From The Modern Review: JANE AUSTEN AND CHARLOTTE BRONTE: A CONTRAST by A. Armitt 1882
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"I Had not seen 'Pride and Prejudice' till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? An accurate, daguerreotyped 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."
This is the judgment which one great authoress passed on another, and that other the same of whom Macaulay has told us (without one voice of importance uttering a dissentient word) that she was a "woman of whom England is justly proud;" the same, too, whose especial talent Sir Walter Scott describes as "the most wonderful I ever met with," adding, with the modesty of a truly great man, that her "exquisite touch, which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me."
And yet the judgment of Charlotte Bronte is not wonderful, is hardly even surprising. Her genius and that of Jane Austen were of opposite types. It was natural that one should judge the other hardly, and the one to pronounce the harshest sentence was likely enough to be the lesser genius of the two.
The experiences of these two women were as different as their talents, with some curious apparent resemblances. Both were the daughters of clergymen; both wrote novels; both passed the greater part of their lives within the quiet precincts of a country parsonage, and each died within a space of two years from her fortieth birthday.
Life was, however, actually very different for them. We can read so much in their writings without needing to turn to their biographies. Charlotte Bronte required the consciousness of passionate joy and attachment, at some time or other, past or present, to console her for the passionate pains of which her life was full. That life had not been well ordered by those who had the care of it; so intense a nature, struggling continually towards the right amid so many strange influences, could not struggle without suffering. Death played a large part in the drama of her existence; she saw those she loved depart one by one, leaving her alone at last with the strange old father. Her own health was shattered then, all buoyancy of spirit had departed from her, and her surroundings offered to her nothing but monotony and melancholy. Who that has visited her old home, and looked out along the hideous stretching valley, with hardly a tree and with many an ugly building on its undecorated sides, has not felt the misery of gazing day after day into such a scene, where nature is neither homelike nor picturesque? It was probably better in her days; the buildings were fewer; perhaps the hills were less dreary. We know that she loved her native moors, and behind her home they have just a hint of beauty; but before it! Mrs. Gaskell gives us no idea of the dreariness, the simple, bare monotony of those green slopes. Charlotte Bronte loved them, as she loved nearly all the persons and things interwoven in her life's story. She found possibilities of beauty there which no stranger would suspect; she cherished thoughts about them which no stranger could imagine. But, all the same, when we look upon that dreary, stony, manufacturing valley, we fancy that we see how its reflection would mirror itself as a terrible depression on her vividly impressible mind. We cannot wonder that she felt isolated, low-spirited, uninspired for work, when she looked out alone on the view from the parsonage windows.
Such a world to look at! —uncultured enough for solitude, peopled enough for cheerfulness; yet possessing neither the wild beauty of a lonely place, nor the redeeming civilization of a populous district. The people out there, who built stone mills and houses, and did not encourage a plant to grow about them; the nature out there, that reared hillsides against the sky, and hardly produced a tree to grow upon them, were they worth writing about or living for? Yet she managed so to write that the whole world read, and wondered what manner of wild, scenery this must be among which the author lived, and what manner of original characters with whom she passed her time.
She had witnessed, too, a terrible tragedy of temptation and sin in her own household. It had destroyed the character, genius, and life of her brother. She had known what it was for a home to be no covert from the troubles of the world, but only a hiding-place, a terrible secret dungeon in which to conceal the dreadful family disgrace and trouble, When she and her sisters went home and shut the door of the parsonage behind them, during the last years of Branwell's life, they did not shut out their worst dread and sorrow; they shut themselves inside with it.
There was hardly, then, any trial of life which Charlotte Bronte had not tasted, and tasted so strongly that it left a flavor of bitterness and futility in all her after success. Existence was emptied for her of its hope,.its buoyancy, its health; and then the consolation of a wonderful renown was offered to the lonely, tired, and disheartened woman.
No such melancholy picture of life is woven round the figure of the other clergyman's daughter, who died when Charlotte Bronte was a year old. She was well nurtured, and carefully taught; she dwelt in a happy home, enjoyed cheerful social relations, moved amongst pleasant scenes, was never brought into close contact with passion or crime; and whatever sorrows of life reached her did not come without the consolations of self-restraint in those around her and of serenity in her own heart.
