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?