Thursday, June 17, 2010

Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen: Rediscovering Shirley

I'm supposed to be posting the second part of Persuasion Janeicillin today - for those who are fiending, I will try to make good tomorrow - but I am "all alive" with Shirley, as Lady Bertram might phrase it, and with the All About the Brontes challenge wrapping up in two weeks (while Agnes Grey remains unread - it will be a small miracle if I get to it in time!), I must spend the day with Charlotte, rather than my dear Jane. My apologies for the diversion, but there really is no help for it.

I first read Shirley in eleventh grade, and all I remembered about it when I picked it up again a month ago (lesson learned: never begin a long, serious read while moving) was that it wasn't until the second volume that the title character is introduced. The book made very little impression on me and, consequently, reading Shirley now was like discovering a whole new Bronte book. And what a discovery it was! I did not know (or remember, as the case may be) that Charlotte could write with so little perversity (excuse the word use - as Miss Bronte herself might say, "Find me an English word as good, reader," and I will gladly adopt it). Nor did I know she was funny! In summation, nothing at all prepared me to discover in Shirley that Charlotte Bronte could be so very much like and owe such a vast debt to Jane Austen.

I understand that what I just said flies in the face of all common perception about these beloved authoresses. It is, after all, a truth universally acknowledged that Bronte disdained Austen's "ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses." Yet I could not help but wonder as I read Shirley, so remarkably unlike Bronte's other novels, if the book wasn't a response to Austen, an attempt to adopt and improve on her themes, with a good dose of Charlotte's vaunted "Passion" thrown into the mix. We know for certain that Bronte had read both Pride and Prejudice and Emma, as she specifically commented on them in her letters. I would argue that she had, at least, also read Sense and Sensibility, but more on that in a moment. Let us first turn our attention to Pride and Prejudice. Bronte made the following famous comments on January 12th, 1848, in a letter to George Lewes:
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. What induced you to say that you would rather have written Pride and Prejudice or  Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley novels?

I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I had 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. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
This correspondence took place at the beginning of the year in which she began writing Shirley. It is also the year that ended with the tragic deaths of her brother, Branwell, in September and Emily in December. The following March of 1849, a letter to her publisher tells us that she had already submitted the majority of the first volume but put it aside when death struck her family. Though May brought the death of Anne, she still finished the book by the end of August. Yet despite these horrible events, Charlotte produced her very happiest of novels. Don't get me wrong, there is still plenty of angst and despair to delight even the most morbid devotees of Jane Eyre (how could there not be?), but here is a novel about a small community - "three or four families in a country village", painted on a "bit (two inches wide) of ivory", worked "with so fine a brush" - that takes place in the same year as Pride and Prejudice, about two ladies crossed in love, in which the heroines are not introduced until the narrative is well underway, that is in Austen's third person style (as opposed to the first person, favored by the Brontes), that concludes summarily, just like Austen ends all of her novels, and which includes characters and circumstances that highly resemble Austen's. Let's have a look, shall we?

