Mar 8, 2013

Trying to Understand Bronte & Twain on Austen

Charlotte Bronte
She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible ( not senseless) woman; if this is heresy- I cannot help it. - Charlotte Bronte
In Mark Twain's autobiography (which I haven't read but Adam at Roof Beam Reader quotes here) he mentions reading Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Bronte read those famous works as well as Emma. 

With Sense and Sensibility I can imagine Bronte was irritated that Marianne married Colonel Brandon (many people still are). She probably thought Marianne simply feigned her passionate feelings or would have remained true to John Willoughby's memory even though he was so terrible to her. In Emma the slow and steady realization of her love for Mr. Knightley and Harriet's love for Mr. Martin, which yielded to Emma's matchmaking, was something else she couldn't understand. But what of Pride and Prejudice?
I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone. - Mark Twain
Reading Pride and Prejudice puts a frame of mind to be amused at people's foibles and quirks. It's certainly better to laugh off an rude moment instead of letting it get to you but I think it annoyed Twain and Bronte to look at characters in this light. Austen's genius is so great that its easy to dull the sharpness of her pen; It gave us that satirical tone we so admire. It certainly wouldn't be right to judge others with the same harsh scrutiny. Patronizing others with a smirk is certainly just as bad as patronizing in the manner of Lady Catherine?
She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see. - Mark Twain
Victorians, while known for their society's hypocrisy, had many writers who tried to use their talents to improve society: Beecher Stowe, Gaskell, Eliot to name a few. Bronte created very independent heroines who didn't think of marriage the way the Bennet's do. They made their own living. Maybe this is another reason she held the novel in contempt. Mrs. Bennet may put on a show of 'her nerves' but instead of being annoyed or using them for sport as Mr. Bennet does why not help improve her character?-- Admittedly some may argue he may have already tried. But the same may be said of each 'stray' Bennet sister. Mary with her inability to be herself, she's always trying to be a distorted ideal of what she imagines is perfect, which she neither has the talent nor understanding to be, she's just as silly as the others. Why does no one tell her she doesn't sing well? Why doesn't anyone just tell these characters and try to help them?
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” -George Eliot's Middlemarch
 --Now, the story wouldn't be the same if they had but this lack of care for each other; of character fashioning like in Alcott's Little Women to all but Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Maybe that's another reason it irritated Bronte and Twain? To whom earnestness (and emotion in former's case) was living. Tongue-in-cheek and all in good fun, yet it's safe to say compassion towards humanity is not the first thought immediately associated with Austen. Biting wit? Most definitely. She recognizes her naughty self and warns against it in Emma:
Emma could not resist. "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number -- only three at once."
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.

But here's the crucial turning point: 

While the characters in the novels suffer from this lack, readers who find traits of themselves in those characters one would rather not be, correct themselves. As Virginia Woolf said:
"[Austen was] a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there... And she educates her readers."
Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain missed something with Austen's novels. While they each deal with society and marriage, they have very different tones (Mansfield Park is my personal favorite). But it's her characters which are the life of the novel, some we know so well we could guess how they would react in different situations, which must be one of the reasons so many sequels and spin-offs are available. In many cases perhaps we look up to her heroines or the author herself? Novels help us understand ourselves, others, and make us try to become better people-- as well as amuse us. How many times while reading have you found yourself smile or laugh? or read a few more chapters when you really needed to stop and do such-and-such a duty?

If, dear reader,  I leave you in any doubt as to my own feelings about Austen's works simply put: who else but a Janeite would bother writing such a post?

6 comments

Roof Beam Reader said...

Spot on! Wonderful analysis.

I'm currently reading A Room of One's Own, and Woolf repeatedly applauds Shakespeare and Austen as the two perfect giants.

Lisa May said...

I just want to take Mark Twain aside and tell him, look, there's a simple solution: if she irritates you that much, Stop Reading Her Books! I can't help feeling that he was drawn back to her books - he protests too much.

JaneGS said...

>Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain missed something with Austen's novels.

I think that's very true, and I can't help but think that their responses to her seem a bit defensive.

George Lewes held up Austen to Bronte as a model and I think she resented that and felt that Lewes didn't understand what she was trying to do as demonstrated by his recommending someone whose style was so different from her own as a model. I sense frustration and the need to assert herself as not Austen in her disparagement of Austen.

Twain, on the other hand, I think was just too full of himself to condescend to appreciate Austen. It's funny, but whenever I see his quotes on place like Twitter, I end him disagreeing with him. He knew how to turn a phrase, but he was very cynical and said stuff I just can't agree with. I've gone back and forth on whether he really admired Austen despite his words to the contrary, and I simply can't decide.

Diana said...

Excellent post! I can forgive Charlotte Bronte for not loving Austen. She was so passionate that I think it was hard for her to appreciate the quiet growth of emotion that so often occurs in Austen's novels. But I have a hard time forgiving Mark Twain's awful comments. I'd like to beat him with his shin-bone! You're right, they're missing so much of what she has to offer.

Speaking of Austen and compassion for humanity, A Jane Austen Education makes an interesting case for how Austen does just that, but in a manner so subtle readers often fail to notice. I loved it!

Bookworm1858 said...

That Twain quote drives me crazy-I'd like to beat him with a shinbone!

I also sensed some resentment in Bronte's reaction. Interesting to read JaneGS's note about George Lewes.

Marian said...

Oh, Mark Twain! I get the gist that he just enjoyed being snarky. Last month I read an excerpt from his "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"; I rather agreed with him, but it was certainly scathing.

Austen never came across to me as uncompassionate - I just had difficulty connecting to her works. I did enjoy reading Emma, but that was about it, unfortunately.

