Sick of the Very Name


There’s an article in the Daily Beast by Susan Ostrov Weisser that discusses Charlotte Brontë’s enmity for Jane Austen. This is probably coals to Newcastle for many of our Gentle Readers, but something struck us while reading this that we wanted to share.

We know about Brontë’s opinion of Austen chiefly from her correspondence in 1848 with the respected critic George Henry Lewes, later the companion of another great Victorian novelist, George Eliot. When he wrote to give Brontë comments and advice, she took his critique of her novel very seriously. Jane Eyre had received a good review from Lewes, but he wanted to underline a fault in the novel, the moments of melodrama in it that he called “suited to the circulating library” (not a compliment), and he held out Austen as a model of calm and balanced wisdom achieved through a more naturalistic style. When Lewes praised Austen, whom Brontë had neglected to read, she went to some trouble to obtain Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice.

In Brontë’s own words to Lewes, “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.”

We’ve read this before. We actually like the Brontës’ work (though not as much as we like Jane Austen’s) but we think Charlotte and Emily at least were not the most stable units. (Anne, on the other hand, we would be willing to bet not only enjoyed Jane Austen’s work but would have got along with her splendidly.) That being said, we think Charlotte’s comments to Lewes remind one of Emma Woodhouse on the subject of Jane Fairfax.

“Oh! yes; we are always forced to be acquainted whenever she comes to Highbury. By the bye, that is almost enough to put one out of conceit with a niece. Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much about all the Knightleys together, as she does about Jane Fairfax. One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again; and if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfax very well; but she tires me to death.”

Well, at least Charlotte didn’t say that Jane Austen was “elegantly dressed, and very pleasing.”