The Effects of Fresh Air on Literary Criticism

Mrs S has just returned from two blissful weeks in the wilds of Northumbria. She could happily have remained indefinitely in the former-Methodist-Chapel-turned-holiday-cottage, in a tiny little village called Halton Lea Gate, nestled between the northern Penines and the Scottish Borders, in landscapes naturally soft and cushy, despite their grandeur, through the sheer number of sheep that reside there.  And thus entrenched she would have had no needs beyond pen, paper and reliable childcare. There was something stirring about the landscape that moved Mrs S not merely to poetry, but to mythology. Poor Mr S had to listen, on several occassions, as his wife complained that Peter Jackson really could have filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the UK, for Northumberland was surely perfect. In truth it’s not that Mrs S objects to the New Zealand landscapes, but it would have been lovely to have a Tolkien tourist attraction or two to visit. As it was, they enjoyed themselves greatly at the Roman points of interest, mining and aeroplane museums, sundry churches of delicate ancient beauty, and in the landscape itself. Whenever they were ‘at home,’ and no one needed feeding, Mrs S had her pen and notebook in hand. She has never been so productive. (Not all of her writing was for the novel, which will annoy Mr S greatly to discover, but a great deal was accomplished nonetheless.) Then, after two weeks in pleasing proximity to Hardian’s Wall, the S family reluctantly made the five hour drive home to Hertfordshire.

The morning after returning home Mrs S was talking to her mother, the Matriarch, waxing lyrical about the beauty and wildness of Northumbria, and detailing her pie-in-the-sky ambition to move there. She must have over-egged it, for the Matriarch said something unexpected:

‘So, you’ve become a Bronte-lover.’ 

Lest the reader be deceived that this was a benign observation, the Martiarch’s tone should be said to have been deliberately incredulous, the implication that ‘we don’t do that sort of thing in this family’ crystal clear.

Mrs S was left speechless, her mouth moving without linguistic effect. How could one’s mother be so cruel? Surely the Matriarch knew that two weeks in the North could never transform a dedicated acolyte of Jane-Austen into…that. There is a world of difference between enjoying a bit of untamed countryside in one’s travels and developing a taste for untamed emotion in one’s reading. Needless to say, Mrs S was deeply wounded by this insinuation, but could not go off and sulk without proving the Matriarch’s point.

The very thought that Mrs S could become a devotee of the Bronte sisters is more than laughable: it threatens to undermine the whole stability of her existence, which is founded upon the very Austen-ian lesson that the greatest romance is not only compatible with the most ordinary of virtues, but indeed depends upon them. Insensible to the depth and worth of Jane Austen’s writing, Charlotte Bronte found only an unforgiveable lack of feeling:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously 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.”

-12th April, 1850, in a letter to W.S. Williams

Elsewhere she complained of Austen’s refinement, writing to L.H. Lewes that:

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. … I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? …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.”

-12th January, 1848 (Is this the passage that put the Matriarch in fear of Mrs S’s literary soul?)

These allegations are shocking in two senses, the first being that they are mostly untrue, and the second that to the extent that they do apply, they are virtues, rather than shortcomings, of Austen’s writing.

To begin with, Jane Austen’s acquaintance with the passions is apparent in dozens of passages, but to take but one example, it is hard accuse the author of any lack of feeling in the letter of Captain Frederick Wentworth to Miss Anne Elliot in Persuasion:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would have been lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in 


Maybe Charlotte Bronte never read Persuasion (and certainly she could not have known that Ciaran Hinds would portray Captain Wentworth to great effect in the film adaptation) but still: it packs a punch, does it not? Mrs S is frequently misty-eyed and breathless after reading this passage. What more can the poor man do? Bleed onto the page? Needless to say, Anne is appropriately flustered by receiving such a letter, and after eight and a half years of dignified anguish and seperation, the lovers are reunited. But whilst they may mourn lost oppurtunities — Captain Wentworth urgently asks Anne if she would have become engaged to him six years earlier when he returned to England between voyages, and she replies that she would have — Austen is very clear to point out the greater happiness the couple now enjoy than could have been theirs in the beginning:

There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had first been projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in their knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.

