all the stuff that goes down in Wuthering Heights.

You can find the influence of the Bronte’s novels on plots in romantic suspense, paranormal romance, and erotic romance, but in general I would argue that modern romance takes Austen’s plots and spins them through the style of the Brontes.

So, what say you: is the Austen/Bronte divide intractable? Do you like one or the other? Both? And who has influence on the romances of today?

25 thoughts on “Both Alike in Dignity

  1. I do find Austen’s judgy-ness very off putting. The world of her novels is also too narrow for my tastes. You never see any servants, no one seems to do anything except visit with others—it just all feels very pinched to me.

    I know that the Brontes can seem over the top (and Wuthering Heights is just out there, I agree) but the world of the Brontes seems more real to me, even with all the emotional excess. The characters have occupations, they strive for things—like respect and acceptance and a place in the world, especially with Jane Eyre.

    Whereas with Austen’s characters, especially her female ones, there’s an attitude of “We’ll get married or we’ll starve.” I can’t really sympathize with that.

    And then there’s Wildfell Hall, which is a pretty brutal indictment of the romantic view of reforming a rake and has a heroine who flees her husband and supports herself while in hiding. For someone who never married, it’s an amazingly clear eyed view of what a bad marriage can do to a woman and the strength it takes to leave one. But we all know I’m an Anne fangirl. :)

    1. So there’s this other famous letter in which Austen describes what she thinks she’s doing (in contrast to the market): “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” So I can absolutely see–and I don’t think she’d dispute–a certain narrowness to her interest and artistic vision.

      I would push back a bit, though, on the idea that Austen doesn’t have a wider interest. There are critics who read her as a war novelist, emphasizing the number of soldiers and sailors in her books (P&P and Persuasion in particular) and tracking oblique references to colonialism, Napoleon, etc. And if anything, what keeps Austen from being a romance novelist in the modern sense is her critique of the society in which she lives. She is mocking social climbers and some gentlemen, certain church types, etc., and in some ways she seems to find that stuff more interesting than her love plots.

      But all that said, even as someone who prefers Austen, I can see where your critique originates. I’ll make sure to move Wildfell Hall up in my TBR.

  2. Thanks for tackling this Emma! I enjoy both Jane & Charlotte but prefer Jane. I enjoy her distance, her plots & wit. I think I prefer Austen because they are more grounded. My favorite Bronte is Villette which is probably the most restrained of Charlotte’s novels. The ending would wreck me now but I loved the twists and turns in that one. They felt less over the top than Jane Eyre with its telphatic moaning. I do really appreciate the complexity of her CB’s characters.

    1. For me, it’s the gothic stuff that keeps me from really loving the Bronte novels (with the exception of Jane Eyre which I read when I was very young and perhaps more over the top). I guess I’m a bit of an observer and an outsider and I’ve always felt a bit socially awkward, which seems more Austen’s bag than Bronte’s (except, again, with Jane Eyre). But I can’t shake that sense that the Bronte’s style–or maybe more precisely, the mid to late 19th C prose innovations–is more in line with contemporary romance than Austen’s detached irony. So while there have been more Austen adaptations, I don’t think Austen is more influential **stylistically** than the Brontes.

  3. Oh darn it! I think WP just swallowed my comment!

    I enjoy both Austen & Bronte but I prefer Austen.

    I like Austen’s wit, her plots and her distance. My favorite Bronte is CB’s most restrained, Villette. The ending would wreck me now if I read it again. It has twists and turns a plenty but they don’t feel as over the top as JE & WH. I do appreciate how emotionally complex CB’s characters are.

  4. I like both, but I find Austen’s novels more comfortable and enjoyable (because humor). Besides, I enjoy a bit of emotional distance, myself, and I’m prone to judgment… One thing the Brontes have on Austen (in addition to all that passion) is a stronger sense of justice and moral gray area, especially in characterization. Austen’s characters toe the line of acceptable behavior, always striving for unexceptionable. The Brontes’ characters, on the other hand, have their own, ingrained morality which may or may not chime with society’s version of right and wrong. And they DGAF.

