Whilst we were discussing Jane Eyre in seminar this week, we noticed how the very beginning of Charlotte Brontë’s work sets up a different vision of the world to, say, Jane Austen’s. Take the opening of Sense and Sensibility:
The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister. But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it. In the society of his nephew and niece, and their children, the old Gentleman’s days were comfortably spent. His attachment to them all increased.
The focus is entirely on the social world in which these people live. Despite how carefully it situates them in place, family and social class, we get every little insight into the feelings of people at this stage. That phrase “so respectable a manner as to engage the good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance” fobs off all the value judgements onto what the people around them think. The social is paramount, opinions are arrived at by consensus, and people are located and understood by their relationships to each other. OK, Austen’s exercising her famous irony here, setting up a conventional world against which her characters’ feelings may exert tension. (It’s the same trick she pulls at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, asserting that “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” whilst not ever asserting that it’s true.) But they’ll still have to live out their lives in this world.
Contrast that with the opening of Jane Eyre:
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of
I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
We’re parachuted into someone’s consciousness, apparently listening to a discussion which has already begun, and privy to personal emotions. Everything we see and hear is coloured by Jane’s powerful consciousness: our experience in this novel is less of events and people in themselves and more of the way they affect her. Indeed we are so firmly inside not only Jane’s point of view, but her psyche, that you can imagine (if you have a twisted sense of humour), Brontë turning round near the end of the novel and crying “JOKE! Actually none of this happened, it’s all Jane’s perfervid fantasies. She’s still stuck at Lowood, nearly unhinged with grief. Sad times for her, but I got a pretty good novel out of it.”
Jane’s relationship with Rochester partakes of the same tone – it’s not social in the way Austen’s love matches are. In fact it comes close to being anti-social. Their bond is intensely personal, inexplicable to others, and seems at one point capable of tearing the fabric of reality in order to get them back together. I’ve just noticed that the passage of Eyre I quoted has a reference to “the raw twilight”. An appropriate echo of Edward and Bella, who I gather are themselves Brontë sister enthusiasts.
In thinking about this comparison, I start to wonder if we read Austen rather too much through Brontë-tinted spectacles. Because the popular image of Mr. Darcy looks an awful lot like Rochester or Heathcliff: all that deliberate rudeness, that borderline hostile staring, those savagely unnecessary sidewhiskers. The advice columnist Captain Awkward has invented a whole new verb to cover Darcyesque behaviour – Firthing – which you’ll notice takes it name from the actor, not the character. Have the screen adaptations of Austen over the last few decades been inflected by assumptions about fictional romance which we got from the Brontës? I wonder whether the greatest contribution Jane Eyre has made to popular culture isn’t the plot (seriously… who can remember it all?) or indeed the dialogue (brownies, witches, it’s hardly heart-thumping stuff) but by setting the emotional terms of engagement. What does everyone else think?
Posted by Dr. Jem Bloomfield