Two hundred years ago Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen’s Emma, and Anna Lefroy’s first daughter were brought into the world (1). ‘As I wish very much to see your Jemima,’ Jane wrote to her niece, ‘I am sure you will like to see my Emma, & have therefore great pleasure in sending it for your perusal.’
Anna ‘rank’d Emma as a composition with S & S.–not so Brilliant as P. & P–nor so equal as MP.–Preferred Emma herself to all the heroines.–The Characters like all the others admirably well drawn & supported–perhaps rather less strongly marked than some, but only the more natural for that reason.–Mr Knightley, Mrs Elton & Miss Bates her favourites.–Thought one or two of the conversations too long.’ But Charlotte did not warm to Austen’s ‘darling child.’
She had received a copy from Smith, Elder & Co., her publishers, and on 12 April 1850 she wrote to their literary editor, W.S. Williams:
I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works, ‘Emma’- read it with interest and just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable- anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heart-felt is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating people seriously well; there is a Chinese ‘fidelity’ , a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of Death- this Miss Austen ignores; 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. If I said it to some people (Lewes for instance) they would directly accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of you falling into any such vulgar error.
The ‘Chinese fidelity’ allusion would be in line with Austen’s own metaphor: ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour.’ But Charlotte’s ‘violent dislike’ seems to go far beyond mere matters of taste. She was of course a Romantic, whereas Jane Austen has been seen as a social realist whose work still bore the influence of the fading neoclassical tradition. Class differences might also have played a role, as well as the North-South divide. And, as Mrs Gaskell points out, though the arrival of the books must have been a source of ‘solace and pleasure,’ Charlotte, recently bereaved and in poor health, would have missed the ‘familiar voices, commenting mirthfully and pleasantly.’ Last, but by no means least, she was deeply mortified.
Two years earlier, George Henry Lewes, the influential critic perhaps better known to us as George Eliot’s lover, had suggested she should emulate Austen and sent her a copy of Pride and Prejudice. He had given Jane Eyre on the whole a good review in December 1847, but had also discussed its defects: there was ‘too much melodrama and improbability, which smack of the circulating library.’ He was honest enough to acknowledge his partiality for ‘truth in the delineation of life and character: incidents however wonderful, adventures however perilous, are almost as naught when compared with the deep and lasting interest excited by any thing like a correct representation of life.’ Charlotte took offence and stuck to her guns:
If I ever do write another book, I think I will have nothing of what you call ‘melodrama’; I think so, but I am not sure. I think too I will endeavour to follow the counsel which shines out of Miss Austen’s ‘mild eyes,’ ‘to finish more and be more subdued’; but neither am I sure of that. When authors write best, or at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master, which will have its own way, putting out of view all behests but its own, dictating words, and insisting on their being used, whether vehement or measured in their nature; new moulding characters, giving unthought-of turns to incidents, rejecting carefully elaborated old ideas, and suddenly creating and adopting new ones. Is this not so? And should we try to counteract this influence? Can we indeed counteract it?…
Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point.
What induced you to say you would rather have written ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Tom Jones’ than any of the Waverley Novels?
I had not seen ‘Pride and Prejudice’ till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place 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 in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
Now I can understand admiration of George Sand; for though I never saw any of her works which I admired throughout…yet she has a grasp of mind which, if I cannot fully comprehend, I very deeply respect; she is sagacious and profound; Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant.
Am I wrong – or were you hasty in what you said?
On 18 January, Charlotte elaborated on the subject :
What a strange lecture comes next in your letter! You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that ‘Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no ‘sentiment’ (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas) no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry- and then you add I must ‘learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.’
The last point only will I ever acknowledge.
Can there be a great artist without poetry?
What I call -what I will bend to as a great artist, then- cannot be destitute of the divine gift. But by poetry I am sure you understand something different to what I do, as you do by ‘sentiment.’ It is poetry, as I comprehend the word, which elevates that masculine George Sand and makes out of something coarse, something Godlike … Miss Austen being as you say without ‘sentiment’ without poetry, maybe is sensible, real ( more real than true) but she cannot be great.
I submit to your anger, which I have now excited (for have I not questioned the perfection of your darling?); the storm may pass over me. Nevertheless I will, when I can (I do not know when that will be as I have no access to a circulating library) diligently peruse all Miss Austen’s works as you recommend…
Charlotte’s reaction is understandable in a way: she must have been as ‘sick of the very name of’ Jane Austen as Emma was of Miss Fairfax’s! Personally, I find the sarcastic mention of circulating libraries brilliant. Lewes’s approach certainly failed to produce the desired effect. In 1852 he set out his views on ‘lady novelists,’ hinting that writing was a poor substitute for marital bliss and motherhood. I wonder what Jane Austen would have thought of that…
Which brings us back to Emma and Jemima.The latter’s mother was often pregnant, prompting her aunt to exclaim: ‘Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty – I am very sorry for her. – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.’ Anna Lefroy was widowed at 35. She published a novella and two children’s stories and wrote a continuation of Sanditon, but burnt Which is the heroine?, the novel Jane Austen had advised her on. She never achieved literary fame.
(1) Emma was published on 23 December 1815, but the date on the title page of each volume was 1816. Anna-Jemima Lefroy was born on 20 October 1815, and Charlotte Brontë on 21 April 1816.
Austen, Jane. Opinions of Mansfield Park and Opinions of Emma. Retrieved from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blopinions/1.html
Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. 2011. Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.
Fraser, Rebecca. 1988. The Brontës. Charlotte Brontë and her family. New York: Ballantine Books.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. 1975. The Life of Charlotte Brontë. London: Penguin Books.
Lewes, George Henry. “Recent Novels: French and English.” Fraser’s Magazine, 36. Retrieved from http://faculty.plattsburgh.edu/peter.friesen/default.asp?go=247
Smith, Margaret, ed. 2000. The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, vol. II, 1848-1851. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Yaffe, Deborah. Sanditon Summer: Anna Austen Lefroy. 2013, June 20. Retrieved from