    1. As Clarissa says below, Austen’s novels are so tied to the time and place in which they were written–which does make interesting that there was such a resurgence in their popularity starting in the mid 90s. As an aside, I spent years (YEARS) reading 19th C American newspapers and magazines and I’ve never seen a reference to Austen in any of that reading. But there are references to the Brontes all the time. So it’s worth emphasizing that Austen really did disappear for a long time. She hasn’t been continually popular, while the Brontes have.

      I need to keep thinking about your point about morality because it’s really insightful. Fodder for a future post, maybe. : )

      1. Interesting about the newspapers. I wonder if you’d get the same result searching English newspapers of the time? I could imagine that Austen would have been unpopular in the US because at the time of her writing, she was part of “the enemy” (War of 1812 and all that) and very firmly wrote about life in the English upper class, who was the main antagonist. Just a guess…

  5. I like both, but I don’t see them as competing, necessarily, just as arising out of two different genres. You mention that Austen’s novels owe much to 18th-century lit, and I agree: their focus on balance, wit, and elegance means that the passion never gets out of bounds as it does in Bronte novels. Austen’s novels are comedies of manners; most of the Bronte sisters’ novels are gothic and focus on societal outcasts in some way (like Genevieve, I’m a big fan of Wildfell Hall too!). The Brontes seem to appeal more to modern readers, perhaps because their work is less anchored to their era than Austen’s (in terms of social conventions, especially).

    1. Yes, this! I was trying to say that people seem to think they are competing, but contemporary genre romance seems indebted to both in different ways. But I don’t think the Brontes and Austen had the same goals or did the same cultural work at all and so it’s in some ways unfair to compare them. And I do agree (also) that the Austen many readers like comes to us through a wilder Romanticism that’s not really intrinsic to her vision: Firth wet in the lake and all that. There’s a gap between the Austen of the novels and the Austen of the big and small screen (which is obviously well-litigated territory).

  6. It must be the day for writing posts on Brontë vs. Austen! I just wrote one of those myself yesterday. ( I’m firmly in the Austen camp. Don’t mind Jane Eyre, can’t stand Wuthering Heights, haven’t read any of Anne’s books. Love every single Jane Austen (yes, including Mansfield! But that’s another topic).
    Very interesting observations on the Brontësizing of the 2005 P&P (I recently wrote a post on that one, too), and on how Austen and the Brontës both are stops on the romance novel’s development journey. One of these days I’d like to dig into that topic of “What does ‘romance’ really mean?” Amongst other things, Austen once said that she “couldn’t write a romance” – obviously, she meant something very different by that word than “love story”.

    1. What a great post! I do think it’s strange when people think Austen wrote Jane Eyre, but I think to many readers, Austen and Bronte doesn’t seem like a conflict. After all they all wrote love stories in the first half of the 19th C, gowns and corsets and love letters and all that. But they’re quite different.

      To your question above about Austen’s popularity, I haven’t read nearly as widely in British periodicals as I have in American. But I have read a significant number of issues of the London Journal (which had the largest circulation in the UK in the mid century) and have never seen an Austen reference there either. Now clearly **someone** was reading Austen, or else Kipling wouldn’t haven’t written “The Janeites.” But it seems pretty clear to that Austen got recovered at some point in the mid 20th C while the Brontes, and specifically Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, have always enjoyed broader popularity.

      And for what it’s worth, I think many contemporary readers read Austen through the film and television adaptations, which sometimes bear a questionable tonal relationship to the original texts.

      1. Yes, I’m totally with you on today’s readers filtering Austen through the movies! I even wrote a grad school paper on it. :) Colin Firth has become *the* symbol of Austen (to the point of becoming a symbol of “classic literature” – did you see that thing about the 10ft-high wet-shirt-Darcy statue that was built to celebrate the new Drama channel a couple years ago?).

  7. I can appreciate Austen and her observational style, her social commentary, as I do appreciate social commentary a great deal, but I love JE for the passion, the honesty and unabashed centering of love in the characters and the plot, and the protagonist’s justice, as another commenter mentioned. I think we can relate. I have never liked WH, however, too General Hospital. ;)

    1. WH is totally a soap (which I mean in a descriptive and not evaluative way)!!

      I taught Jane Eyre in a course on romance novels (I showed the 1996 Emma). And I taught Bronte’s novel as a BDSM romance. My students totally bought the continuity between it and 50 Shades of Grey or The Siren.

