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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Refined Reader (11) Austen vs. Brontë - A Contemporary Debate

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The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!
Source (Although it erroneously labels Charlotte as her sister Emily)
Jane Austen vs. Charlotte Brontë.  An age-old debate.  If you are familiar with my blog, you will doubtless know to which camp my heart belongs to (hint: Gothic governesses FTW!) but for this post I wanted to examine what their peers would have said on the subject by looking at reviews of their work; reviews that were written in their time.  Basically if this debate was happening in the 1800s who would win?  With only three talking points to compare them on for this post.  (Obviously Austen and Brontë were not exactly contemporaries of each other so a direct comparison is difficult.  But I'll do my best!)


In the 19th century, morality was often a hugely important aspect of literature.  Because people were more religious and more concerned that novels set a good example,  I think any debate of the time would consider a good moral center to be a necessary attribute of a superior novel.  And it was definitely discussed in contemporary reviews of the authors.

For Charlotte Brontë it was said:
"We are painfully alive to the moral, religious, and literary deficiencies of the picture, and such passages of beauty and power as [are contained in Jane Eyre] cannot redeem it [...]"

Granted, that was from the notoriously most harsh review of Jane Eyre by Elizabeth Rigby, but it echoed much of what critics would say about the novel at the time.  Jane Austen faired a little better because her novels were seen as realistic and plausible - I've seen some reviews praise lessons learned (for example in the elopment of Lydia) but others find fault in Austen's lack of instructive morality.  All things considered though, I think most people at the time would find Austen's novels more strictly moral than Brontë's passionate "undisciplined spirit" so on this point I think the winner would be Austen.
Winner: Jane Austen

Writing style/Plot

Austen and Brontë had very different writing styles - each as eloquent and expressive as the other, but with different aims - Austen's use of irony and wit was a highlight, adding to the realism in her work, while Brontë's ardent prose highlighted emotion and individual thought.  But which was better received by contemporary readers of the day in terms of enjoyment and relatability?

Sir Walter Scott said of Jane Austen's novel Emma that it "[copies] from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him." 

Of Jane Eyre, the Westminster Review praises "the natural tone pervading the narrative, and the originality and freshness of its style."

It seems like a natural style is praised for both, with more originality praised in Brontë's work because Austen is much more "correct."  I think both authors were well received in how they brought their characters and plot to life, but for Charlotte Brontë, the drama in her narrative appealed more than Austen's "common sense and subtle shrewdness." (that quote is from a letter Brontë wrote!)  Certainly there seemed more enthusiasm for Charlotte's prose given her popularity which I'll go into in the next paragraph.
Winner: Charlotte Brontë


I was surprised to find that Austen was not very popular in her time.  It might be due to the lack of sensationalism in her books that made this so, something Charlotte Brontë could not be accused of and sensationalism was fashionable at the time - books that made people gossip and talk sold well.  And Jane Eyre was very popular after it's release since it was reprinted three times, while none of Austen's novels were, in the immediate period after her death.  So in terms of popularity I think Charlotte is the winner.
Winner: Charlotte Brontë

Technically I think the "writing style" section can be argued for either authors, but I do feel like since Brontë was much more popular in her time, it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that she would have won this debate.  Obviously Austen is much more appreciated now, and rightly so, so when it comes to these debates it is mostly fun to discuss but it doesn't prove anything.  Both authors are amazing.

Now I'm almost afraid to ask this - How do you weigh in?  Are you more of an Austen or Brontë fan?

(I realize that for most of this post I compared reviews of Jane Eyre specifically to reviews of Jane Austen novels generally, but it was difficult to find reviews of Charlotte Brontë's other novels for some reason!)

1813 Review of Pride and Prejudice
Victorian Web
Brooklyn College
Excerpt of London Quarterly Review

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  1. Impossible to choose! I love both. You don't include Bronte's own quite harsh criticism of Austen (she found her rather lifeless). Scott's platitude about how Austen is a "faithful copier of life" is a frequently expressed opinion, but can a novel ever be truly a photographic representation of life? The novelist always embeds herself in the work, and Austen is no exception, if in a more subtle way than Bronte's very personal style. A fun debate -- what do some other readers think?