Mar 8, 2013

Trying to Understand Bronte & Twain on Austen

Charlotte Bronte
She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible ( not senseless) woman; if this is heresy- I cannot help it. - Charlotte Bronte
In Mark Twain's autobiography (which I haven't read but Adam at Roof Beam Reader quotes here) he mentions reading Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Bronte read those famous works as well as Emma. 

With Sense and Sensibility I can imagine Bronte was irritated that Marianne married Colonel Brandon (many people still are). She probably thought Marianne simply feigned her passionate feelings or would have remained true to John Willoughby's memory even though he was so terrible to her. In Emma the slow and steady realization of her love for Mr. Knightley and Harriet's love for Mr. Martin, which yielded to Emma's matchmaking, was something else she couldn't understand. But what of Pride and Prejudice?
I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone. - Mark Twain
Reading Pride and Prejudice puts a frame of mind to be amused at people's foibles and quirks. It's certainly better to laugh off an rude moment instead of letting it get to you but I think it annoyed Twain and Bronte to look at characters in this light. Austen's genius is so great that its easy to dull the sharpness of her pen; It gave us that satirical tone we so admire. It certainly wouldn't be right to judge others with the same harsh scrutiny. Patronizing others with a smirk is certainly just as bad as patronizing in the manner of Lady Catherine?
She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see. - Mark Twain
Victorians, while known for their society's hypocrisy, had many writers who tried to use their talents to improve society: Beecher Stowe, Gaskell, Eliot to name a few. Bronte created very independent heroines who didn't think of marriage the way the Bennet's do. They made their own living. Maybe this is another reason she held the novel in contempt. Mrs. Bennet may put on a show of 'her nerves' but instead of being annoyed or using them for sport as Mr. Bennet does why not help improve her character?-- Admittedly some may argue he may have already tried. But the same may be said of each 'stray' Bennet sister. Mary with her inability to be herself, she's always trying to be a distorted ideal of what she imagines is perfect, which she neither has the talent nor understanding to be, she's just as silly as the others. Why does no one tell her she doesn't sing well? Why doesn't anyone just tell these characters and try to help them?
"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" - Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” -George Eliot's Middlemarch
 --Now, the story wouldn't be the same if they had but this lack of care for each other; of character fashioning like in Alcott's Little Women to all but Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Maybe that's another reason it irritated Bronte and Twain? To whom earnestness (and emotion in former's case) was living. Tongue-in-cheek and all in good fun, yet it's safe to say compassion towards humanity is not the first thought immediately associated with Austen. Biting wit? Most definitely. She recognizes her naughty self and warns against it in Emma:
Emma could not resist. "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number -- only three at once."
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.

But here's the crucial turning point: 

While the characters in the novels suffer from this lack, readers who find traits of themselves in those characters one would rather not be, correct themselves. As Virginia Woolf said:
"[Austen was] a mistress of much deeper emotion than appears on the surface. She stimulates us to supply what is not there... And she educates her readers."
Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain missed something with Austen's novels. While they each deal with society and marriage, they have very different tones (Mansfield Park is my personal favorite). But it's her characters which are the life of the novel, some we know so well we could guess how they would react in different situations, which must be one of the reasons so many sequels and spin-offs are available. In many cases perhaps we look up to her heroines or the author herself? Novels help us understand ourselves, others, and make us try to become better people-- as well as amuse us. How many times while reading have you found yourself smile or laugh? or read a few more chapters when you really needed to stop and do such-and-such a duty?

If, dear reader,  I leave you in any doubt as to my own feelings about Austen's works simply put: who else but a Janeite would bother writing such a post?

6 comments:

Roof Beam Reader said...

Spot on! Wonderful analysis.

I'm currently reading A Room of One's Own, and Woolf repeatedly applauds Shakespeare and Austen as the two perfect giants.

Lisa May said...

I just want to take Mark Twain aside and tell him, look, there's a simple solution: if she irritates you that much, Stop Reading Her Books! I can't help feeling that he was drawn back to her books - he protests too much.

JaneGS said...

>Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain missed something with Austen's novels.

I think that's very true, and I can't help but think that their responses to her seem a bit defensive.

George Lewes held up Austen to Bronte as a model and I think she resented that and felt that Lewes didn't understand what she was trying to do as demonstrated by his recommending someone whose style was so different from her own as a model. I sense frustration and the need to assert herself as not Austen in her disparagement of Austen.

Twain, on the other hand, I think was just too full of himself to condescend to appreciate Austen. It's funny, but whenever I see his quotes on place like Twitter, I end him disagreeing with him. He knew how to turn a phrase, but he was very cynical and said stuff I just can't agree with. I've gone back and forth on whether he really admired Austen despite his words to the contrary, and I simply can't decide.

Diana said...

Excellent post! I can forgive Charlotte Bronte for not loving Austen. She was so passionate that I think it was hard for her to appreciate the quiet growth of emotion that so often occurs in Austen's novels. But I have a hard time forgiving Mark Twain's awful comments. I'd like to beat him with his shin-bone! You're right, they're missing so much of what she has to offer.

Speaking of Austen and compassion for humanity, A Jane Austen Education makes an interesting case for how Austen does just that, but in a manner so subtle readers often fail to notice. I loved it!

Bookworm1858 said...

That Twain quote drives me crazy-I'd like to beat him with a shinbone!

I also sensed some resentment in Bronte's reaction. Interesting to read JaneGS's note about George Lewes.

Marian said...

Oh, Mark Twain! I get the gist that he just enjoyed being snarky. Last month I read an excerpt from his "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses"; I rather agreed with him, but it was certainly scathing.

Austen never came across to me as uncompassionate - I just had difficulty connecting to her works. I did enjoy reading Emma, but that was about it, unfortunately.

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