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Arifa Akbar: Jane Austen vs Emily Bronte - who wins this costume drama?

The Week in Books column
  • @arifa_akbar

How did Charlotte Brontë compare Jane Austen’s fiction to her own? Wasn’t it with something about Austen’s tended gardens to her own wild, windblown moors? Polite Georgian drawing rooms to passion-filled heaths?

A proto-feminist writer of gothic romances, Brontë was clearly also a master of the condescending literary put-down. She chose her metaphor well. As far as gardens go, whose would you prefer to roam when compared thus?

Of course the real debate was about the differences that lay in Brontë and Austen’s treatment of their shared central subject: love and marriage inside (for Austen) and outside (for Brontë) the bounds of “decent” society. The great Austen vs Brontë boxing match came in for another round this week, this time involving younger sister Emily in a public debate led by Kate Mosse for Brontë, John Mullan for Austen, and organised by Intelligence Squared with an Oxford Union-style address: the authors advocated, the actors (Dominic West, Sam West and others) re-enacted and the audience voted on a winner.

Was it unfair that Emily Brontë’s one and only novel, Wuthering Heights, was pitting against Austen’s body of six, and that the former author died before she could perfect her fictions as Austen was able to? Not a bit for Mosse, who

referenced unbridled passions and strong-willed Cathy, who doesn’t play piano or titter behind handkerchiefs but streaks off across the heath with her “moor” of a lover. How punk is that?

Not so much, when we’re reminded by Professor Mullan that Cathy dumps Heathcliff and runs back to marry middle-class Edgar. Mosse comes at it with endearing memories of Kate Bush (“It’s me, Cathy, I’ve come home”) and the claim that Brontë invented with a bigger, fiercer imagination. “For all her wit and style, Austen seemed to me a writer of observation rather than of imagination.” That did it for Mullan. Wasn’t the Good Woman of Bath responsible for inventing the free indirect speech style that was taken on by the likes of Flaubert and Kafka? Wasn’t she the consummate stylist with a perfect ear for dialogue? Yes, said Mullan, author of What Matters in Jane Austen?, who re-reads her oeuvre every two years.

Even so, I’m with Mosse. Not because of any one debate in any one room but because it comes down to loyalty. If Wuthering Heights ranks among your top three novels (time for a disclaimer), if the novel of romantic rebellion marks you at a point in your teens when the idea of romantic rebellion is at its most potent, no amount of Intelligence Squared will convince you otherwise. Mullan’s argument about Brontë’s single, technically imperfect novel makes perfect sense. But does technical perfection create a perfect work of art?Wuthering Heights strives for other things. Its characterisation is daring, its “unreliable narrations” ambitious, with flashbacks and reported stories – a story about its telling. It also captures the sharp, sadomasochistic, cruel edge to love.

But none of this matters: what does is that literary loyalties often remain blind, because they are tied into the emotional life of the reader, not just aesthetic appreciation. It might also be worth questioning why we continue the war that Charlotte Brontë began with her acid words, which may have hidden a North-South rivalry. Emily Brontë and Austen were majestic and imperfect in own ways. So an impasse, and a draw. A show of hands can never decide it.

The magical power of pudding to cut a literary spat short

On to recent literary put-downs. There we were, watching a small shoal of authors give speeches about their upcoming books at a literary dinner. Karen Armstrong spoke before the starter, Ian Mortimer before the main. Jonathan Powell came in about his book, Talking to Terrorists, just before desert. He spoke of how dialogue with terrorists is not the same thing as appeasement. The thing is to engage. What might have happened had we talked to Hitler earlier, about Czechoslovakia?, he said. It was then that Simon Schama stood up: to talk about his second volume of The Story of the Jews? Yes, but first a question: how might the outcome of history been averted, Mr Powell, tell us. He did, and Mr Schama told him back. Bodley Head bods might have bristled under their napkins as the two “discussed” in front of a roomful of journalists and editors. Then the crème brûlée arrived and a fledgling literary spat was extinguished, before its time I thought, by the calming effects of eggy, sugar-laden puddings.