I got a bit snippy with the tweeters from Oxford World’s Classics a couple of days ago. Poor things: they were just doing their job, spreading some news about great books and trying to get people to click through and read it. How could they know that I was already feeling grumpy, for reasons quite beyond their control, and that this particular gimmick pushes my buttons on a good day?
Despite recent strident proclamations about the importance of critical partisanship, the wonder of literature is that we don’t have to take sides — except, at any rate, against the cheap or the shoddy. (And though I am as quick to attack these when I think I detect them as the next critic, I think Weseltier moves rather too quickly past the problem of the critic’s inevitable “fallibility” in his call for “mental self-esteem” — his complaint about A. O. Scott’s “epistemological humility” as a critic actually plays neatly into the topics of the talk I’ll be giving in Louisville next week.) It’s a good thing, too, because who would want to decide which of Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre should get voted off the literary island? To be forced into such a choice would be truly tragic, because it would be choosing not between the good and the bad, or the good and the better, but between two competing goods, each equally deserving of our passionate loyalty. We would become critical Antigones — and our literary lives would suffer accordingly.
But (and you knew it was coming, right?) if for some absurd reason I absolutely had to choose, not which novelist is in any absolute sense “the greatest” but whose team to play on, it would be Brontë all the way — and I say that having only just enjoyed Pride and Prejudice entirely and absolutely for about the 50th time. We’ve just started working our way through Jane Eyre in the 19th-century fiction class and what a thrill it is. I know it’s a cliche to associate the Brontës with the moors, but it does feel as if a fresh, turbulent breeze is rushing through, stirring things up and bringing with it a longing for wide open spaces. The freedom and intensity of Jane’s voice, the urgency of her feelings, and of her demands — for love, for justice, for liberty — it’s exhilarating! I brought some excerpts from contemporary reviews to class today to demonstrate the shock and outrage with which some 19th-century critics received the novel: it’s striking how much the very qualities that enraged and terrified them are the same ones that make so many of us want to cheer Jane on. By the end we know that we should not have allied ourselves so readily with Jane’s violent rebellion, and we may even be equivocal about the conclusion to her story, but I think it’s impossible to read the novel and not be wholly caught up in her fight to define and then live on her own terms.
It’s not all about feeling, though: there is tremendous artistry in the telling as well, and of course the novel is endlessly provocative to interpret too, from its imagery and symbolism to its evocations of fairy tales, from its religious debates to its feminist declarations, from its colonial entanglements and psychological intimations to its re-imagining of the marriage plot and the novel of development. I think that in some ways it anticipates Gaudy Night in its exploration of the relationship between head and heart, and in the radicalism of its heroine’s (and its author’s) refusal to succumb to the fantasy that love alone is all we need.
I started rereading Emma recently and had to put it aside. I appreciate that it is aesthetically and morally complex and infinitely nuanced, but I felt smothered by it: I found it claustrophobic. Brontë’s criticism of Austen is well known: she told G. H. Lewes that in Pride and Prejudice she found only “an accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen,” she went on, “in their elegant but confined houses.” I think she underestimated the novel — a lot of people do, still, who see just the delightful characters moving on the surface and not the currents of social and historical change carrying them along. I’m also sure that my trouble with Emma is about me, not Austen. But I understand Brontë’s reaction, and it is just the one you would expect, too, from the author of such an entirely different book, one that opposes itself in every way to both literal and mental confinement. I think that’s why Jane Eyre refreshes my soul: it rushes with us out into the hills. Jane is so defiant, so passionate, so forthright: she speaks up so fearlessly, for herself and for the right! I wish I could always do the same: I admire her principles and envy her courage. So much as I would miss Elizabeth Bennet if for some reason I had to give her up, Jane’s the one I really couldn’t do without.
Still, I’m very glad I don’t actually have to choose, not least because without the the two of them together, surely Margaret Hale, and Maggie Tulliver, and Dorothea Brooke, and Gwendolen Harleth all become unthinkable — and that would be tragic indeed!