Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you’re embroiled in a gang war, and you can choose either Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë to fight on your side. Which 19th-century novelist would you pick?
Brontë would be handier in a tight spot, I imagine. She was small and wiry, and given that she was missing quite a few teeth (see Elizabeth Gaskell’s letter to Catherine Winkworth, 25 August 1850), she’d certainly look the part of the smash-mouth brawler. She was by all accounts stubborn and fiercely loyal, good qualities in an ally.
But for a drawn-out turf war, I’d have to go with Austen. Not a scrapper like Brontë, she’d still beat the celebrated author of Jane Eyre hands-down on strategy. Austen was meaner, too, and that’s saying something because Charlotte Brontë was no cupcake. I can imagine Brontë going out brilliantly in a hail of gunfire, perhaps hurling a Molotov cocktail with her last ounce of strength. Austen, though, would survive and triumph over any of your trifling Mafiosi or drug cartel leaders. Say what you want about the novel of manners as an art form; there’s no better way to learn about factionalism
Authors of marriage-plot novels might not be the first place you’d look for fighting prowess, but I see them as a deep talent pool. Seriously, go read Middlemarch and then tell me with a straight face that George Eliot wasn’t capable of terrible things. Or pick up any of Madame de Staël’s novels (go on, I dare you). Hell, Harriet Beecher Stowe started a war. These ladies knew some shit about conflict, even if they did bury it under calling cards and teacups.
Of the whole formidable crew, Jane Austen would be my top draft pick. She’s by far the most sophisticated fighter among her literary peers, with a narrative style reminiscent of Aikido, predicated on off-balancing and emptying. Her attacks are exquisitely subtle; the thuds of her enemies’ falling bodies very loud. Like a martial arts master, Austen uses others’ energy to create gaping holes, and then politely allows her readers to fall into them.
Consider the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Calling this “ironic” is much too crude; it is an elaborate and devastating syntactic joke built on absence. The “truth” that anchors the sentence is manifestly untrue; it describes something that doesn’t exist. The further claim of universal acknowledgement, with its manifest impossibility, thus merely amplifies the emptiness. The “want” that motivates the hypothetical single man redoubles the emptiness; it is itself a negative quality—a lack, a need, a desire—which also can’t exist, since the “truth” claimed for it earlier isn’t true. The insistent, epistemic “must” only underscores the futility of the entire assertion.
Then of course, this initial declaration is not at all what the story’s narrator actually believes, but rather the opposite. The whole sentence is hollow, a Burmese tiger trap of obvious untruth that we nonetheless allow Austen to guide us straight across until we plummet, still nodding and smiling agreeably, into the pit. There we land painfully on the narrator’s unvarnished opinion: People who do believe this “truth” are idiots.
It’s a brilliant opening move for a novel, and perhaps the plainest evidence of Austen’s genius is that she repeats this structure over and over, and it always entertains, whether she’s tossing off a blithe indictment of character in the novel Emma (“The charm of an object to occupy the many vacancies of Harriet’s mind was not to be talked away”) or casually demonstrating, toward the end of Sense and Sensibility, how a superior fighter triumphs by declining combat (“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition”).
Austen’s novels are masterpieces of negative space; listen closely to her funniest lines and you’ll hear the wind whistling through them. She pulls the chair out from under her readers time and again, and we’re continually surprised and delighted to find ourselves on the floor. The only comparable experience I’ve had is my training with judo and aikido instructors who helped me discover the infinite number of ways a person can fall down. Those martial artists, like Jane Austen, understood weakness and predisposition, and how they can be used to create opportunity.
Charlotte Brontë was an entirely different kind of fighter, and she knew it. In fact she disparaged Austen’s restrained style, finding it too “cultivated” and “confined.” (Mark Twain also claimed to hate Austen, saying, “She makes me detest all her people, without reserve.” I think he was just jealous.) Brontë throws a lot of elbows, and she isn’t above a literary head-butt now and then (“Am I hideous, Jane?" “Very, sir; you always were, you know”). She plays to the cheap seats, with drama and Gothic flair. I’m sympathetic to her balls-out approach to conflict; I fight the same way myself (minus the Anglican dogmatism). If I were fighting zombies, or Scots, I’d prefer Brontë by my side. But in a real-world conflict, Austen’s the obvious choice. She’d be more likely to sniff out the informant or stay three steps ahead of the double-crosser. And she would never, ever do anything to attract the attention of police. She was a lady, after all.
OK, so let’s say you’re not involved in a gang war, but you are interested in autonomy and self-determination for women, and you’re looking for role models who will teach young girls how to stand up for themselves. Who’s the better ally in that fight, Austen or Brontë?
