Brontë and Forster on Austen*

A recent Observer article on Britain’s Orange Prize for women’s fiction referred to critical statements Charlotte Brontë made about Jane Austen’s tendency to write “in miniature.” Yesterday I said I wanted to track down Brontë’s remarks, and Jenny Davidson, a novelist who teaches an undergraduate seminar on Jane Austen at Columbia, is on the case. She forwards relevant excerpts from Brontë’s letters.

From Brontë’s letter of January 12, 1848, to G.H. Lewes:

Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would have rather written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley Novels? 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 daguerrotyped 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.

And from her letter of April 12, 1850, to W.S. Williams:

She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting; she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress…. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman.

E.M. Forster, on the other hand, called himself:

a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity, how ill they sit on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favourite author! I read and re-read, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers.

And Susan Ramsey of the Athena Book Shop writes in to side with Austen:

I always figured Heathcliffe would have benefitted from a good therapist. Not much humor there, and less irony. My theory is that while an intelligent ninth grader can read Jane and get the plot, they won’t be impressed until they’ve accumulated a large enough life-load of jerks so that they suddenly recognize Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennett. (Took me longer to realize we’re not supposed to admire Mr. Bennet either.) But it does break my heart that Mark Twain hated her — said “It’s a pity they let her die a natural death.”

* To “sit on the face” meant something altogether different back then, it seems.


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