Thursday, 22 August 2013

Charlotte Bronte (and I) on Jane Austen

This letter from Charlotte to George Lewes, I believe all Janeites have seen:

"Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written 'Pride and Prejudice' or 'Tom Jone's, than any of the 'Waverley' novels?

I had not seen 'Pride and Prejudice' till I had read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped [photographed] portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck [stream]. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you. but I shall run the risk.

Now I can understand admiration of George Sand [Lucie Aurore Dupin]...she has a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I can very deeply respect: she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant."

This letter understandably has enraged Janeites everywhere. I should add, the last paragraph has always been removed, which I think is pretty important and relevant as well.

What I did not know and perhaps many other people did not know either, is that it was not the only time Charlotte said anything about Jane Austen. In response to George Lewes's letter to the preceding, she wrote:

"You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that 'Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no 'sentiment' (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas), has no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry'; and then you add, I must 'learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived'.

The last point only will I ever acknowledge. ... Miss Austen being, as you say, without 'sentiment', without poetry, maybe is sensible (more real than true), but she cannot be great."

Research reveals a lost following paragraph to this letter, in which Charlotte expressed her preference for Jane Austen over some Eliza Lynn Lynton:

"With infinitely more relish can I sympathise with Miss Austen's clear common sense and subtle shrewdness. If you find no inspiration in Miss Austen's page, neither do you find mere windy wordiness; to use your words over again, she exquisitely adapts her means to her end; both are very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd.''

Then 2 years later, she wrote about Jane Austen again, this time in a letter to W. S. Williams:

"I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, 'Emma' -- read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress."

Also, I'm uncertain of the time, but Charlotte, when warned against being too melodramatic, replied like this:

"Whenever I do write another book, I think I will have nothing of what you call 'melodrama'. I think so, but I am not sure. I think, too, I will endeavour to follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen's 'mild eyes', to finish more, and be more subdued; but neither am I sure of that. When authors write best, or, at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master -- which will have its way -- putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating certain words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature, new moulding characters, giving unthought of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. Is it not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we indeed counteract it?"


I began reading "Persuasion" this afternoon, after finishing "King Lear" (Shakespeare).

After about 5-6 chapters, I gave up. It may be the effects of the play and I might later return to that book by Jane Austen, but I rather think that, with all due respect, I have a personality that is in conflict with the world of Jane Austen- a hot temper and passionate personality, a preference for vibrant colours and aversion to what I'd call 'toned-down colours' (light blue, light pink, light purple...), a yearning for freedom and independence and a dislike of conventions as much as of conformists, a fascination with haunting and deeply moving and profound books, a lack of interest in gossips and in other people's personal lives (unless they're close), a lack of interest in dresses and parties... 

Like Charlotte, I find this woman shrewd and observant, and may add, very witty, but she's neither deep nor profound. Maybe I'm used to male authors, but I find many works by men to be overwhelming, and admirable in scale, knowledge and effort, whereas in Jane Austen's books I see nothing that can be called great, nothing that can convince me she rightly deserves her reputation and place in literature. Her concerns were strictly limited to everyday life, and the everyday life of the gentry class in the 19th century is particularly boring and dull. Nothing goes on in their minds but mundane matters. Her personal letters also reveal her to be not much different from the people she criticised- she liked to gossip and didn't understand people at a deeper level than the superficialities she was able to observe and note. 


"She never handles the (conventionally masculine) topic of politics.

She never uses servants, small tradesmen, cottagers, etc. as more than purely incidental characters. Conversely, she does not describe the high nobility (the highest ranking "on-stage" characters are baronets), and (unlike present-day writers of modern "Regency" novels, or some of her contemporaries) she does not describe London high society.

She confines herself to the general territory that she herself has visited and is familiar with (more or less the southern half of England). 

In her novels there is no violence (the closest approaches are the duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, in which neither is hurt, and the indefinite menacements of the Gypsies towards Harriet Smith and Miss Bickerton in Emma), and no crime (except for the poultry-thief at the end of Emma).

She never uses certain hackneyed plot devices then common, such as mistaken identities, doubtful and/or aristocratic parentage, and hidden-then-rediscovered wills. In Emma, Harriet Smith's parentage is actually not very mysterious (as Mr. Knightley had suspected all along). [...]