The first chapter of the book introduces us to the curates of the area in which we are concerned: Mr. Malone of Briarfield (where our main characters reside), Mr Donne of Whinbury, and Mr. Sweeting of Nunnely, all of whom are minor character and provide comic relief to the book. In both of the Austen books we know Bronte read, members of the clergy (Mr. Collins and Mr. Elton) are held up as examples of the ridiculous. Of course, as Bronte is nothing if not devout, there are several other clergymen in Shirley to represent the virtues of the race, but on the three curates she has little mercy. The best example of this is when Mr. Malone and Mr. Donne pay a visit to Shirley Keeler (our second heroine, and the hieress of the neighborhood). After her dog, Tartar, chases both men through the house, in an almost slapstick scene, Mr. Malone tries to be charming:
He talked to the ladies by fits and starts, choosing for topics whatever was most intensely commonplace; he sighed deeply, significantly, at the close of every sentence; he sighed in each pause; he sighed ere he opened his mouth. At last, finding it desirable to add ease to his other charms, he drew forth to aid him an ample silk pocket-handkerchief. This was to be the graceful toy with which his unoccupied hands were to trifle. He went to work with a certain energy: he folded the red and yellow square cornerwise; he whipped it open with a waft: again he folded it in narrower compass: he made of it a handsome band. To what purpose would he proceed to apply that ligature? Would he wrap it around his throat - his head? Should it be a comforter or a turban? Neither. Peter Augustus had an inventive - an original genius: he was about to show the ladies graces of action possessing at least the charm of novelty. He sat on the chair with his athletic Irish legs crossed, and these legs, in that attitude, he circled with the bandanna and bound firmly together.
Would not Mr. Bennet have a field day with him? Meanwhile, Mr. Donne attempts to collect money for a church project from Shirley:
"Wretched place - this Yorkshire," he went on. "I could never have formed an idear of the country had I not seen it; and the people - rich and poor - what a set! How corse and uncultivated! They would be scouted in the south."

Shirley leaned forwards on the table, her nostrils dilating a little, her taper fingers interlaced and compressed each other hard.

"The rich," pursued the infatuated and unconscious Donne, "are a parcel of misers - never living as persons with their incomes ought to live: you scarsley - (you must excuse Mr Donne's pronunciation, reader; it was very choice; he considered it genteel, and prided himself on his southern accent; northern ears received with singular sensations his utterance of certain words); you scarsley eversee a fam'ly where a propa carriage or a reg'la butla is kep; and as to the poor - just look at them when they come crowding about the church-doors on the occasion of a marriage or a funeral, clattering in clogs; the men in their shirt-sleeves and wool-combers' aprons, the women in mob-caps and bed-gowns. They pos'tively deserve that one should turn a mad cow in amongst them to rout their rabble-ranks - he! he! What fun it would be!"
A sure method of loosening the purse-strings, undoubtedly! About as appropriate as Mr. Darcy's first proposal (Shirley, by the way, can boast of its own botched proposal scene). In none of her other books would I categorize the caricatures Bronte paints as humorous.

Another character that reminds me of one of Austen's is Hortense Moore, the unmarried sister of the novel's two heroes. The Moores have returned to England after having been raised in Belgium, where their family were highly respected and successful merchants. The younger generation has inherited a bankrupt company from their parents and Robert Moore, the elder brother, is determined to repay his debt and renew his fortune. For this reason he has come to Yorkshire, where he runs a mill while Hortense keeps house. It is in this proud lady, officious and indomitable even in reduced circumstances, that I see a likeness to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Now, one must imagine what Lady Catherine would be like without her title, position, Rosings Park, and as an alien in a foreign land. Listen to this speech of Hortense's, regarding her cousin Caroline Helstone (the first heroine of the novel, though not its namesake), to whom she teaches French:
"She does not, she appreciates me better than any one else here; but then she has more intimate opportunities of knowing me: she sees that I have education, intelligence, manner, principles; all, in short, which belongs to a person well born and well bred."

"Are you fond of her?"

"For fond - I cannot say: I am not one who is prone to take violent fancies, and, consequently, my friendship is the more to be depended on. I have a regard for her as my relative; her position also inspired my interest, and her conduct as my pupil has hitherto been such as rather to enhance than diminish the attachment that springs from other causes."

"She behaves pretty well at lessons?"

"To me she behaves very well; but you are conscious, brother, that I have a manner calculated to repel over-familiarity, to win esteem, and to command respect. Yet, possessed of penetration, I perceive clearly that Caroline is not perfect; that there is much to be desired in her."

"Give me a last cup of coffee, and while I am drinking it amuse me with an account of her faults."