And this perhaps is the type cultivation of which Charlotte Bronte speaks so slightingly. For Jane Austen’s characters feel the strongest passions, but are not overcome. They do not run wild. They are pruned, the more glorious bloom to produce, for what is cultivation but the work of man to direct and heighten the bounty and beauty of nature? The end of a Jane Austen novel is consummation, not abandon. Anne and Wentworth, Elizabeth and Darcy (& Jane and Bingley), Elinor and Edward (& Marianne and Brandon), Fanny and Edmund, even Emma and Knightley, and, in a different way, given the satire underlying Northanger Abbey, Catherine and Henry: they all reach maturity in the fulfillment of their romantic longing, but only because each in his or her lover finds support, even enoblement, of virtue and palliation of vice. It is not merely their passions that are satiated, but something deeper in their souls. Austen heroines (and heros) do not give in. They grow up. 

Consider now Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s magnum opus. The eponymous heroine has many admirable qualities. Though she is prudish and moralistic, but there is courage and determination there as well, and a true desire to be good, to do right. And she never compromises…until she does, of course. How is it that Jane and the revamped Bluebeard-figure Edward Rochester end up together? Does the rake and attempted bigamist reform? Indeed not, but since his first wife, the mad, bad Bertha, dies (maybe, possibly, but not proven, by his hand, though certainy in part through his cruelty and neglect), it was at least legal in the end. And he was maimed and blinded in the house fire, so his fidelity was more or less assured through lack of other options.  But is Rochester humbled and reformed? So unconvincing is the text on this point that when, at the age of fourteen, Mrs S read the famous line “Reader, I married him,” she tossed the book aside and did not pick it up again until six months later to grudgingly and with gritted teeth read the final pages. Just when one thinks Jane has had a lucky escape from the clearly unbalanced St John Rivers, she goes running back to some low-budget Byron with an extremely unadmirable moral flexibility and sinister sense of entitlement. Circumstances, not characters, evolve in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Passion wins. But does Jane? Does Rochester, even? That is less certain.

Contrast this with the famous reform of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel specifically maligned by Charlotte Bronte in the passage above. Unlike Jane Eyre, who accepts Rochester’s proposal of marriage, “poor and obscure, and small and plain as [she is],” in Rochester’s stated estimation, Elizabeth Bennet, hearing a proposal rather similar in content and tone pulls Mr Darcy up with the words 

“I might as well inquire why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”

(Charlotte Bronte wants a “stormy Sisterhood” of the passions: did she even read that scene? Did she think that the logic behind the objection undid the fervour with which it was presented?) It is one of the few deep regrets of Mrs S’s life that she has never received an unexpected proposal from a deeply arrogant man, having read and reread this masterclass in setdowns hundreds of times since she was twelve. In this scene we have the crystalisation of the central problem of the book: pride (& prejudice, for now Lizzy must discover and suffer from her own misapprehensions). And this problem is not created by external circumstances, but by the nature of the characters involved. If Lizzy had accepted Darcy despite his disdain for her, despite his defects, even if she had managed to feel flattered enough by his attentions or dazzled enough by his fortune to form a passionate attachment of her own, Pride and Prejudice would have become a garden variety tragedy, for passion would win, but it would bring no happiness. How could it? He was not the man she deserved, and if she accepted less than that she would not be the woman he imagined. Character, not feeling is the basis of a sound marraige for Jane Austen, as we hear in Lizzy’s reflections in the midst of the scandalous Lydia and Wickham affair:

She began now to comprehend that [Darcy] was the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and livliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

…But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple [i.e. Lydia and Wickham] who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could now easily conjecture.

This, rather than any insensitivity, is why Austen skims over heartfelt declarations with little detail. And how right she is to do so. What could knowing Darcy’s words add to the description of what followed Elizabeth’s acceptance of his second proposal. The reader is assured that “he expressed himself on the occassion as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.” Elizabeth is so overcome she cannot meet his eyes, or even look at him, but only listen to his words of love. The passion is there, but it is only an embellishment, proof of the nobility of character that each has won in the end. The important words Austen records. Darcy relates the transformation of character wrought by his “dearest, lovliest Elizabeth”:

“By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretentions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

This, in a line, is what is wrong with Charlotte Bronte’s conception of romance. Rochester is manifestly insufficient to please a woman worthy of being pleased, and so, in being pleased by him, the otherwise worthy Jane Eyre is debased. That is what happens if, in the end, one’s passion is stronger than one’s virtue. 

Of course Jane Eyre is a fantasy, as is Pride and Prejudice, so they don’t depend upon strict realism to be plausible.  Mrs S has no expectation of hyper-realism of story. It would be very dull to read, after all. The problem with Jane Eyre is not that it is fantastical. And the Austen-Bronte debate is not (or at least shouldn’t be) about who is a good writer and who is a poor one.  Mrs S can easily acknowledge that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, wrote with grace, verve, and beauty, even if she prefers the style of Austen. But in the end, stories don’t “work” just because they are realistic or well-written: they can only pull this off by being true to character. And Mrs S can never be persuaded by Jane Eyre, because in her own fantasies, to put it bluntly, no one is ever quite so stupid as Jane is in the end. 