In Jane Austen's works there is hardly any male sexual predation or assaults on female virtue -- a favorite device of novelists of the period (even in a novel such as Burney's Evelina, which has no rapes or abductions to remote farmhouses, this is a constant theme). The only possible case is the affair between Willoughby and the younger Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility (about which little information is divulged in the novel) -- since Lydia Bennet of Pride and Prejudice and Maria Bertram of Mansfield Park more or less throw themselves at George Wickham and Henry Crawford respectively. Also, the elder Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility is more likely tempted astray because she is a weak personality trapped in a wretchedly unhappy marriage (remember that almost the only grounds for divorce was the wife's infidelity), rather than because of any extraordinary arts or persuasions used by her seducer. And finally, whatever the complex of motives involved in the Mrs. Clay-Mr. Elliot affair in Persuasion, it can hardly be regarded as the seduction of a female by a sexually predatory male. In Jane Austen's last incomplete fragment, Sanditon, it is true that Sir Edward Denham likes to think of himself as a predatory male, but he is described as such an ineffectual fool that it is difficult to believe that he would have accomplished any of his designs against the beauteous Clara Brereton, if Jane Austen had finished the work.

Note that all these affairs take place entirely "off-stage" (except for a few encounters of flirtation between Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford, long before she runs away with him), and are not described in any detail.

No one dies "on stage" in one of her novels, and almost no one dies at all during the main period of the events of each novel (except for Lord Ravenshaw's grandmother in Mansfield Park and Mrs. Churchill in Emma).

The illnesses that occur (Jane's in Pride and Prejudice and Louisa Musgrove's in Persuasion) are not milked for much pathos (Marianne's in Sense and Sensibility is a partial exception, but Marianne is condemned for bringing her illness on herself). And Mrs. Smith in Persuasion (who takes a decidedly non-pathetic view of her own illness) pours cold water on Anne Elliot's ideas of the "ardent, disinterested, self-denying attachment, [...] heroism, fortitude, patience, resignation" to be found in a sick-room. And in Sanditon, written while she was suffering from her own eventually-fatal illness, Jane Austen made fun of several hypochondriac characters. [...]

The only person who actually faints in one of Jane Austen's novels is the silly Harriet Smith of Emma (since one rather suspects the genuineness of the "fainting fit" that Lucy Steele is reported to have been driven into by the furious Mrs. John Dashwood, after the discovery of Lucy's engagement to Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility). On three occasions, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park imagines to herself that she is on the point of fainting, and once Elinor Dashwood thinks that her sister Marianne is about to faint, but neither Fanny or Marianne ever does. And Elinor Dashwood, at one critical moment in Sense and Sensibility, feels herself to be "in no danger of an hysterical fit or a swoon".

Jane Austen's parsimony in faintings in her novels does not apply to her Juvenilia, where she mocks the propensity to faint of the conventional novel-heroine of the day. So Elfrida in Frederic & Elfrida "fainted & was in such a hurry to have a succession of fainting fits, that she had scarcely patience enough to recover from one before she fell into another".

Notoriously, Jane Austen hardly ever quotes from a conversation between men with no women present (or overhearing). However, despite some assertions that she never includes such dialogue, there is at least one clear example -- a briefly-described encounter between Sir Thomas Bertram and Edmund in Mansfield Park. (A less clear possibility is Sir Thomas Bertram's chiding of his son Tom when he has to sell the Mansfield clerical "living", in Chapter 3 of Mansfield Park.)

She is also sparing of describing the internal thoughts and emotions of male characters (thus in Pride and Prejudice, much of Darcy's admiration for Elizabeth Bennet is expressed by means of convenient conversations with Caroline Bingley).

She is very sparing with physical descriptions of people and places (except to some degree in her last novel, Persuasion).

She tends to glide over the more passionately romantic moments of her characters, not describing closely lovers' embraces and endearments. So in the marriage proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice the quoted dialogue breaks off just before the critical point, giving way to the following report: "He [Darcy] expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do". Similarly in Emma: "She spoke then, on being so entreated [with a proposal]. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does."

In fact Jane Austen had something of an aversion to sappy language; thus in Pride and Prejudice she has Mrs. Gardiner question conventional romantic language (in fact, the very same expression "violently in love" that Austen saw fit to fob us off with later in the novel in the proposal scene!). [...]

