AUSTEN & BRONTE

JANE AUSTEN was a major English novelist, whose brilliantly witty, elegantly structured satirical fiction marks the transition in English literature from 18th century neo-classicism to 19th century romanticism.

Jane Austen was born on 16 December, 1775, at the rectory in the village of Steventon, near Basingstoke, in Hampshire. The seventh of eight children of the Reverend George Austen and his wife, Cassandra, she was educated mainly at home and never lived apart from her family. She had a happy childhood amongst all her brothers and the other boys who lodged with the family and whom Mr Austen tutored. From her older sister, Cassandra, she was inseparable. To amuse themselves, the children wrote and performed plays and charades, and even as a little girl Jane was encouraged to write. The reading that she did of the books in her father’s extensive library provided material for the short satirical sketches she wrote as a girl.

At the age of 14 she wrote her first novel, Love and Freindship (sic) and then A History of England by a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian, together with other very amusing juvenilia. In her early twenties Jane Austen wrote the novels that were later to be re-worked and published as Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. She also began a novel called The Watsons which was never completed.

As a young woman Jane enjoyed dancing (an activity which features frequently in her novels) and she attended balls in many of the great houses of the neighbourhood. She loved the country, enjoyed long country walks, and had many Hampshire friends. It therefore came as a considerable shock when her parents suddenly announced in 1801 that the family would be moving away to Bath. Mr Austen gave the Steventon living to his son James and retired to Bath with his wife and two daughters. The next four years were difficult ones for Jane Austen. She disliked the confines of a busy town and missed her Steventon life. After her father’s death in 1805, his widow and daughters also suffered financial difficulties and were forced to rely on the charity of the Austen sons. It was also at this time that, while on holiday in the West country, Jane fell in love, and when the young man died, she was deeply upset. Later she accepted a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither, a wealthy landowner and brother to some of her closest friends, but she changed her mind the next morning and was greatly upset by the whole episode.

After the death of Mr Austen, the Austen ladies moved to Southampton to share the home of Jane’s naval brother Frank and his wife Mary. There were occasional visits to London, where Jane stayed with her favourite brother Henry, at that time a prosperous banker, and where she enjoyed visits to the theatre and art exhibitions. However, she wrote little in Bath and nothing at all in Southampton.

Then, in July, 1809, on her brother Edward offering his mother and sisters a permanent home on his Chawton estate, the Austen ladies moved back to their beloved Hampshire countryside. It was a small but comfortable house, with a pretty garden, and most importantly it provided the settled home which Jane Austen needed in order to write. In the seven and a half years that she lived in this house, she revised Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and published them ( in 1811 and 1813) and then embarked on a period of intense productivity. Mansfield Park came out in 1814, followed by Emma in 1816 and she completed Persuasion (which was published together with Northanger Abbey in 1818, the year after her death). None of the books published in her life-time had her name on them — they were described as being written “By a Lady”. In the winter of 1816 she started Sanditon, but illness prevented its completion.

CHARLOTTE BRONTE

‘A little, plain, provincial, sickly-looking old maid’, is how George Lewes described Charlotte Brontë to George Eliot. She was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Charlotte was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman who had moved with his family to Haworth amid the Yorkshire moors in 1820. The landscape around the parsonage, the lonely rolling moors and wild wind, influences all the Brontë sisters deeply. “All around the horizon the is this same line of sinuous wave-like hills; the scoops into which they fall only revealing other hills beyond, of similar colour and shape, crowned with wild, bleak moors – grand, from the ideas of solitude and loneliness which they suggest, or oppressive from the feeling which they give of being pent-up by some monotonous and illimitable barrier, according to the mood of mind in which the spectator may be.” (Elizabet Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontë, 1857) After their mother and two eldest children died, Chalotte was left with her sisters Emily and Anne, and brother Branwell (1817-1848) to the care of their father, and their strict, religious aunt, Elisabeth Branwell.

The Brontës were small, Emily was considered to be tall at that time, but Charlotte’s dress preserved in the Brontë Parsonage Museum would perhaps fit nowadays a eleven-year old. At the upstairs of the parsonage, a small house, was two bedrooms and a third room, scarcely bigger than a closet, in which the sisters played their games. The front door opened almost directly on to the churchyard. To escape their unhappy surroundings, the children listened stories about the often violent behavior of the countryfolk. When other children enjoyed to play outdoors, they created imaginary kingdoms, which were built around Branwell’s toy soldiers, and which inspired them to create continuing stories of fantasylands. Later in a poem Charlotte wrote: “We wove a web in childhood, / A web of sunny air.”

Branwell collaborated with Charlotte in creating the imaginary world of Angria. After failing as a paiter and writer, he took to drink and opium, then worked as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer’s wife ended disastrously. He returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Charlotte attended Clergy Daughter’s School in Lancashire in 1824. She returned home next year because of the harsh conditions. In 1831 she went to school at Roe Head, where she later worked as a teacher. However, she fell ill, suffered from melancholia, and gave up this post. At her twenty-first birthday, she asked Robert Southey’s advice about her prospects as a writer. “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life,” answered Southey, “and it ought not to be.” Charlotte reply was humble: “I trust I shall never more feel ambitious to see my name in print; if the wish should rise, I’ll look at Southey’s letter, and suppress it.” Her attempts to earn her living as a governess were hindered by her disabling shyness, her ignorance of normal children, and her yearning to be with her sisters. From her first job as governess to the Sidgwick family she wrote to her sister Emily: “… Mrs Sidgwick expects me to do things that I cannot do – to love her children and be entirely devoted to them.”