No passionate disappointments had for her turned the word love into a symbol of anxiety and pain; she had not learned that to possess was suffering, and to have possessed a perpetual desolation. We see her always a sweet, serene figure — kindly, cheerful, unimpatient, unambitious; willing to be put aside among the middle-aged while she was yet young, yet bright enough in spirit to have remained youthful when she had become actually old. Although personally very much more attractive than Charlotte Bronte, we do not hear that she actually received so many offers of marriage. Whatever offers she did receive were rejected, and there never seems to have been any consequent regret in her heart in after times. Nothing touched her of that bitterness, or that melancholy, or even that oddity, which so many men still believe (all the men of the last century seemed to be sure of it) must characterize any woman who is unfortunate enough to remain unmarried.
We cannot suppose that Jane Austen was a woman without tenderness; her letters and her novels prove her to have been the reverse; and, doubtless, if she had met among her acquaintance a Churchill or a Darcy, who had known how to commend himself to her so as to make her feel as well as to perceive the excellences of his character, she would have married him, and made him a good and happy wife.
Not meeting such a man, or not meeting him in the right way at the right time, she was incapable of longing for what she had not, or regretting what she had given up. She contained all the necessary elements of her own happiness in her own character, and did not require a particular combination of circumstances to bring out her capabilities of usefulness or content. Being so complete a woman, having the perception that there is hardly any relationship of life into which we cannot, if we choose, weave a sufficiency of affection and interest to keep our own lives healthy, she was independent of most of the chances and conditions to which the weaker of us are bound.
Her genius was not unlike her character— self-sufficing, unambitious, serene. It is only actual genius that can afford so to be; that need not long, strive, or struggle; that simply is, and so is excellent. It is like nature in that respect — sure of itself, unanxious about opportunities. It can afford, like nature, to possess numerous unexercised and unapparent capabilities; because it exists to answer, out of the fulness of its own capacity, the needs of its own time and place. It does not require, like a smaller thing, that the requirements of the whole world should be adjusted to meet the development of its narrow talent. It is, therefore, independent of chance, certain of opportunity, and does not live in perpetual danger of failure and disappointment.
Jane Austen found subject enough for her genius in her own quiet experience. She never had to search for material, to stretch her imagination, or to reach beyond the limits of her natural sphere in an effort to be great. She probably knew that she was great, but we are confident that she never tried to be, and also that she was cheerfully indifferent to the indifference of a world that had not learnt to recognize her according to her merits. It was real success that she desired, the achievement of good work rather than the praise of it.
Get leave to work
In this world — 'tis the best you get at all.
And Jane Austen lived out the idea before it was spoken. She had that unconsciousness of virtue which it is impossible to acquire. As soon as we are sufficiently awake to admire it, the chance of it for ourselves is gone. It is George Eliot who speaks of "that controlled self-consciousness which is the expensive substitute for simplicity;" and this is all that the majority of us can attain.
Jane Austen lived serene without longings, and died content without regrets; whereas Charlotte Bronte, to whom life had brought so much suffering, relinquished it with passionate reluctance. Throughout nearly the whole of her bitter experience, happiness was only a possibility, something she had touched in the past, or might reach in the future. She naturally thought that it was actually in her hands when life was taken from her; for we find the most persistent (although not the most cheerful) hope in the most unhappy. Jane Austen seems to have realized the blessed secret that happiness is and is everywhere. It was abundant enough, like nature or her own genius, to destroy all cause for anxiety lest an early death should deprive her of a little of the small portion allotted to her, if she lived out the usual term of life.
Since her death, Charlotte Bronte has been exalted into a literary heroine. More than one popular history of her life has been written, and the church where she was buried came to be regarded chiefly as a monument of her genius.
It is not so with Jane Austen. No pilgrims wander to her grave as to a shrine; no curious literary studies can be made of her life or her character; and the number of her readers is, even yet, smaller than that of the readers of "Jane Eyre."
It is doubtful, indeed, whether a book was ever written of more absorbing interest than "Jane Eyre." All its peculiarities, all its exaggerations, all its limitations of vision tend to the deepening of the charm in which the reader is held. We cannot wish that Charlotte Bronte had modified herself when she wrote this book. She threw the whole strength of her genius, the whole original force of her character into its composition; and we accept it gladly, as it is, without wishing that she had altered or improved anything in it.
The only justification of advice offered to genius is its successful result. Pope is said never to have quite forgiven Addison for giving his counsel against any alteration from the earliest form of "The Rape of the Lock," although his advice had, in this case, been actually sought for. Addison's opinion proved a mistaken one, but it was, at any rate, given in a spirit of appreciative admiration.