And Jane Austen never even mentions lovers kissing (an important moment in Emma is when Mr. Knightley fails to kiss Emma's hand), though Willoughby does kiss a lock of Marianne's hair in Sense and Sensibility. And Mr. Knightly touches Emma, causing a "flutter of pleasure" in this scene from Emma (though they are not yet acknowledged lovers at this point).

Her heroines also famously never leave the family circle." 

I do acknowledge, she was able to describe various types of people and her works may help one realise one's foibles and grow, but in my mind, that doesn't necessarily mean she's a great writer. To call her works masterpieces or perfections, or to call her a genius, is a horrendous overstatement. She doesn't dig deep into the mind/ the psyche, doesn't describe anything from scenes and nature to people, doesn't use a very beautiful language and doesn't play with language and doesn't coin new words (actually doesn't have a very large vocabulary either), doesn't create unique characters, doesn't use any symbol, doesn't cross boundaries, doesn't use imagination nor does research to write about what she doesn't know... She doesn't shock, doesn't move, doesn't haunt, doesn't change one's perspective and doesn't invite one to perceive and interpret her books in totally different ways... 

Jane Austen is good. She was good at what she did, within the boundaries she created for herself. She had a smooth writing style, she was shrewd and had sense and wit and a rational mind and a cool and detached tone. I acknowledge those things and like them. Yet I do not think she deserves her reputation and do not agree with people who talk of her as though she's the greatest female writer of all time, and 1 of the greatest writers of both genders. And it's because of my love for freedom and independence, as written above, that I keep my opinion and decide not to bother myself as to why I do not like "everybody's dear Jane". 

Why must I? 


For anyone who wonders, my favourite female writer of all time is Toni Morrison. Some of her books may be better than others, but none is bad, at least among those I have read- "A mercy", "Beloved", "The bluest eye", "Sula" and "Song of Solomon". "Beloved" was the last book I held in my hands in my last days in VN. I grew up with her novels, and I don't think anybody can replace her in my life. 


Update on 25/8/2013: 

Some others, apparently in the minority, who share the same opinion with me about the old witch: 

Mark Twain: "I haven't any right to criticize books, and I don't do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."

D. H. Lawrence: "This again, is the tragedy of social life today. In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways, they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies 'personality' instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense."

The last quote is often attributed to George Eliot: "The high reputation which Miss Austen's novels gained, and still retain, is a proof of the ready appreciation which is always felt when an author dares to be natural. Without brilliancy of any kind—without imagination, depth of thought, or wide experience, Miss Austen, by simply describing what she knew and had seen, and making accurate portraits of very tiresome and uninteresting people, is recognized as a true artist, and will continue to be admired, when many authors more ambitious, and believing themselves filled with a much higher inspiration, will be neglected and forgotten.... But Miss Austen's accurate scenes from dull life, and Miss Burney's long histories of amiable and persecuted heroines, though belonging to the modern and reformed school of novels, must be classed in the lower division.... They show us too much of the littlenesses and trivialities of life, and limit themselves so scrupulously to the sayings and doings of dull, ignorant, and disagreeable people, that their very truthfulness makes us yawn. They fall short of fulfilling the objects, and satisfying the necessities of Fiction in its highest aspect—as the art whose office it is 'to interest, to please, and sportively to elevate—to take man from the low passions and miserable troubles of life into a higher region, to beguile weary and selfish pain, to excite a generous sorrow at vicissitudes not his own, to raise the passions into sympathy with heroic troubles, and to admit the soul into that serener atmosphere from which it rarely returns to ordinary existence without some memory or association which ought to enlarge the domain of thought, and exalt the motives of action'."

I don't know if I've ever detested a writer this much. Both because of her and because of her fans. And why do I abhor her fans? 

Well, 1st, Jane Austen's fans are divided into 2 groups. The 1st- critics, writers, teachers and serious readers. The 2nd- young people who hardly read any classic but the novels by Jane Austen and who like her mostly because of the romance, the female characters (especially Elizabeth Bennet) and the ideal Mr Darcy, and thus, feel proud of themselves and act as though reading Jane Austen alone elevates them to a higher level. I guess the 2nd group is bigger in number and thus the main reason for her enduring popularity, but whatever the case, I know some such people in real life and they're not difficult to detect. And they're the more annoying ones. 