In 1842 Charlotte travelled to Brussels with Emily to learn French, German, and management. During this period she fell in love with a married man, M. Heger, the owner of the Pensionnat Heger, a girls’ school, where Charlotte and Emily were pupils and Charlotte later taught. Her own attempt to open a school failed in 1844. The collection of poems, POEMS BY CURRER, ELLIS AND ACTON BELL (1846), which she wrote with her sisters. The surname was probably taken from Arthur Bell Nicholls, then their father’s curate. “Oh! Love was all a thin illusion; / Joy, but the desert’s flying stream,” Charlotte wrote in one of its poems, perhaps referring her sad experiences in Brussels. Because the sisters thought that their mode of writing was not feminine, they used masculine names.

The book sold only two copies, but the costs were £37; the sum could represent a year’s wages. By the time of its publication her sisters had finished a novel; Charlotte’s first, THE PROFESSOR, published under the name Currer Bell, was based on her experiences of teaching in Brussels, never found a publisher in her lifetime. Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s Agnes Grey were accepted by Thomas Newby in 1847 and published next year.

Undeterred by her own rejection, Charlotte began Jane Eyre, which came out in October 1847, and became an immediate success. Charlotte dedicated the book to William Makepeace Thackeray, who described it as “the masterwork of a great genius”. Charlotte had a long talk with Thackeray in 1851 – “he is a great and strantge man,” she wrote to her friend, Ellen Nussey.

The heroine of Jane Eyre is a penniless orphan who becomes a teacher, obtains a post as a governess, inherits money from an uncle, and marries after several turns of the plot the Byronic hero, Rochester. Their first meeting is described in comical light – Rochester falls off a horse. The narrator asks “are you injured, sir,” but do not get a reply: “I think he was swearing, but I am not certain; however, he was pronouncing some formula which prevented him from replying to me directly.” Some readers of the novel suggested that its author was a depraved man. It was followed by SHIRLEY (1848) and VILLETTE (1853), based on her memories of Brussels. Although her identity was well known, Charlotte continued to publish as Currer Bell. Her tragedy, BELISAIOUS, is lost. Two chapters of ‘The Story of Willie Ellin’ has survived. After abandoning the work, Charlotte later incorporated it into another work called ‘Emma’.

In Jane Eyre Charlotte used her experiences at the Evangelical school and as governess. The novel severely criticized the limited options open to educated but impoverished women, and the idea that women “ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” Jane’s passionate desire for a wider life, her need to be loved, and her rebellious questioning of conventions, also reflected Charlotte’s own dreams. “Conventionality is not morality” she wrote. “Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last.” (from the preface to Jane Eyre) Jane is an “Ugly Duckling”, who fulfills all the teenage romantic dreams of passion, that breaks all obstacles. The gloomy hero, Mr Rochester, represents the ideal of masculine tenderness, which is combined with masculine strength – all along Byronic lines. Jane’s discovery at the altar that Rochester has an insane wife hidden in the attic is the most shocking plot twist of the novel. Some later critics have presented that the mad Bertha Rochester is a nymphomaniac. Her character was refreshed in Jean Rhys’ novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which told the story of Rochester’s ill-fated Creole wife.

The title character from Shirley is perhaps the first fully developed independent, brave, outspoken heroine, a type that has since deeply influenced mass-market novels read by women. Caroline Helstone, the other heroine, is a more conventional figure. In the background of the story is industrial change and the Luddite riots. Charlotte had been at school in the Calder Valley where the attack on the frames and mill had taken place. When Charlotte started to write the book, the four Brontës were all alive and together at the parsonage; before it was finished, a family tragedy shadowed the work.

Branwell, whose wildness and intemperance had caused the sisters much distress, died in September 1848. “The removal of our only brother must necessarily be regarded by us rather in the light of a mercy than a chastisement,” Charlotte wrote to W.S. Williams. Emily died in December of the same year, and Anne the following summer. In 1854 Charlotte married her father’s curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls – he was the fourth to propose her. Charlotte died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire.

EMILY BRONTE was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in the north of England. Her father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë, had moved from Ireland to Weatherfield, in Essex, where he taught in Sunday school. Eventually he settled in Yorkshire, the centre of his life’s work. In 1812 he married Maria Branwell of Penzance. Patrick Brontë loved poetry, he published several books of prose and verse and wrote to local newspapers. In 1820 he moved to Hawort, a poverty-stricken little town at the edge of a large tract of moorland, where he served as a rector and chairman of the parish committee.

