My fellow Austenites, you may have seen that there’s a new Jane Eyre movie out. I can’t honestly say I’ve seen the movie, though at least, unlike some reviewers, I’ve read the book. What I did see was this article from the Washington Post, which neatly pits the title “Jane Eyre Movies Rekindles Austen vs Bronte, the Battle of the Bonnets” against the plaintive cry of “can’t we all just get along?!” Way to play both sides against the middle, Monica Hesse!
It’s been noted that Ms. Hesse’s pacifistic tendencies sound a little ironic after 1 1/2 pages of warmongering, but I do think she has a point. We can like more than one female author at a time. Even more than one English 19th century female author. Just because Charlotte Brontë talked smack about Jane Austen doesn’t mean we have to pit Team Brontë against Team Austen for all eternity. Mark Twain talked smack about Miss Austen too, but you don’t hold a grudge against him, do you? (at least until now . . . ) Partly, I think, it’s that Austenites SO WISH Jane had had a chance to return fire. What would she have said about Charlotte? Minds can be devoured by this thought! We want to say it for her, something, anything!, but none of us are Jane Austen, alas, so we really can’t.
I’m really of many different minds on this topic.
- Of course we can like both Austen and Brontë if we want, and George Eliot too! It’s probably less weird than liking both Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkien (which I do).
- But it’s fun to get into literary fisticuffs with the ladies and gentlemen of Team Brontë. People caring passionately about literature, especially without killing each other, how cool is that?! (Just ask Jasper Fforde.)
- On the other hand, if the moichendisers want to make Brontë consumerism the new thing and give us a break, it would be a relief. (Jane Eyre party games! Burnination for all!)
- Clearly, this means that in addition to taking Action Jane to Chawton and Bath in my upcoming England trip, I’ll have to take her to Haworth as well. To DOMINATE . . . er, see how the other half lives. Yeah, that’s right.
By the way, the moratorium on Jane on Jane mud wrestling in the title of this post does not refer to Jane Austen clones. We reserve all rights to the Jane Austen clone wars. Just so you know.
In Thoughts on Mansfield Park, Part 1: Fanny and Mary, I started to talk about this book: Why does it seem so different from Austen’s other books? Why is Fanny so serious? Last week(ish) was about Fanny as a person, and about Mary as a quasi-parallel to Elizabeth Bennet. But now I’m thinking about the novel in general—why does Jane seem so much more serious, and why does it all seem rather forced?
Scholars (such as Marvin Mudrick) seem to see the novel as a penitent rewriting of Pride and Prejudice—the clergyman’s daughter being serious. Mansfield Park was Jane’s first novel after a 10-year hiatus, and while she was writing it, she was seeing Pride and Prejudice through the press, and commented on its “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling” manner, its “playfulness and epigrammatism.” This is more than a little depressing, though published authors will understand Austen’s dislike of re-reading her own work in proofs.
But, rather than think that Austen was now a humorless person, I think that, after 10 years, she was taking herself more seriously as a novelist, and had a deeper sense of observation and storytelling. Mudrick argues that, for the most part, in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice, Austen doesn’t delve into her characters much. She is content to equate manners with morals: witty people are good, dull or obnoxious people are bad. (Shades of Oscar Wilde: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.”) Even in her early novels, personality and character aren’t the same thing. Just think of Willoughby, Wickham, Isabella Thorpe, even the respectable but self-absorbed Lady Middleton—all these people aren’t what they first seem.
There’s no doubt that Mansfield Park is a turning point, though, and Jane Austen is thinking about all sorts of new things. In Pride and Prejudice, some first impressions are wrong, but it seems like in Mansfield Park, they all are. We’re in the author’s confidence, but the characters (except for Fanny) misjudge each other constantly, and there’s far fewer truly good people. Jane’s gotten much more cynical since we last saw her. Austen told her sister Mansfield Park was to be about “ordination,” that is, one assumes, Edmund’s ordination as a clergyman. This seems to make it revolve around Edmund’s struggles, and the different views about morality and the role of the clergy than anything else. And these views were much in upheaval in Austen’s time. They illuminate the characters, and provide a backdrop. We are meant to judge the characters by their attitude towards serious things (something that changes in Henry Crawford’s transformation) and expect that we will like them accordingly.
Yet in fits and starts there’s something more real about these characters than we’ve seen before. Austen goes into their motives, their psychology even (think of Julia Bertram sulking at Sotherton, a prey to good breeding, but lacking fortitude). In Mansfield Park Austen has also broadened her vision to take in a nature vs. nurture argument that was popular in her day: the beauties of nature and the evils of town, and their opposite effect on people. She tries to explain why Maria Bertram, Sir Thomas, Mary Crawford, and everyone else, are the way they are, based on their upbringing and these outside effects. Really, a startlingly modern idea, but she doesn’t let the real feelings of her characters take her where it might. She still wants to push them around, have the good end happily and the bad unhappily. (“That is what fiction means.” —Wilde again ) Sometimes the characters feel real to us, and sometimes they don’t. And that’s the tension of the novel, the weirdness that readers react to.
To me Mansfield Park is an experiment that Austen is trying out before she explores her ideas of good and evil in normal society, opposing forces in normal people, in a more natural, complex, interwoven way in Emma and Persuasion. Both these books have deep themes of people not being what they seem, even to themselves, but the characters and plots seem to evolve quite naturally. I think of Fanny Price as more a precursor for Anne Elliot than anything else. Like Fanny, Anne is a quiet, ignored observer, a serious and feeling character, but Anne has her touches of humor, of worldly knowledge, that Fanny, in her innocence, finds it hard to come by.
But for all that, there’s something raw, something out of control, in Mansfield Park, that I find compelling. And that’s why I come back to it.