Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Passion, According to Jane and Charlotte

Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are both giants in classic literature. As students, most of us have been asked to read one or both of their works. When I read them the first time as an adolescent, I read them in quick succession  . . .and I loved both.

While their views on life and love, as reflected in their novels, couldn't be more different, they both wrote books that resonate with me. They were both smart women living unconventional lives. Yet, I recently learned (at a book talk at my library), Charlotte didn't like Jane.

In a letter, Charlotte wrote of Jane:
 "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 with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood….”

It's a criticism I've heard leveled at Jane before . . .that her work lacks passion. And, if, like Charlotte Bronte, you think passion is something outward and visible, dramatic and noisy, then I can see why you might come to that conclusion. After all, no one in Jane Austen's world ever burnt the house down because passion had driven her crazy.

But, for me, Jane's characters vibrate with passion. True, they keep it under their hats, or bonnets as the case may be, but they feel things very deeply.  In fact, the restraint of her characters makes it all the more powerful when that restraint breaks. When Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility admits to the depth of her long-hidden feelings, it's truly moving, in part because it was so long held back.

That's not to say that Charlotte's characters don't also resonate with me. Jane Eyre, for example, was in many ways a model of restraint herself. But in her case, it is not so much outward propriety that constrains her. Instead, it is her internal battle. Jane refuses to become Rochester's mistress not because she doesn't love him, but because her own moral code declared it wrong. The battles she had to fight with mostly with herself.

In real life, I have felt like both of these characters. I have felt the impact of both visions of passion and love in my life. I have fought myself and others. I think the philosophy underlying the stories may be more than the same than the authors would have realized.

I wonder what the authors would have thought of each other, had they met. We see Charlotte's view of Jane's work, but Jane never got to return the favor, having died just as Charlotte came into the world. Would the genteel woman of Bath have looked down on her country cousin from the Yorkshire moors? Or would she have found that the passionate heart that beat in that chest was a twin to her own?

Now, *that* would be one interesting tea party. I hope they invite Oscar Wilde. He'd love the catty undertone, and the cucumber sandwiches.

1 comment:

  1. Please remember me when the tea party happens. I promise to sit quietly and suppress all my character's vulgar, overstated passions.