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Charlotte Bronte vs Jane Austen

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Every once in a while, a post travels around Tumblr, declaring that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre was inspired by the character of Jane Fairfax in Austen’s Emma.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the statement. Not only is it often presented as a defence of fanfiction, but the “fact” feels like a wonderful easter egg, bringing a sense of continuity and neatness to the female literary canon.

Of course, it’s complete nonsense. Charlotte Bronte hated Austen’s books, vocally and repeatedly. And even if she didn’t, her letters suggest she didn’t read any of Austen’s work until after Jane Eyre was published. But the persistence of this myth is interesting (or troubling, depending on your perspective), because of why Charlotte Bronte appeared to hate Austen so much.

In short, Bronte criticized Austen so fiercely because critics kept attempting to put her and Austen into the same category of “lady writers,” criticizing her not on the strength of her own work, but based on the idea that she and Austen must be similar and pursue the same narrative goals.

Kind of like how modern day readers would like to believe that Bronte was inspired by Austen, with the second 19th century female author that most people can name carrying on the novel-writing mantle left by the first.

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Classic Book Rec: Edith Wharton’s Summer

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I’m a big fan of Edith Wharton’s more well known novels (like The House of Mirth and Age of Innocence), but I’d never heard of Summer until I stumbled across it in Barnes and Noble one day. It’s considered a shorter precursor to Wharton’s more famous work, Ethan Frome, but after devouring it myself, I think it’s definitely worth a read on its own merits. Especially as you can get the e-book for free.

The novel focusses on Charity Royall, an eighteen-year-old girl who lives with her adoptive father in the miniscule rural village of North Dormer. She feels stifled by her inability to leave the village, meet new people or have any kind of life at all, and works in the never-visited library in order to save the money needed to finally escape to the more exciting world beyond its borders. When Lucius Harney, a new lodger, arrives in town, eager to research the “quaint old buildings” of the place, Charity is eager to attach herself to him, intrigued by his knowledge of the outside world and wondering if he might provide her ticket out of the village.

Charity has something of Disney’s Belle about her. If you like your heroines falling down onto the grass, plotting and dreaming of the day they’ll be able to leave their small towns and discover something bigger in life, then Summer is a pretty good bet. Of course, as this is Edith Wharton, not Disney, Charity’s plans don’t exactly go smoothly. But the entire book is filled with a deep yearning, a need for that undefinable more, and it is wonderful read as a result. Charity doesn’t know precisely what it is that she wants, but she knows that she wants it, and that exploration, along with its inevitable pitfalls, gives the otherwise quiet book an intoxicating and gripping quality.

If you’ve never read any of Edith Wharton’s books before, I’d recommend that you start with the Pulitzer prize winning The Age of Innocence. But if you’re looking for a relatively short, readable, feminist (and free!) classic, Summer is more than worth a look.

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Mansfield Park and the Original Nice Guy

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I know I usually write about more recent books (and TV shows and movies and video games), but I just finished a reread of Mansfield Park, and my brain is full of THOUGHTS.

In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen takes to task a pervasive and problematic narrative trope, not just in early 19th century fiction, but in all modern-day media. The “romance” between the virtuous and rather boring Fanny Price and the rakish Henry Crawford is based around the familiar structure of “she doesn’t like him now, but if he keeps wooing her, she’ll like him later,” with an extra helping of the idea that the “friendzone” is unfair, and that kindness to women should be rewarded with romance. It embraces these narrative and societal tropes, surrounds it’s heroine with their pressures, and then, in one sudden blow, tears them all apart.

And it’s pretty epic.

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Pride and Prejudice

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Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice! Yay!

Pride and Prejudice is one of my absolute favorite novels. It is scathingly witty, with great female characters, an addictive story, and one of the most lasting romances of all time.

It also has a bit of a built-in test for its readers in its first line. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” Austen begins, and anyone eager to dismiss a female writer and her work as frivolous and sentimental can believe she is being serious and stop reading there. Those who are a little less presumptuous can laugh at Austen’s irony (and, weirdly, at the fact that Austen’s ironic statement actually turns out to be true in the novel) and tuck into a treat.

Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most liked and most respected female characters in literary history. She is intelligent, quick-witted and passionate about what she believes in, with little concern for the opinions of others, especially rich men who are too proud for their own good. She is also, in a fashion unusual for a female character, rather flawed. She’s quick to judge, too ready to dismiss Charlotte when she does something of which she disapproves, and is too willing to laugh at and reject rather than try to understand or accept. Sometimes nowadays she just comes off as a “modern girl” who is rejecting the repressive standards of her time, but she is far from a perfect figure of goodness, and when put into a modern context, as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries show, a lot easier to condemn. And this depth, the fact that she’s not always the perfect sensible heroine and that she’s not always right, only makes her story more interesting and more powerful.

And then there’s the story itself. Pride and Prejudice has all the wrappings of a happily-ever-after romance. After all, Darcy and Lizzie fall in love, everyone gets married, and nobody worried about money again. But behind it is a very pointed commentary on the difficulties in women’s lives. Mrs Bennet is obsessed with marriage — because it is the only possible route for happiness for herself and her daughters. Without a good marriage, when Mr Bennet dies, she and her daughters will lose their home and be tossed out onto the charity of a distant relative (and, as Sense and Sensibility shows, such charity can hardly be counted on). They cannot make money for themselves, they cannot do anything to improve their lot, except find a husband who can provide further male protection. The reality of it is harsh, and the Bennets are in a highly precarious situation — one that Lizzie does not always seem to fully understand, judging from her repeated willingness to reject men (first Mr Collins, and then Mr Darcy) would could provide that security not only for herself, but also for her entire family.

Although Pride and Prejudice is arguably Austen’s happiest and fluffiest novel, it has a dark social spectre in the background, one she explores in other novels, one that she satires to some extent in this novel, and one that could very possibly have caused the Bennets’ downfall without the powers of happily-ever-after and Darcy’s intervention.

It is both a really enjoyable and really important novel, from a feminist perspective and from a literary perspective in general. Although it would be a little radical to say that Austen was a hardcore 19th century feminist, her work both presented engaging, realistic, varied and flawed female characters, and played a part in the development of literature that addressed the difficulties and prejudices that well-off women faced in their lives at this time.

Pride and Prejudice is a wonderful book, and I cannot wait to sink my teeth into it again in celebration of the anniversary this week.

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