  2. Yes, it is interesting that Bronte was not a big fan of Austen's work, but they are very different, so I can see why Austen did not appeal to her. It is probably the same for me - I mean, I do think Austen's books are good, but they don't speak to me like a good Bronte novel. :) I saw on the Pemberley website that there was a newer quote from one of Charlotte's letters about Austen which I had not seen before, and probably captures more what I feel about Austen -

    ``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.''

    I wonder that Austen is more popular now, because her novels are a bit more escapist now than when they first came out. If her books held so much realism (though you have a point about it not being completely real since it's filtered by one person), I can imagine that her books are more appealing now that the setting is so different from our lives.

  3. "Gothic governesses FTW" - LOL. And what an interesting debate! "Austen was not very popular in her time" WHAT? Really?? For some reason I though both of them were very popular... I guess Jane Eyre has more sensational aspects, but what about Wickhem (and Kitty)? That's a pretty juicy story :D
    I don't think I could choose between Austen and Bronte... though I think I love P&P a bit more ;)

  4. I loved reading this post! :D It's always been Jane Austen for me, though I think I may have been unfairly harsh toward Charlotte Brontë over the years. I was forced to read Jane Eyre in high school, and the mere fact that it was required reading probably had a lot to do with me not quite clicking with that novel like so many other readers have. I've often thought about rereading Jane Eyre now that I'm older and, so I hope, wiser, lol, to see if I can appreciate it better now.

  5. Yes, that may be part of it. Now they appear exotic rather than naturalistic!

  6. I was surprised too that Austen wasn't as popular! And I agree too about Wickham and Lydia - unless that sort of thing happened more often than we are led to suppose. Maybe there were a few shotgun weddings! :) I will content myself that you do love Bronte then, even if you love P&P more. ;)

  7. Rinn from Rinn Reads has just re-read Jane Eyre (though she enjoyed it when she first read it) but she has found new things to love about it now, so I highly subscribe to the idea of giving those books you read in school a second chance! Or maybe watching a really good adaptation? That could help get you in the mindset too. :)

  8. YES, Lydia! Why did I write Kitty? (brain you failed me)

  9. I am team bronte all the way as you know..but I enjoy Austen and Persuasion is one of my all time favorite novels!

  10. Yay another Bronte fan! It looks like Bronte is winning in my comments section too (well with me to tip the balance) - so that makes my post even more valid. :D Having read some Austen, I absolutely can see it has sophisticated chick-lit - still fun and a great read, but it doesn't touch me emotionally as much as Jane Eyre.

  11. It would be hilarious if you said you are now a big Austen fan after all our years JE fangirling! :D I will read Persuasion soon, so I can know what all the love for it is about!

  12. Since I've only read one of Charlotte Bronte's books (Jane Eyre), I don't think I can make an educated comparison. But I definitely have enjoyed the style of both writers and think it's so fantastic that centuries later we are still celebrating and talking about both of these women!

  13. I think Jane Eyre is the best of Charlotte Bronte's books but some think her best is really Villette so if you are interesting in trying another Bronte book, I'd recommend that one! It has a similar vibe to Jane Eyre though, so I think JE accurately represents the quality of Charlotte's writing. And that is so true, it is so admirable that their writing has endured and is still popular today!

  14. I have been so busy the last two weeks with family. I finally get to sit down and blog and read through what my favorite blogs have been chatting about. This post makes me realize I need to read Bronte more then ever. I have only read Austen's writing and have always loved it. It feels so good to just sit down and read one of her books. About to glance through the rest of what you've been posting.

  15. Rinn (Rinn Reads)June 6, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    Ooh what a great idea :D

    I know Bronte published under a male pen name, but did Jane Austen? I guess that would have had an effect on popularity.

