Recently, I was asked by a local teacher to speak to her English class after the students had read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Below, you will find my notes for a comparison/contrast between the Brontës and Austen. As I have been out of the public classroom for several years, I did a bit of brushing up before opening myself up to lots of questions from these students.
(Many of the key points below come from “Tory Daughters: Jane Austen and the Brontës,” from Patrick Parrinder’s Nation and Novel, 512 pages, Oxford University Press, November 15, 2008. This book is a fabulous resource, which I would highly recommend to others.)
(These notes are in no particular order.)
Introduction to the early 1800s:
• Fictional romance requires that the young lovers defy social norms, but the novels of Austen’s contemporaries, such as Maria Edgeworth (I am currently reading “Castle Rackrent.”) reflect specific anxieties about marriage in the early 19th Century. For example, in “Castle Rackrent,” Edgeworth seems to be reconstructing an heir worthy of Irish legitimacy. As a female writer, Edgeworth appears to be fortifying the system of primogeniture, which separated women from access to property.
• The idea of a companionate marriage became increasingly dominant in the early 1800s. Austen’s novels did much to propagate this middle-class idea.
• Advocating love matches and companionate marriages in novels also held a symbolic element. Each new alliance represents a further weakening of the dynastic line.
• A common complaint of Austen’s novels is her heroines marry for love. What the critic is missing is that the marriage can also hold political and social significance. Women can be active agents of cultural change. (See my posts on endogamous and exogamous marriages.)
• In a time when divorce was expensive and required Parliamentary approval, selfish and short-sighted family interests being set against the wider social interests that the lovers embody demonstrates the novelist implicit or explicit prejudices.
• Up until the Victorian period, the politics of marriage in English fiction reflected the social norms of the aristocracy and gentry. The narrative often frames and marks as “foreign” the literary conventions of sensibility.
• The importance to the landed estate is England’s future is an element of the stories. The concept of primogeniture is reinforced.
• The English ‘Jacobin’ novelists of the 1790s (such as Charlotte Smith, Thomas Holcroft, and Robert Bage) produced parables of a reformed aristocracy rather than visions of an aristocracy overthrown by the people. Their novels tend to suggest that an enlightened aristocracy could still form the backbone of the English nation. Rarely do these narratives endorse any single, self-identical political future.
• The Church was a vocation open to the younger sons of the landed gentry. Members of the clergy were Oxford or Cambridge graduates.
• A clergyman’s life was associated with genteel poverty and a lack of ruling-class privilege.
• A clergyman’s daughters were so pressed to marry. Austen remained unmarried, while Charlotte Brontë eventually married the Reverend Arthur Nicholls.
• The English “courtship novel” appealed to female writers and readers.They reflected the tension between the traditional definition of womanhood in terms of the marriage mart, and women’s demand for moral independence and self-respect. Female-authored novels of the period made an attempt to frame sentiment as an outmoded, if still dangerously attractive structure of feeling.
• The heroines of courtship novels are outside the charmed circle from which aristocratic brides are chosen. They have no obvious dynastic responsibilities, and the marital expectations that have been formed about them are the vaguest.
• These heroines are relatively free and are conscious of their freedom; and coming from staunch Protestant backgrounds, they possess a moral conscience and a desire to take personal responsibility for their own lives. The movement between literature and history forms a transition between private and public meanings.
• The aim of the fictional plot in the courtship novel is not simply to portray the heroine’s growth towards self-fulfillment and a settled happiness. The happy ending translates her moral assets into material ones, suggesting that – in fiction, at least – virtue has its earthly reward.
• The Happily Ever After of the courtship plot rewards the most morally deserving pair of lovers while thwarting all rival claimants. The allegories of love and marriage are not only subject to particular forms of narrative inscription that ultimately determine their meanings but also deeply embedded with a political moment that demands closer attention.
• The politics of the HEA ending depends upon its relationship to the conventional hierarchy of wealth and breeding. Most often, the established social power is unexpectedly reaffirmed while the aristocracy is revitalized by an infusion of social responsibility and Christian virtue (the typical dowry of clergyman’s daughter).
• The courtship novels lead us through romantic complications, intricate false alarms, and delicate misunderstandings to an endorsement of Tory England.
• Resided at Steventon Rectory
• She came from a solidly genteel background and was strongly anti-Jacobin.
• Her characters are far more ill at ease in fashionable society than those of the Jacobin novelists, whose politics she so disliked.
• The Jacobins remembered the anti-Royalist origins of the Whig party and dreamed of an alliance between radicals and reformed Whig aristocrats.
• For Austen, however, the 18th Century diversion between the Tory country gentry and the ruling Whig aristocracy was a deeply personal matter.
• Austen has been described as the “Tory daughter of a quiet Tory parson” and her novels as “Tory pastorals.”
• Although party names never appear in Austen’s fiction, the stinging portrayal of an aristocratic grande dame, such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, implicitly involves party politics.
• Austen’s outspokenly Royalist teenage History of England, admittedly a burlesque, reveals the strong political opinions, which later mellowed into her family’s moderate Toryism.
• A Church of England parson held a duty to support the monarchy and the ruling class and to preach patriotism and social obedience to his flock.
• Patriotism accompanied paternalism. The parson also held the role of “spiritual father” to his flock.
• In Austen’s novels, it can be argued “the significance of marriage as a relationship between individuals…is always subordinate to its significance as a relationship between families.
• Austen’s characters are strongly individualized and are not carried away by the anarchy of romantic love.
• There is an important variation in Austen’s marriage plots, some of which are endogamous – as in Edmund Bertram’s union with his cousin Fanny – and some exogamous. Endogamous marriage implies the purification and consolidation of a house, a dynasty, or a community. It is a defensive, protective measure. Exogamous marriage is a union of opposites – political, social, and temperamental – injecting new blood into one of the nation’s old or ruling families.