They’re both a whole lot better than that woman who wrote the Twilight series; still, if I have to cut one and keep the other, I’m keeping Austen. Brontë could plumb the depths of a struggling soul, yes; but Austen had healthier priorities.
I once taught Jane Eyre to a class of returning college students, including a grandmother re-reading the novel for the first time since her teen years. She’d been enraptured by Mr. Rochester back then, she said, but when she re-read the book, thinking about how her granddaughter might experience it, she was appalled. “What a horrible, horrible man,” she told our class, shaking her head like someone who has just discovered that her trusted accountant was arrested for embezzling from orphans.
My student was right: Brontë is a disappointing voice for women’s empowerment. She rejects the trappings of conventional romance, only to create even worse excesses. Her female characters make impassioned speeches about autonomy and intrinsic human value (“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do . . .”), and then they end up marrying unspeakable douchebags like Mr. Rochester or M. Paul. Really, Brontë is her own heroines’ worst enemy.
In order to make her obnoxious heroes look slightly less obnoxious, Brontë paints her villains as simple monsters—dark, raving lunatics or cold, sadistic authority figures. They starve small children and burn down houses; they’re easy to identify, yet they’re allowed to get away with their bad behavior much longer than they ought to.
Austen, in contrast, understands how similar we are to our enemies, how difficult it can be to correctly identify them and the threats they pose. The most dangerous people in her books—Henry Crawford, Mr. Wickham—are often quite pleasant, and her clowns—Mr. Collins, Mrs. Norris—cause considerable damage. She works with reality, and firmly resists the lure of the exotic.
Students in self-defense workshops often succumb to this allure. The scenarios that come up when we discuss our fears about safety are always peopled with vague, shadowy predators. This despite the fact that we’re much more likely to be attacked by someone who knows us, looks like us, and in fact is like us—a family member, say, or an intimate partner. Sometimes I ask self defense students to close their eyes and visualize someone who might try to harm them. What does this person look like? I ask. Do they look like you, or do they look different? Do you know them, or are they a stranger? And most importantly, Why is this the person your imagination presents to you as a threat?
I don’t ask students to share what they’re thinking when we do this exercise. I don’t have to. Research shows that the majority of us imagine threats coming from people who look different from us. We’re also apt to envision danger in the forms most commonly presented to us through popular media. Thus for the average white person, the default “attacker” in their imagination is a dark-skinned, male stranger.
In Jane Eyre, it is Rochester’s mad first wife, a tall, dark creole woman, who haunts the heroine’s dreams and bedroom. Jane tells us the woman has “a discoloured face—it was a savage face,” with “a fearful blackened inflammation of the lineaments,” “the lips swelled and dark, the brow furrowed, the black eyebrows widely raised over the bloodshot eyes.” Nothing suggestive about that description, is there? This is what Brontë’s heroine, and possibly Brontë herself, envisioned as the prototypical attacker: a big scary black woman. And yet the greater danger to Jane, by far, is Rochester, who wants to trick her into bigamy and thus threatens her very soul.
But only because he loves her! It’s frustrating to watch Brontë pull her punches this way—she’s very good at depicting abusive relationships (her sisters Emily and Anne were even better at it). But she romanticizes them. When the unfortunate madwoman who stands between Jane and her abusive lover conveniently offs herself, setting fire to her husband’s mansion and then (in a scene blatantly plagiarized from Ivanhoe), jumping off the battlements to her death, Jane is free to marry the egotistical brute (but he’s reformed! And blind! And he loves her!) and afterwards warble, “I am my husband’s life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am; ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.”
She expects us to believe this creepy bliss lasts indefinitely, but honestly, I give it five years before one of them is a secret drinker, the other has unexplained crying jags, and the neighbors hear regular screaming matches late at night. You simply can’t build a successful marriage without healthy boundaries, and that’s an important message for girls and women to absorb. They won’t learn it from Brontë.
Austen’s heroines, though they may be prudish like Fanny Price or ditzy like Emma Woodhouse, aren’t fooled (at least never more than temporarily) by Byronic posturing. They look for decent men, and believe they deserve them. They compare, thoughtfully and rationally, the behavior of potential love interests with that of other people they esteem, which helps them discover and correct for their own biases.
Of course, studying Austen and Brontë’s combat skills is only one of many reasons to read their work, but I wish more people would view their novels through the lens of conflict. They model two distinct styles of fighting, and I think women especially need to see more potential ways we can fight. No matter how constrained we are by the gender expectations of our day, we can still find ways to protect ourselves and make our own decisions. And that’s the real key to living happily ever after.