Raw Twilight and General Good Opinion: Jane Eyre and Jane Austen

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
the question.
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



Filed under Seminar Second Helpings

2 responses to “Raw Twilight and General Good Opinion: Jane Eyre and Jane Austen

  1. Cat Humphries

    The biggest problem I have with *Jane Eyre* is Jane. As a work of literature it is fantastically well-written. Every word on the page can be read and over-read in the way that we literature students love to do; the word “tree” – is it a pastoral idyll? A reference to the tree in the garden of eden, the fall of man and womankind’s role in it? Does it anticipate the tree at Thornfield being struck by lightning, an omen of divorce, despair and destruction? Or perhaps it really is simply just a tree and we are reading far too much into it. Bronte’s work is a work of art, almost poetic prose so excellently planned and executed. The only problem is her whining, moaning, pathetic protagonist. As we are, as you say, parachuted into Jane’s mind, it really is a terrible narrative voice to have to listen to for 521 pages of “unjust, unjust!” and suchlike. As for her relationship with Rochester, my goodness, for a woman who moans that “women feel just as men feel” and “must have action”, she doesn’t half resemble every passive, meek little submissive female literature has ever presented us with. She finds a man brutal, mysterious and ugly, deeming herself unworthy for someone beautiful, perhaps, and even then cannot be matched with him until he has hidden a marriage to a madwoman, lost most of his property, his sight and his hand and she has suddenly become a lady with some wealth. As for the whole Twilight thing (note – Edward and Bella are not “enthusiasts”, there is one quotation from Wuthering Heights. I found it amusing at the time that as I studied Romeo and Juliet, so did Bella, and then as I studied Wuthering Heights, so did she… I digress) I resent the comparison. Much as both are far from ideal relationships, with brooding males and self-depricating females, that’s about as far as it goes. Edward doesn’t have a mad wife, Bella isn’t his governess for a child from an illicit affair, he’s an all-round decent bloke if you ignore the whole super-intense-stalker thing. If Edward did have a deadly secret (PS I’m a vampire, for example), Bella’s reaction wouldn’t be to run away through the night in a stream of tears to start a new life teaching farmers’ children and quasi-flirting with the vicar (who is not a Jacob-type), it would be simple acceptance of this and more vapid “love” for him regardless. In regards to Austen, Keira Knightley, Colin Firth and my beloved Heathcliff, I wish to fling them all as far apart as I can. Heathcliff is a Byronic hero. A violent murderer, possible rapist and brute but with such a sad childhood and love story that the reader cannot help but feel some shameful sympathy for him. Darcy? I never saw the appeal. He ponces about as Austen waffles on in chick-lit style with an “I hate him I hate him I hate him but oh isn’t he so dashing” approach. The beauty of Wuthering Heights is not in the love story (or lack thereof), but in the multiple layers of text, the complexly woven threads of interpersonal relations, the readers, out involvement, reactions, expectations and fears and in the darkness of character that is definitely not represented by Colin Firth, regardless of whether or not he dives into the water with his shirt off (which, coincidentally, is actually a body double anyway, so people really need to stop swooning over). And Jane? Yes, I can see the comparison more, as she wanders the moors, running from her love instead of haunting him, as she is in this great, almost empty stately home with a dark, mysterious man, but it is not the same. The same would be if she had been involved with John Reed, perhaps, the boy she grew up with, or if she had indeed married St John to be a missionary’s wife, as an Edgar Linton parallel, but with wistful glances over her shoulder at what could have been with Rochester. The fact that she actually marries him, for me, ruins the novel completely. That being said, the cold, bleak start to the novel, with the (yes, I’m saying it) pathetic fallacy setting the tone of the unloving home as Jane is stifled from completing a journey at the beginning of a bildungsroman is FAR superior to any here’s-what-you-missed-last-time that could be the beginning of any trashy television programme. It’s okay, Miss Austen, we can’t all be Brontes…

  2. Pingback: Really, Was Darcy and Rochester Any Better Than Today’s Romantic Life? | Kate's Bookshelf

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