Lighten up, Charlotte.
It’s well documented that Charlotte Brontë didn’t like Jane Austen. In a letter to the literary critic, George Henry Lewes, she said of Pride and Prejudice –
“I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped 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. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.”
Lewes felt although Jane Eyre was good, it was a bit over the top with melodrama, and Jane Austen had a more controlled, and wise style of writing, that he preferred.
Now I love Charlotte, I used to be a card carrying (literally, I had a card) member of the Brontë Society, and if I still lived in West Yorkshire, as the card got me in free to the museum, I still would be today. However, I personally suspect part of her disapproval of Austen is rooted in the fact she didn’t appreciate the humour. There is very little in the way of light hearted amusement in any of the Brontë sisters novel, there’s a lot of religion and anguish, but sometimes it’s nice to laugh, dammit, at least until it becomes a fit of TB coughing.
The problem with humour is if it is not to a person’s taste, unlike say a drama, which just becomes average or boring, humour that misses the mark can anger us. To be in a room full of people all laughing at something we don’t find funny can be quite alienating, and worst still, to not process a joke others can makes us feel inferior. And the worst part is, that humour was not easy to write. Possibly the hardest thing in the world ever to write is a three minute comedy sketch, especially for the radio, so devoid of visual aids. A scene, set up, middle and pay off has to be expertly placed into those minutes, is the Guerrilla warfare of writing.
I understand the differences in their lives is what made them who they are. Jane Austen never married and wasn’t exposed to nor witnessed hardship in the same way as Charlotte, but that doesn’t mean her voice isn’t worth hearing. As a teenager I’d have sworn I would be Team Brontë Sisters till I die, and Emily’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ will always be one of my favourite novels, but the older I get, and the more I appreciate how hard it is to be funny, the more I appreciate Jane Austen. She was writing the people and places she knew. We can’t all live on moors, witness vast amounts of death and be sent to an awful boarding school. Life doesn’t have to be as cheerful as a Thomas Hardy novel for everyone.
These days I find myself valuing Elizabeth Gaskell more. Like Dickens, she made a point of witnessing and representing the hardships of her time, as well as injecting in some warmth and humour. Although they are all important, they all contribute, and I really hope Jane and Charlotte are not up there on a cloud right now, scrapping it out (George Eliot referring, Gaskell with a bucket and sponge) although that would be highly entertaining, and someone should re-create it in plasticine.