    I have to say, after my recent Jane Eyre re-read I would go for Charlotte Bronte. I LOVED that book the second time round (as you well know!). I recently read Sense and Sensibility and didn't much enjoy it, but I did like Pride and Prejudice. Maybe I'd enjoy P&P even more after a re-read though? :P

  16. Ah! I love this! I really don't know that I could pick! It's hard to weigh ONE of your favorite novels against SEVERAL that you love. I love Jane Eyre loads more than any single Austen, but I do really love all the Austen I've read. So... I read Villette as well, but never really got into it, though I'm thinking I need to try again. I sometimes feel, though, that people love Pride & Prejudice because of Mr. Darcy (and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, more specifically), which feels less like a love of the text itself? Mr. Rochester never comes off as "swoon-worthy" as Mr. Darcy, I guess because he's older, has a wife hidden in the attic...

  17. Kristine Rosiana Faith RochestJune 8, 2014 at 2:51 AM

    I'm not surprised Charlotte was a lot more popular in her day than Austen; Jane Eyre is so much superior to any of Austen's novels, lol. ;) (Though I still really do enjoy watching different adaptations of Austen's novels; I just don't think I'll ever be able to read through one again) Once you read "My hope, my love, my life!" there's no going back to "Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?" :P

    Though as a side note, it's been a while since my British Lit class, but from what I recall, I don't think the novel was really respected as a literary form in its own right until around the Victorian Era (I think? Maybe it was slightly earlier?), so perhaps that had something to do with Austen's reception by the public.

  18. Oh okay, since you love Jane Eyre more than one Austen novel, I'm going to say you're a bigger Bronte fan. (LOL, I make the rules work for me) I think Villette was a really good read, but the ending was sooo gut-wrenching for me - I have not felt the need to re-read it yet and I find it hard to say I even liked it. It's good! But too painful. I can understand people loving P&P because of Firth Darcy - he really seemed to transform the story for so many readers. I think Rochester is more swoon-worthy than Darcy though - just because he is much more romantic! :)

  19. Oh that is interesting - I don't know if the perceived literary merit of the novel affected reception - although I'd still like to think Jane Eyre was much more appealing in that time than Austen based solely on content! I also prefer adaptations of Austen's work too - I think something of the romance comes through better visually than reading Austen's words. And your example clearly shows how difficult it is to overlook the starkness of Austen's "romantic" scenes. ;)

  20. I'll accept that! :D I barely remember Villette, actually, but I read it right after JE, so it might have been overshadowed... I like Rochester better, too! I can understand the Darcy love, though. Darcy's not even my favorite Austen love interest, either. None of her others can beat Captain Wentworth and his letter to Anne! Swoooon.

  21. I really love both but I'm team Brontë ! As much as I admire Austen's writing style and wit and irony, I completely relate to the passion of the Brontë world. My favorite is Charlotte - when I die, I want to be buried with Jane Eyre, MY favorite book of all times, the one I already read 9 times and managed to discover differents things each time :)

  22. Awesome, another Bronte fan! OMG, and I don't want to get morbid but I have thought about being buried with Jane Eyre too - I didn't think anyone else would even think of that! :) It is a book that is really dear to me.

  23. Villette has some similarities to Jane Eyre I think except Lucy Snowe is a weaker character, and I think the romance is a little more troubled, so for me Jane Eyre definitely overshadows it. :) I will be reading Persuasion by the end of this year - I need to experience this letter! :)

  24. Oohh please read Jane Eyre?? :D I have to do my duty in trying to convince everyone to read it. :) I think you will enjoy the story, though Bronte is really pretty different in style from Austen.

  25. I believe I read that Jane Austen just published with by A Lady or something, so people at least did know her books were by a woman, while people weren't sure with Bronte. That is an interesting point though, I'm not sure if that would have made a major difference!

    Even though I'm pretty sure nothing will top my love for JE, I feel like I should re-read P&P too because while I did enjoy it, I was not in rapture over it, but that might be different now. I feel like I have more appreciation for Austen now then when I was younger.

  26. I love both Austen and Charlotte Bronte, but I prefer Bronte. I feel that Austen is sophisticated Chick-Lit. Bronte has more substance. Just comparing Emma to Jane Eyre should make my point clear.