• The culminating marriages in Austen’s fictions are socially and economically far more advantageous to the heroine than the hero. Moreover, exogamous marriage is fraught with danger in her novels.
• To marry openly for economic advantage (as with Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice) is to invite the novelist’s scorn.
• Those who marry beneath them in essentials are set for misery (such as Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park).
• Austen’s heroines must resist easy captivation and must appear to disregard material considerations so their ability to contract a wealthy marriage becomes a tribute to their integrity alone. The heroine who rejects the handsome cavalier or bounder in favor of the unbending man of virtue (or prig) is set to fulfill her destiny.
• Her “cavaliers” are characterized by vacillation, self-contradiction, and inconsistency. They are all “Beta” males.
• Ironically, Austen uses many “Whig” names in her stories: Wentworth, Woodhouse, Watson, Bertram, Brandon, Churchill, Dashwood, D’Arcy, Fitzwilliam, Russell, and Steele.
• A self-imposed limitation of Austen’s novels is she only “hints” at social change.
• Resided at Haworth Parsonage
• The Brontë sisters were daughters of an Irish father and a Cornish mother, who idolized the Anglo-Irish Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo and, eventually, a Tory prime minister.
• Wellington and his brothers are the central figures of the fantasy world of the Class Town (later Angria) created by Charlotte and her brother Bramwell in their youth.
• At the age of 13, Charlotte copied out Walter Scott’s tribute to Wellington in his Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, adding the following exclamation: “If he saved England in that hour of tremendous perils, shall he not save her again?”
• The Victorian critic Leslie Stephen saw Charlotte Brontë as a typical example of the ‘patriotism of the steeple.’
• Charlotte thought of herself as the antithesis of Austen.
• Charlotte, for all her sympathy with oppressed woman, was a political conservative and an ardent admirer of Walter Scott.
• Her novels are “a marriage of identifiably bourgeois values with the values of the gentry or aristocracy – a figurative political marriage.”
• Jane Eyre’s whole life is determined, as we gradually realize, by a series of rash and impolitic marriages in preceding generations.
• At every stage of the novel, the young Jane is the chosen pilgrim following a predestined path, while her imagination continues to construct fictional versions of herself; her true identity is gradually revealed.
• In Jane Eyre, we see a Victorian “English-ist” in the characters. Those outside of England (Rochester’s French mistress, the Francophile Whig aristocracy represented by Blanche Ingram, etc.) set against the superiority of the English (Jane Eyre).
• The deepening love between Jane and Rochester is one of the English novel’s crowning examples of an exogamous sexual romance based on the attraction of social and historical opposites.
• Jane Eyre escapes from Rochester only to find herself being endogamously courted by St John Rivers, the country vicar and Puritan saint, who is her cousin.
• Where Rochester would have lured her into a bigamous marriage, Rivers proposes a mere marriage of convenience, not a love match or a union likely to lead to offspring.
• Rochester’s marriage to Bertha Mason was intended to carry colonial wealth back to England, while Rivers plans to export evangelical spirituality to India and tells Jane it is her duty to assist him.
• What Jane detects in Rivers is the self-mortifying patriotism of the new breed of British imperialists.
• Their life at Ferndean is one of repatriation and restoration.
• Rochester’s blindness is the blindness of Samson, but Jane’s arrival at Ferndean puts him back into familiar English hands.
• Wuthering Heights is understood as a provincial novel, portraying violent and brutal extremes of behavior and set in a wildly romantic landscape.
• The primitiveness of the Yorkshire moors is registered through the eyes of the southern-bred Lockwood.
• The novel’s confined topography is in sharp contrast to the cosmopolitan settings and incessant journeyings of the Gothic and Jacobin fiction to which it is indebted.
• Brontë balances the Gothic material in WH against a tale of courtship and domestic passion.
• The striking two-part structure, with bitter conflict in the first generation and gradual reconciliation in the second, had been anticipated in at least one earlier courtship novel, A Simple Story (1791) by Elizabeth Inchbald, the author of the English version of Kotzebue’s Lovers’ Vows, which was performed as part of the story of Austen’s Mansfield Park.
• In Wuthering Heights, provincial Puritanism to some extent takes the place of A Simple Story’s high bred Catholic spirituality.
• The Puritanical sermons of Joseph and Jabes Branderham set a devotional context for the love story.
• Catherine’s admitting her love for Heathcliff is a kind of neo-paganism or romantic nature worship. Her words are a poetic metaphor rather than inspired truths, and are deeply false.
• Catherine is portrayed as cruel and self-destructive as is her brother Hindley.
• Heathcliff is the Holy Ghost whom Joseph and Branderham wished to see excommunicated. This means the romantic passion of Catherine and Heathcliff is not a bond between external soul-mates, but a union of opposites, a Puritan-Cavalier love tragedy in which the vengeful Puritan outcast attempts to drag his former lover down to destruction.
• The more Catherine accepts the namby-pamby lifestyle into which she has married, the more Heathcliff accepts his demonic role of eternal excommunication.
• Heathcliff’s elaborate plan of revenge cannot prevent a growing alliance between the Earnshaws (remnants of the old yeoman class of independent farmers) and the Lintons (genteel land owners).
• Heathcliff’s death sums up the novel’s themes of dynastic succession, sin and punishment, excommunication, and devil-worship. He has made arrangements for an un-Christian burial.
• Their novels reflect their authors’ rural and Anglican backgrounds and their concern with patriotism, paternalism, pastoralism, and the moral accountability of the individual.
• Patriotism is a stronger emotion in Austen and Brontë than in most English women novelists before or since.