      1. I can see that progression. :D I should also say that I have always loved literature that examines the internal lives of characters, which is why I also loved The Scarlet Letter. So that may have something to do with it. Sympathizing with Book Elizabeth Bennet, for example, was difficult and beside the point. It’s an illustrative lesson for a romance author, Jane Eyre vs. Elizabeth Bennet, on the differences that make a character sympathetic (and the resulting response of the reader!).

  8. I can see the influence of both in romance today. That being said I am far more inclined to like those books of the Austen ilk than the Bronte. The only books by the Bronte sisters I’ve read are Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. That was all I could take. I can honestly say I despise both those books. I despised them as a teen and as a college English student. I’ve worked really hard to not have to read them as an adult non-student.

    I do agree (as you say in a comment above) that it’s unfair to compare them. They are doing different things an will find different audiences in a lot of cases. There are people who enjoy both, but many who will gravitate toward one or the other.

    1. What I love about all of these comments are **why** someone likes Austen or Bronte more, because those reasons give us so much insight into who we are as readers.

      For a while I got interested in biographies of Austen. I read (I think) six of them. They were interesting to me not because Austen’s life was so fascinating (it wasn’t) but because there are so few facts about her that seeing what different writers did with those scanty facts told me a lot about scholarship and biography. But I digress!

  9. What an interesting idea, to teach WH as BDSM romance. I’ve always loved both Charlotte Bronte & Jane Austen, but could not stand Emily, esp. WH. Just too much sex and violence mixed up together for my comfort.

    In regards to my blog about taking a fuzzy set approach to defining romance, I was thinking about how different romance would look if we put P&P in the center of the fuzzy set vs. JE or WH. Perhaps we need a fuzzy set with two center points? Austen & Bronte?

    1. YES. I think that’s exactly what I was trying to say here. Many romances are comedies of manners in the tradition of Austen (say, sports romances, those about families or groups of friends, or even motorcycle club books), insofar as they represent, catalogue, and even gentle mock subcultures. But others fit into Bronte/gothic tradition (romantic suspense, erotic romance, PNR). I’d love to see you write about this. ; )

      And I totally, 110% believe teaching Jane Eyre as BDSM is illuminating. I did not, however, come up with this idea on my own. See here. There have also been several “updated” versions that add BDSM elements, but I think it’s all already there. Look for all the uses of master and slave, all the erotics of the gaze stuff during the tableaux vivant scene or (even more clearly) the scene with St. John, Jane, and his drawing of Rosamund. (Seriously, read that scene again. It’s…tense.)

      1. Wow, guess I misread—thought you had taught WUTHERING HEIGHTS as BDSM, not JANE EYRE. But after reading the article you linked to, I can totally see JE as consensual BDSM. Can you imagine approaching WUTHERING HEIGHTS from a BDSM viewpoint?

  10. amo: yeah, the wet shirt Firth statute was…like, hilarious on the one hand and also problematic. It always cracks me up when people insist the 1995 P&P is more faithful than the 2005 when it seems to me that they both take liberties with the source material, it’s just a question of which set of liberties a given viewer prefers. (And I have no problem with adaptational choices. I think we need to be clear about them.)

    gnureads: there’s an entire school of thought on the history of the novel that basically lines books up from 1750 until about 1900 and sees the progression in terms of interiority and psychology, peaking with Henry James. Austen definitely falls on the end of the scale that’s less interested in representing the internal lives of her characters. I did write a post (here) about how the novel shows the characters learning to read each and I tried to make the case that the grammar=interiority. I failed. ; )

  11. Jackie: I haven’t read Wuthering Heights in a long time, but I remember there being a lot of the same master/slave language and motifs as in JE. Beyond that, the overall intensity of WH, and the connections it draws between violence, death, and sex, are very BDSM. I remember Kelly (who commented above) reviewing an erotic retelling of Wuthering Heights, here and here. I didn’t read that book, but I found the discussion around it interesting.

    One of the things I liked about teaching Jane Eyre was almost all my students had read it in a class setting before. So we’d read it as a classic or maybe as a romance, but being able to recontextualize it draw out elements we’d missed was very cool.

    1. Yup… Wuthering Nights. I can’t approve of it, really, but I do wish more people would read it. It was interesting, especially if you read it as literary criticism of WH and — perhaps — criticism of modern alphahole erotica.

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