Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Jane Austen smack-down

There was a recent discussion of the current popularity of the work of Jane Austen at Pandagon, with Amanda claiming that Austen was a better writer than the Brontes.

I posted a response quoting Mark Twain's observation about Austen:
To me (Poe’s) prose is unreadable–like Jane Austin’s. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane’s. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.

But today I got my copy of "The Brontes: A Life in Letters" by Juliet Barker, which reveals that Charlotte Bronte herself wrote the perfect smack-down of Austen.

From Charlotte's letters to G.H. Lewes, (George Eliot's paramour), January 1848

"If I ever do write another book, I think I will have nothing of what you call 'melodrame'; I think so, but I am not sure. I think too I will endeavor 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 own 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?... Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzed on that point.

What induced you to say that you would rather have written 'Pride & Prejudice' or 'Tom Jones' than any of the Waverly novels?

I had not seen 'Pride & Prejudice' till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate dageurrotyped portrait of a common-place 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."


"... You say I must familiarize my mind with the fact that 'Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no sentiment (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas) 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.

Can there be a great Artist without poetry?

What I call - what I will bend to as a great Artist, there cannot be destitute of the divine gift. But by poetry I am sure you understand something different to what I do - as you do by 'sentiment'. It is poetry, as I comprehend the word which elevates that masculine George Sand, and makes out of something coarse, something godlike. It is 'sentiment', in my sense of the term, sentiment jealously hidden, but genuine, which extracts the venom from that formidable Thackeray, and converts what might be only corrosive poison into purifying elixir. If Thackeray did not cherish in his large heart deep feeling fo rhis kind, he would delight to exterminate; as it is, I believe he wishes only to reform.

Miss Austen, being as you say without 'sentiment', without poetry, may be - is sensible, real (more real than true) but she cannot be great."

Since I'm working on an adaptation of Jane Eyre for the stage right now (blog coming soon) I am especially touchy about anybody jumping on the Brontes these days.