"Dear brother, I am happy to see you eat your breakfast with relish, after the fatiguing night you have passed. Caroline, then, is defective; but, with my forming hand and almost motherly care, she may improve. There is about her an occasional something - a reserve, I think - which I do not quite like, because it is not sufficiently girlish and submissive; and there are glimpses of an unsettled hurry in her nature, which put me out. Yet she is usually most tranquil, too dejected and thoughtful indeed sometimes. In time, I doubt not, I shall make her uniformly sedate and decorous, without being unaccountably pensive. I ever disapprove of what is unintelligible."
I know I cannot prove a directly correlation, but when I read these lines I could almost see Lady Catherine. Perhaps I am just so Austen crazy that I see her everywhere. I admit it is possible, but I have yet to finish stating my case.

In April of 1850, admittedly after the completion of Shirley, Bronte commented on Emma in a letter to W.S. Williams. Though she does not say she only just read Emma, which she specifies in her comments on Pride and Prejudice, I think it is reasonable to argue that both books were quite possibly read around the same time. She writes:
I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works, Emma - read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable -- anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, or heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. 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.
I find this passage fascinating - mostly because it is such a fabulous illustration of Charlotte's obsession with personification, but also because it shows she has thought deeply about Austen's work, even if she finds it lacking. In fact, I believe Miss Bronte was amongst those who do not particularly care for Emma Woodhouse, largely based on chapter ten of Shirley, entitled "Old Maids".

Caroline Helstone - for her own reasons, which I will not disclose - has determined that she will never marry. She is not pleased with this decision; unlike another heroine, the single life holds no charms for her and inspires compassion for those who have long endured it:
"How wrong it is to neglect people because they are not pretty, and young, and merry! And I will certainly call to see Miss Mann, too: she may not be amiable; but what has made her unamiable? What has life been to her?"
Here is a young lady who would never dare scoff at Miss Bates. The entire chapter reads like a rebuke to Miss Woodhouse, consisting of visits to two ladies: the aforementioned Miss Mann and a Miss Ainley. Hear what the authoress says of Miss Mann:
Communicative on her own affairs she was usually not, because no one cared to listen to her; but to-day she became so, and her confidant shed tears as she heard her speak: for she told of cruel, slow-wasting, obstinate sufferings. Well might she be corpse-like; well might she look grim, and never smile; well might she wish to avoid excitement, to gain and retain composure! Caroline, when she knew all, acknowledged that Miss Mann was rather to be admired for fortitude than blamed for moroseness. Reader! when you behold an aspect for whose constant gloom and frown you cannot account, whose unvarying cloud exasperates you by its apparent causelessness, be sure that there is a canker somewhere, and a canker not the less deeply corroding because concealed.
And on Miss Ainley:
Miss Helstone studied well the mind and heart now revealed to her. She found no high intellect to admire: the old maid was merely sensible; but she discovered so much goodness, so much usefulness, so much mildness, patience, truth, that she bent her own mind before Miss Ainley's in reverence. What was her love of nature, what was her sense of beauty, what were her more varied and fervent emotions, what was her deeper power of thought, what her wider capacity to comprehend, compared to the practical excellence of this good woman? Momently, they seemed only beautiful forms of selfish delight; mentally, she trod them underfoot.
Charlotte Bronte must not have been satisfied with Mr. Knightley's rebuke: "It was badly done, indeed!" She seems to have felt the need to illustrate just how unjust and cruel Emma was; to let the world know just how little she values intelligence and superiority of mind when compared with unpretentious goodness.

