Charlotte Brontë: Proud and Prejudiced

Pardon the title, but I could not resist. However, it does slightly misrepresent my real enjoyment and admiration of Jane Eyre, and I admit myself moved by Gaskells’ depiction of Charlotte Brontë as a strong woman subjected to great hardships.

However, this disclaimer is not one that Gaskell gives for Brontë’s opinion of Jane Austen in the Life of Charlotte Brontë.  We might assume Gaskell is simply representing Brontë’ as she really was, but her subsequent disclaimer for including Brontë’s opinion of Williams’ Rose, Blanche, and Violet (Loc 4104), shows that she intentionally did not pardon the more caustic opinion of Jane Austen.  What was Gaskell thinking not to defend Austen?  What was Brontë thinking to so lightly dismiss her?

Gaskell cannot share Brontë’s dislike for Austen since her own novel North and South was meant as a modern rendering of the same story.  But perhaps in that retelling we may find a solution.  Brontë was from the North; Austen from the South.  Is it possible that Gaskell did not excuse Brontë because she saw the dismissal as natural?

Certainly, Brontë was prone to the “surly independence” of the “Yorkshiremen.”  In fact, Brontë may have rebelled simply because she was told she “must” learn to acknowledge Austen’s greatness.  Yet she also had a preference for her own region. She bemoans Austen’s “carefully-fenced, highly-cultivated garden” (and “commonplace face”!) and laments that there is “no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck” (Loc 4082).  It would seem that Brontë objected to southern breezes, which are not the “fresh air” of Brontë’s wild heaths.  Why could Brontë not see the distinction?

Perhaps this preference for the North and the difficulty of her life made Brontë view her novels (both the ones she wrote and those she read) as requiring a grandeur and a sentiment that abstract the imaginative from the actual. She quips that Austen is “merely shrewd and observant” rather than “sagacious and profound” (Loc 4087) Yet Austen’s observations are “profound” – just not as sentimental as Brontë would wish. When Williams defends Austen, claiming that Austen was no poet and “has no sentiment” (Loc 4093), Gaskell retorts, “Can there be a great artist without poetry?” and finishes by claiming that Austen is “more real than true” (loc 4100).

Gaskell admires Brontë’s remarkable balance of imagination and reason.  Admirable indeed, but that she saw a difference between the two sets her in an entirely different class from Austen.  Gaskell describes Brontë’s practice of writing about things she had not experienced; She would imagine the situation before she fell asleep every night, and then one morning weeks later, it would all be clear (Loc. 6465). Austen’s practice was entirely different. According to her niece, she would sit working by the fire and humming to herself and then laugh, run to the writing table, scribble a few lines and return to her work by the fire. Austen saw the remarkable in the everyday, but Brontë saw the remarkable apart from the everyday.

But then, that is the difference between the romantic and the realist, and perhaps, between the North and the South. Throughout the Life, Gaskell seems sensitive to this difference, always rephrasing northern words for a southern audience.  I wonder if she was so taken by the difference between this northern and southern writer that she did not think to defend one from the other. Perhaps she allowed Williams to defend Austen (who needs little defense), focusing instead on the way in which these two authors represent their times and their countries. Yet I do believe, judging by Austen’s enjoyment of Radcliff’s gothic romances, that her opinion would have been less proud and prejudiced than Brontë’s.

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