Gentle readers: Penguin English Library is holding an Austen/Brontë smackdown on its Facebook page, with Jane Austen’s World and Christine from Bronte Blog providing the ammunition for discussion. An edited version of my smackdown sits on Facebook, the full version sits on this blog. I have added Christine’s edited defense of Charlotte Brontë below my defense of Jane. Do go over to Penguin’s Facebook page and leave your comment! You will have the chance of winning a Penguin library canvas bag! Enjoy.
Vic’s Unedited Take:
I’ve been asked to participate in a smackdown, pitting Jane Austen, whose best-selling novel starts with the most memorable opening line in literature – “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” – against Charlotte Brontë, who begins Jane Eyre with a sentence that barely qualifies as a decent Facebook entry: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”. Good lord. GO Team Austen!
I love smart and funny women who are quick with their tongues. If our dowdy spinster from Hampshire suddenly found herself at the Algonquin Round Table in post-World War One New York city, she would have jumped into the fray and easily held her own against such rapier wits as Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, Edna Ferber and Harpo Marx. Charlotte Brontë would have sat slack-jawed amongst such august company, waiting for a lull in the conversation before daring to venture her opinion. Had Mark Twain materialized in front of Miss Austen and threatened to personally beat her skull in with her own shin-bone, she would have swiftly retorted, “Why I now fully understand, Mr. Twain, why Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed of a dead child, some weeks before she expected. T’was owing to a fright — I suppose she happened unawares to look at YOU.” Austen had teeth. No wonder Pride and Prejudice was chosen for the first Zombie mash-up!
A number of Brontë fans have accused Austen of writing sterile romance novel claptrap, which means that those poor souls don’t get Austen’s ironic take on life with its underlying passions at all. Can you imagine one of Brontë’s overwrought characters coming up with the cool line that Mary Crawford uttered in Mansfield Park? “Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears, and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” I had been of legal drinking age for a number of years before I understood exactly what rears and vices meant!
Brontë supporters think Jane’s novels lack passion and give us no sense of the greater society in which she lived. Let’s debunk that myth, shall we? Willoughby got a girl pregnant, enticed Marianne to behave like a hoyden, then cynically married an heiress for money. Wickham attempted to seduce an underage heiress, then ran off with a lusty, empty-headed 16-year-old virgin with no intention of marrying her. Lucy Steele was a sadistic, mean, and spiteful little bitch. Mrs. Norris was a verbal abuser who could have taught Lucy a thing or two in the nasty department. Fanny Price’s mother married for love, and look where that got her – barefoot, too many times pregnant, and living like a slattern in a hovel. John Thorpe was a douche-bag, plain and simple, as was William Elliott. Then there were the silly ministers, and the neglectful husbands, like Mr. Bennet and Mr. Palmer. Last but not least, Jane handed the dreaded specter of poverty to Mrs. and Miss Bates, and Mrs. Smith, whose cheerful demeanor belied her desperate state. Interwoven through Austen’s novels are her sparkling wit and clear observations of the human character. We are treated to strong heroines like Lizzie Bennet and Anne Elliot, and to alpha males like Mr. Darcy and Colonel Brandon, who, as men of few words, sprang into selfless action when heroism was required.
What does Charlotte Brontë offer us? That metrosexual cold fish, St. John Rivers. And then there’s Rochester, Mr. Sturm und Drang. He was a closet whiner and complainer, I’ll warrant, who, while holding all the power cards, forced poor plain Miss Eyre to listen to his incessant self-serving monologues. I bet he wandered around his cold stone house dragging the proverbial ball and chain in the form of the hidden insane wife, and wearing an expression that shouted to all but the blind: “Woe is me. Oh, woe is pitiful, loveless me.” As my dear friend, Lady Anne, told me, “Even Austen’s bad boys are more plausible than Brontë’s heroes.”
Where Mr. Darcy took his medicine with only a minor facial tick when Lizzie dressed him down after refusing his proposal, Rochester emoted suffering morning, noon, and night. Misery must have oozed out of his pores. Those obvious ploys for sympathy worked on me when I was 14 years old, but now that I am slightly longer in the tooth I am attracted to more mentally stable men, like Mr. Darcy. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know that Darcy’s a cool and reserved character, and a bit of a prig. Taming him would be a REAL challenge, one that Elizabeth Bennet took on with relish. Whatever you think of him, there’s no denying that Darcy’s passion for Lizzy simmered and sizzled throughout Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s writing style might be spare and cerebral, but the chemistry between her heroes and heroines leaps off the pages and keeps us enthralled.
In closing (and here my imagination has taken over), one suspects that after their wedding, our young and virile Mr. Darcy gave Lizzie some extremely satisfying romps in bed, followed by a repeat performance or two, whereas poor Mr. Rochester – well, let’s face it – he was OLD, and his physical health was compromised by that pesky though fortuitous fire. (Deux ex machina, anyone?) My guess is that, after observing his manly duty with Mrs. Rochester, he most likely gave her a peck on the cheek before rolling to the other side of the bed and instantly falling asleep. As her husband snored contentedly, a frustrated (but romantically inclined) Jane was frequently left to lie in the dark and think of England.
Christine’s edited version:
‘In Austen, sex is just a kiss on the hand. In the Brontës, everything happens’. So says a newspaper clipping kept at the Brontë Parsonage Museum Library. After hearing that, the Brontës would get a twinkle in their eyes that would belie their quieter, Northern-lasses-from-a-parsonage appearance.
Charlotte herself, after reading Emma pronounced ”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.”
Which she corroborated after reading Pride and Prejudice: “An accurate daguerrotyped 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. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses”.
It’s an easy choice: either you like opening a book and gazing at a quiet and ever-green meadow, nice and lovely but always nice and lovely, sometimes too nice and too lovely or you like opening a book and looking at an ever-changing moor, sometimes bleak, sometimes radiantly in bloom, never predictable, always engaging. If you choose the latter, remember that being Team Brontë is more than a mere liking. As another newspaper said (as early as 1916): “Miss Austen and Thackeray have admirers; Charlotte Brontë has worshippers”.