I think the influence of Sense and Sensibility can also be found at the end of this chapter, but before examining why, lets return to that correspondence with George Lewes in January of 1848. On the 18th she wrote:
You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that "Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no "sentiment" (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas), "has no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry"; and then you add, I must  "learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived". The last point only will I ever acknowledge. ... Miss Austen being, as you say, without "sentiment", without poetry, maybe is sensible (more real than true), but she cannot be great. 
She goes on to say:
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.
This argument over the semantics of sentiment verses the sentimental smacks too much of "sense and sensibility" to be coincidental, especially in reference to Austen. Furthermore, see what Caroline determines to do after her visits to Miss Mann and Miss Ainley:
Caroline went home, laid her plans, and took a resolve not to swerve from them. She allotted a certain portion of her time for her various studies, and a certain portion for doing anything Miss Ainley might direct her to do; the remainder was to be spent in exercise; not a moment was to be left for the indulgence of such fevered thoughts as had poisoned last Saturday evening. 
Sound familiar? Something like  Marianne Dashwood's "course of serious study"? However much Bronte might sneer at Austen's lack of sentiment, she seems happy to compliment her sense. It is sense that Miss Helstone has, without forsaking sensibility, as acknowledged in the following passage (spoiler alert!), which occurs after the man she loves greets her coldly, much like Willoughby does to Marianne when they meet at the party in London:
Now, what was she to do? - to give way to her feelings, or to vanquish them? To pursue him, or to turn upon herself? If she is weak, she will try the first expedient, - will lose his esteem and win his aversion: if she has sense, she will be her own governor, and resolve to subdue and bring under guidance the disturbed realm of her emotions. She will determine to look on life steadily, as it is; to begin to learn its severe truths seriously, and to study its knotty problems closely, conscientiously.

It appeared she had a little sense, for she quitted Robert quietly, without complaint or question - without the alteration of a muscle or the shedding of a tear - betook herself to her studies under Hortense as usual, and at dinner-time went home without lingering.
Perhaps I am just obsessed with Austen, but this seems to me a clear discourse on the subject matter of Sense and Sensibility. In fact, her heroines, Caroline and Shirley, could be seen as parallel representatives of Elinor and Marianne - sense and sensibility - respectively. In the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of this book, Andrew and Judith Hook see the two heroines as representations of Charlotte's recently departed sisters: "Charlotte poured her feelings for her sisters into the characters of Shirley Keeldar (Emily) and Caroline Helstone (Anne)." If so, my characterizing of each as "sense " and "sensibility" is strongly supported  by their respective writing styles.

All I'm really attempting to do here today is prove that there are more connections between these great authoresses than convention typically allows.  Perhaps I am grasping at straws. Still, I think Shirley is by far the most interesting Bronte book to read through an Austen tinged lens. In it, Charlotte writes, "every character in this book will be found to be more or less imperfect, my pen refusing to draw anything in the model line". Jane's, "Pictures of perfection, you know, make me sick and wicked," is awfully similar. If nothing else, the former quote, from early in the novel, was enough  to inspire this entire exercise. I found it enjoyable and hope my readers don't deem it futile.

For both the opinions of Charlotte Bronte and other notables on our dear Miss Austen, visit

Read my other All About The Brontes challenge reviews:

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Professor


  1. Lovely review and post about Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen! I have only read Jane Eyre and her fragment called Emma Brown. I think Shirley would be a good choice for me to try next based on your review.

    I have two more books for the Bronte Challenge that I have not read or reviewed yet! I think I am going to need an extension!

  2. Hi Meredith. July is getting so close! I'm going to make an effort to finish the challenge on time, but have already decided that if I do not, I will put up a post on Agnes Grey anyway. Better late than never, right?

  3. Excellent review! I think Charlotte Bronte gets too much condemnation for criticising Jane Austen. But no one acknowledges that she saw Jane Austen's shrewdness and "miniature perfection," but here I must agree that in imagery Charlotte Bronte triumphs, possibly because she was of another era. It's a pity she did not read Mansfield Park or Persuasion, which would have aroused her sympathy more than shallow Emma Woodhouse or the witty Lizzy Bennet. As a Bronte fan and ardent Romantic, I used to find Jane Austen boring until I read Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is perhaps the most Romantic-spirited and Victorian of the Austen heroines (she is better-written than Marianne), which would have suited Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte Bronte dwelt on inner personalities rather than outward conversation, which would be yet another point of difference between the two (though both novelists employed both techniques).