We can hardly say this so positively of Mr. Lewes's advice to Charlotte Bronte (the advice which provoked her to a depreciative expression of opinion on the subject of "Pride and Prejudice") that she should "follow the counsel which shines out of 'Miss Austen's mild eyes.'" And if the novelist's instincts had not, in this case, revolted against the suggestion; if she had been foolish enough to follow the mistaken counsel, its error would have been made patent enough, as indubitably evident as Addison's was. We should have lost our Charlotte Bronte, but we should have gained no second Jane Austen. "Jane Eyre," denuded of its extravagances, would not have become "Emma." The peculiarities of Charlotte Bronte's style carried their own apology in accompanying power, and possessed their best modifier in the authoress's sincerity. The sensationalism of "Jane Eyre" is not a sensationalism artificially produced or with difficulty dragged in to suit the vitiated tastes of the public. It is entirely the production of the intense excitement and profound interest with which the authoress has come to regard her heroine's fortunes; and, as such, it is a legitimate picture. If the authoress erred in presenting such a picture, the fault was in her mind and not in her manner. The only cure for it was an annihilation of her wonderful genius.
That very intensity of feeling, which sometimes carried Charlotte Bronte beyond the usual limits of subjects on which women wrote in those days, made her more sensitive to criticism and rebuke than those who were less reckless about provoking them. There is something very characteristic in her strong desire to have the question of sex left out of the criticism of her works — to be spoken of as a writer, and not as a woman. And we should have thought more highly of the delicacy of judgment of her critic in the Edinburgh Review of January, 1850, if he had spared her the pain of a discourse on this point, especially since he had chosen to enter himself in the list of her private correspondents, and to add the claims of personal friendship to those of literary courtesy. He took a different view, however, and could even apply the adjective "cavalier" to the style of Charlotte Bronte's very generous second letter to him on the subject.
Another contemporary critic of distinction — Harriet Martineau — objected that the passion of love held too large a place in Charlotte Bronte's writing. To describe that passion with an intensity and reality hardly ever reached before was, however, Charlotte Bronte's speciality; and, indeed, the quality of her genius, its weird imaginativeness, its wild fervor of feeling, could not have worked so well on any other subject than this; for love, with its self-deceptions, its sudden awakenings, its uncertain issues, and the strange positions which it may develop, is, as a certain critic has told us, more capable of dramatic interpretation than any other sentiment which is common to the human race.
Charlotte Bronte excelled in suggestions of natural scenery. She gave us none of the lengthened descriptions which are fashionable to-day, and in which colors are used as lavishly as in a painter's crudest study of a sunset; but there was a fitting relationship between her personages and the scenes in which they moved, so that each reflected a picturesque light upon the other.
Her command of language, also, was very great, and conscientiously used, although here — as sometimes in her sentiment— there is a tone of exaggeration. We feel that it is too rich, too mellifluous for nature, which has a touch of ruggedness in its sweetest sounds and sights.
As a character-painter she did not attain a very high place. She loved to make studies of particular feelings or interesting situations; and this naturally limited her choice of persons and things, though the studies produced might surpass in interest any possible character-drawings. All her sketches of persons were too strongly biased by her own feelings and experiences to form a representative picture of any time or any place. The fact that so many of her characters were drawn from real life detracted from their value as permanent types. She had not the highest artist's calmness and impartiality; she might be dowered with the poet's "scorn of scorn, and love of love;" but, although she depreciated the style of Jane Austen as wanting in poetry, she had not herself reached the level when she could say, —
Poets become such
Through scorning nothing.
In all the characters which she created, and whose fortunes we have followed with so vivid an interest, there is not one for whom she did not indulge some strong personal feeling, whether of like or dislike. There is a tinge of bitterness in her description of disagreeable people which misses the highest tone of literature, if not of morals. The highest artist has learnt patience, and is wholly calm. Bitterness is a different thing from indignation, which may be found among the finest examples of poetical pictures. It is something just a little smaller and a great deal more personal. Our sympathies follow hers in the matter. We do not disagree with the opinion suggested.; only, from an artistic point of view, the opinion had better not have been there. We want no personal coloring in our perfect illustrations of human life; the artist must be out of sight, and the picture should not be painted on toned paper.
It is in this that Jane Austen so much excels Charlotte Bronte. She has found enough to write about without the intrusion of any prejudices or disappointments of her own. When we look at the world through her eyes the atmosphere is wholly clear. The picture is so perfect that we forget to praise the artist; it is simply quite natural, quite true, and so, perhaps, for some persons, wholly without interest. For there is a large class of readers to whom nature does not speak plainly enough, for whom real life is not intense enough. They fail to find in the one the beauty the poets describe, and in the other the passions they depict. Life and nature must be translated for them into plainer expressions by some other mind, and the more theatrical light the other mind throws into these expressions the more satisfactory they are considered. Day by day we all walk through the same scenes without observing half the details of them; and if we are compelled to grope for the first time in the dark along often-trod pathways, we come unexpectedly on hitherto undiscovered objects innumerable. It is only when some new light is thrown upon a well-known scene — the sudden flashes in a thunderstorm, or the red glow of a great fire — that our attention is roused to things habitually passed over unseen.