The lonely purple moors became one of the most important shaping forces in the life of the Brontë sisters. Their parsonage home, a small house, was of grey stone, two stories high. The front door opened almost directly on to the churchyard. In the upstairs was two bedrooms and a third room, scarcely bigger than a closet, in which the sisters played their games. After their mother died in 1821, the children spent most of their time in reading and composition. To escape their unhappy childhood, Anne, Emily, Charlotte, and their brother Branwell (1817-1848) created imaginary worlds – perhaps inspired by Jonathan Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Emily and Anne created their own Gondal saga, and Bramwell and Charlotte recorded their stories about the kingdom of Angria in minute notebooks. After failing as a paiter and writer, Branwell took to drink and opium, worked then as a tutor and assistant clerk to a railway company. In 1842 he was dismissed and joined his sister Anne at Thorp Green Hall as a tutor. His affair with his employer’s wife ended disastrously. He returned to Haworth in 1845, where he rapidly declined and died three years later.

Between the years 1824 and 1825 Emily attended the school at Cowan Bridge with Charlotte, and then was largely educated at home. Her father’s bookshelf offered a variety of reading: the Bible, Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott and many others. The children also read enthusiastically articles on current affairs and intellectual disputes in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Fraser’s Magazine, and Edinburgh Review.

In 1835 Emily Brontë was at Roe Head. There she suffered from homesickness and returned after a few months to the moorland scenery of home. In 1837 she became a governess at Law Hill, near Halifax, where she spent six months. Emily worked at Miss Patchet’s shdoll – according to Charlotte – “from six in the morning until near eleven at night, with only one half-hour of exercise between” and called it slavery. To facilitate their plan to keep school for girls, Emily and Charlotte Brontë went in 1842 to Brussels to learn foreign languages and school management. Emily returned on the same year to Haworth. In 1842 Aunt Branwell died. When she was no longer taking care of the house and her brother-in-law, Emily agreed to stay with her father.

Unlike Charlotte, Emily had no close friends. She wrote a few letters and was interested in mysticism. Her first novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), a story-within-a-story, did not gain immediate success as Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but it has acclaimed later fame as one of the most intense novels written in the English language. In contrast to Charlotte and Anne, whose novels take the form of autobiographies written by authoritative and reliable narrators, Emily introduced an unreliable narrator, Lockwood. He constantly misinterprets the reactions and interactions of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights. More reliable is Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, who has lived for two generations with the novel’s two principal families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

Lockwood is a gentleman visiting the Yorkshire moors where the novel is set. At night Lockwood dreams of hearing a fell-fire sermon and then, awakening, he records taps on the window of his room. “… I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window – terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear.” The hands belong to Catherine Linton, whose eerie appearance echo the violent turns of the plot. In a series of flashbacks and time shifts, Brontë draws a powerful picture of the enigmatic Heathcliff, who is brought to Heights from the streets of Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. Heathcliff is treated as Earnshaw’s own children, Catherine and Hindley. After Mr. Earnshaw’s death Heathcliff is bullied by Hindley and he leaves the house, returning three years later. Meanwhile Catherine marries Edgar Linton. Heathcliff ‘s destructive force is unleashed. Catherine dies giving birth to a girl, another Catherine. Heathcliff curses his true love: “… Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you – haunt me then!” Heathcliff marries Isabella Linton, Edgar’s sister, who flees to the south from her loveless marriage. Their son Linton and Catherine are married, but the always sickly Linton dies. Hareton, Hindley’s son, and the young widow became close. Increasingly isolated and alienated from daily life, Heathcliff experiences visions, and he longs for the death that will reunite him with Catherine.

Wuthering Heights has been filmed several times. William Wyler’s version from 1939, starring Merle Oberon as Cathy and Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, is considered on of the screen’s classic romances. However, the English writer Graham Greene criticized the reconstructing of the Yorkshire moors in the Conejo Hills in California. “How much better they would have made Wuthering Heights in France,” wrote Greene. “They know there how to shoot sexual passion, but in this Californian-constructed Yorkshire, among the sensitive neurotic English voices, sex is cellophaned; there is no egotism, no obsession…. So a lot of reverence has gone into a picture which should have been as coarse as a sewer.” (Spectator, May 5, 1939) Luis Bunñuel set the events of the amour fou in an arid Mexican landscape. The music was based on melodies from Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner.

“Sleep not, dream not; this bright day
Will not, cannot last for aye;
Bliss like thine is bought by years
Dark with torment and with tears.”

(from ‘Sleep not’, 1846)

Emily Brontë died of tuberculosis in the late 1848. She had caught cold at her brother Branwell’s funeral in September. After the appearance of Wuthering Heighs, some skeptics maintained that the book was written by Branwell, on the grounds that no woman from such circumscribed life, could have written such passionate story. In 1848 Charlotte and Anne visited George Smith to reveal their identity and to help quell rumors that a single author lay behind the pseudonyms. After her sisters’ deaths, Charlotte edited a second edition of their novels, with prefatory commentary aimed at correcting what she saw as the reviewers’ misunderstanding of Wuthering Heights. The complex time scheme of the novel had been taken as evidence by the critics, that Emily had not achieved full formal control over her narrative materials.

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