2nd, Janeites praise Jane Austen in the same way and use the same reasons when claiming they like her and use more or less the same words/ phrases/ clauses: "satire", "wit", "irony", "very complex characters", "she wrote what she knew", "convincing characters", "people you've seen in real life", "realism", "depth", "her characters are complex because they are flawed", "her characters are not 1-dimensional, they grow and change", etc. I've heard the same things repeated over and over that I no longer know if they know what they're talking about, and whether they can give examples to illustrate and elaborate on their points. 

3rd, most Janeites find it utterly unthinkable that there are people on earth who don't like Jane Austen. They therefore say "you just don't get her works/ you're not mature enough to understand her" (which is also used for Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, etc), then they tell non-Janeites to read all of her works, each several times, and that they (non-Janeites) will some day realise her genius. The attitude gets on my nerves, and increases my hatred more than the poor witch herself ever did. 

I myself tried reading "Pride and prejudice" more than half a year ago. Annoyed with everything, especially the characterisation, I closed the book and moved onto another book. At some point I came back to "Pride and prejudice"- another effort it was. After some chapters, I stopped. A short while later I was assigned to read "Emma" for university. Each page was torture. I hated every single page in it and felt tortured forcing my way through it, thinking, "If I were not forced to read it, I wouldn't finish". In the end my feeling was better but I didn't start liking it- only hated it less. Then about last month I read "Sense and sensibility", also for university. It was enjoyable, I confess, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it. Everything changed when I came to the last chapters, and once having finished the whole book I changed my mind completely and turned my back on the book (the details were written and published on 30/7). It was pointless and Jane Austen couldn't handle her characters. 

A few days ago, something happened to my mind and I suddenly had the thought that perhaps I could be 1 of the few people who liked both Jane Austen and the Brontes. I can't say how it came about, the idea, but it did. Partly because I thought, perhaps I should like Jane Austen. So I started reading "Persuasion". What happened was, I stopped after some chapters, and moved onto other things. For lack of things to read, and at the same time, forcing myself, I came back to "Persuasion" about 3 or 4 times, but finally gave up at chapter 9. 

You know what I think now? I think, it's absurd to keep coming back to an author I loathe while there are so many books I prefer to read and must read, it's absurd to think that because she's called "everybody's dear Jane" I should like her too and expect myself to like her and wonder what's wrong with me, it's absurd to trouble myself thinking about other people while I have a mind of my own and should have an opinion of my own, it's absurd to be insecure and keep asking myself why I don't like Jane Austen as the others do.

And you know what, I read more than 10 letters by her the other day. What I thought of her was right- she's a petty, gossipy, shallow person with very trivial concerns. She was indifferent to politics and society and the soul and was only concerned about dresses and balls and people. 

[Some quotes from her letters which revolted me: 

"Another stupid party last night; perhaps if larger they might be less intolerable, but here there were only just enough to make one card-table, with six people to look on and talk nonsense to each other. Lady Fust, Mrs. Busby, and a Mrs. Owen sat down with my uncle to whist, within five minutes after the three old Toughs came in, and there they sat, with only the exchange of Adm. Stanhope for my uncle, till their chairs were announced.

I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl, with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom. Adm. Stanhope is a gentleman-like man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long. Mrs. Stanhope could not come; I fancy she had a private appointment with Mr. Chamberlayne, whom I wished to see more than all the rest.

My uncle has quite got the better of his lameness, or at least his walking with a stick is the only remains of it. He and I are soon to take the long-planned walk to the Cassoon, and on Friday we are all to accompany Mrs. Chamberlayne and Miss Langley to Weston."

"I expect a very stupid ball; there will be nobody worth dancing with, and nobody worth talking to but Catherine, for I believe Mrs. Lefroy will not be there. Lucy is to go with Mrs. Russell.

People get so horridly poor and economical in this part of the world that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there."

"I sent my answer by them to Mrs. Knight, my double acceptance of her note and her invitation, which I wrote without much effort, for I was rich, and the rich are always respectable, whatever be their style of writing."

"How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!" ]

So yes, I keep my own opinion because I have my own brain and I use it. And even if the whole world adored her and acclaimed her and I were the only one who didn't, it'd be fine too. I stick to my view. 

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