Some persons walk as blindly through life itself. They require a cleverer mind than their own to throw a background of fantastic color behind the objects among which they move. Only so can they perceive their true significance.
Such persons cannot be expected to appreciate Jane Austen's delicately tinted pictures of human life. Perhaps they must not even be required to realize what we mean when we are foolish enough to praise Shakespeare. A very intelligent young man of today, who reads novels with interest and attends theatres with pleasure, is so convinced of the absence of any surpassing merit in the mighty dramatist that he allows himself to believe that the enthusiasts for the poet are all pretending!
Another man, an elderly clergyman (also of to-day), an M.A. of Oxford, in early years a botanist and a dabbler in the natural sciences— a man who thinks he appreciates Virgil, and has got everything out of the poets that can be got by an intelligent mind — has been heard to express, in a kind of confidential disgust at the stupidity of the world, the following astonishing sentiment: "Shakespeare? Shakespeare is a very much overrated man. I can't understand what people profess to see in him. But it's no use saying anything." So he leaves us all to our blindness.
It is not to such men that we must recommend the study of Jane Austen's works, with their quiet humor, their quaint reality, their trenchant but good-natured criticism, their sober and unexaggerated tone, and that manner which, Macaulay has told us, approaches somewhat near to Shakespeare's own. There is such an absence of exciting scenes in Miss Austen's books that, with the exception of those passages in "Sense and Sensibility" designed to illustrate the weakness of the heroine's sister, we can hardly remember any occasion of actual weeping; agony and wild passion are altogether excluded. We may complain a little of want of the pathetic, which can less easily be spared than the exciting element; but even here we may be wrong to demur. In the present age, when most of the powerful writers employ their power in harrowing our feelings painfully, in weaving miseries out of circumstances which seem improbable, by means of actions which strike us as unnatural; in a time when the chief end of talent seems to be to pile up the agony sufficiently high, without caring about the reasonableness of the foundation on which it rests, we may well hesitate before expressing a regret that, in a series of half-a-dozen delightful novels, there is not one distressing death, not one terrible domestic tragedy, not one horrible crime, not even one irresistible temptation. All can be good if they choose, and nearly all may be happy if they will.
We may say of these books that they are simply and entirely delightful. The cheerful reality of interest and the genial spirit of laughter which pervade them carry us on through pleasant and instructive pages to a pleasant and satisfactory end. We know none, except Jane Austen, who, by a few delicate touches, can so completely satisfy us concerning the disposal of a heroine at the close of a novel. After passionate quarrels the reconciliation generally seems tame; but we are wholly content with the fate of Emma in the novel which bears her name, of her favorite Lizzy in "Pride and Prejudice," and of the gentle heroine in "Persuasion."
There is no respect of persons in the works of this writer. A charming impartiality and candor are to be found in all her portraits of friend or foe. Jane Austen delights us as much in depicting the peculiarities of a pleasant old woman as in relating the fortunes of a blooming young one.
And the most extraordinary thing is that at a time when every other writer thought it necessary to write in another way, and to depend upon incident and plot for his interest, Jane Austen ventured to write in this way, and has so commended herself to this generation beyond her more brilliant contemporaries.
Even the king of novelists, Sir Walter Scott, whose wonderful masterpieces of fiction we have all read with absorbing delight and interest, must, in some points, as he has himself so generously acknowledged, bend his head before this quiet and unobtrusive young woman, who never made, and never seemed to wish to make, a sensation of any sort.
The fact that so little of the interest of Jane Austen's works depends on her incidents is in favor of a repeated perusal of these delicate etchings of human life. The characters she depicts are less romantic than is, or was, usual in fiction; but then they are much more real —with the reality not of stupid commonplace, but of pleasant familiarity, intelligently and suggestively unveiled to us.
Her style seemed prosaic to Charlotte Bronte, and her characters uninteresting. Life was full of meaning to the younger authoress, and even the minor incidents in her novels are stamped with the impress of some strong feeling, or carry a reflection of some intense personal experiences. But Jane Austen's belief in the seriousness of life went beyond Charlotte Bronte's; and the author of "Pride and Prejudice" found the drama of human existence so full of meaning that she dared to leave it to explain itself.
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