The role of a novel is to show the beauty of virtue, and by extension the ugliness of its opposite. That probably sounds prudishly moralistic, and likely to lead to very wearying, heavy-handed tales, so let’s put it another way: all stories are moral, because they are about people. Stories tell us what is good by showing us what is beautiful. Jane Eyre is a confused tale that reveals un underlying moral confusion in its author. The reader spends nearly the whole book admiring Jane’s dogged perseverence in goodness, her refusal to be coerced, her courage in resisting Rochester, who is the embodiment of selfishness and incontinence. Then, without significant reform, Rochester gets Jane anyhow.  Does he suffer? Undoubtedly. But not all suffering is redemptive. The death of his first wife is sufficient to allow Jane to give in to her inexplicable passion for him, and the result is that all of Jane’s goodness, which was so poetically portrayed as the source of her strength and freedom, is reduced to a sort of legalism. Charlotte Bronte writes that Jane was happy. How improbable. The most that can be said is that, if not reformed, Rochester is at least hobbled in his tyrrany by his infirmity, and so there is a lucky sort of blissful ending, which tells us, above all, that life’s beauty rests not in moral character, but in getting what you want, whether or not the object of desire is worthy. And that is drivel.  

Jane Austen, too, has her share of overblown romance. The exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy in which she asks him how he came to fall in love with her, for one:

“My Beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners–my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the livliness of your mind, I did.”

Now, that is pure smut. Mrs S cannot read that passage without needing a cold shower afterwards. Even Darcy and Elizabeth have to go immediately to write letters to their aunts — the most unerotic task there is — to cool down. (It would be a mistake find any sarcasm in this paragraph.) We now know that Darcy is rich, handsome, properly humble, generous and just; and on top of that he is attracted to women, or rather a woman, who is too clever for her own good, and certainly more quick-witted than he is. And yet the effect of the story is not spoiled by such flights of fancy, because the underlying moral picture is sound.

The knack that Jane Austen has for showing virtues to be romantic, and romance to be at the service of domesticity, is what makes her books the best escapist reading there is. All her heroines are different, each with her own faults, which is why it so delightful to see how Jane Austen brings them up to scratch for their happy-ever-after, and each is aspirational in her own way. The most enjoyable conversation Mrs S has ever had with another human being was during an interview for a philosophy graduate program. She was discussing Jane Austen with an older (male) professor who was likewise an admirer. He asked her at one point which Austen heroine she most identified with, and, with all the seriousness and deliberate archness a twenty-year-old can muster, Mrs S replied that she most wanted to imagine herself an Elizabeth Bennet, but lived in perpetual fear that she was truly an Emma Wodehouse underneath. The professor laughed and said “May you live long enough to be Anne Elliot, my dear,” which is a very noble benediction indeed, and one which Mrs S called to mind when the Matriarch accused her of crass romanticism. What would Anne do? Anne would show forebearance, knowing that Lady Russell would, in time, either be proven right or come to her senses. Hopefully the latter.


First Blessing


 Thou didst call and cry to my and break open my deafness: and Thou didst send forth Thy beams and shine upon me and chase away my blindness: Thou didst breathe fragrance upon me, and I drew in my breath and do not pant for Thee: I tasted Thee, and now hunger and thirst for Thee: Thou didst touch me, and I have burned for Thy peace. 

              -St Augustine of Hippo (Confessions, 10.27)

Mrs S kneels at the altar rail in the little wooden chapel where Latin chant reverberates even in the silence and a cloud of incense lingers like visible sancity. The mass is over. Ite missa est. But at the altar rail, shoulder to shoulder, the faithful kneel as the young priest, newly created, walks slowly up and down the row, stopping at each bowed head. He exends his hands, speaks holy words. Some kiss his hands in gratitude, laying chaste lips upon the palms whose intact skin hides the wounds of Christ. 

The blessing of a priest in the first year of his Holy Orders, a First Blessing, is thought to bring with it a share in the rich graces of his new life in the sacramental ministry of Christ. This is why the faithful knelt, or stood in the queue that at first stretched from the crowded altar rail to the back of the sanctuary.  Each blessed congregant rose in turn, giving his place to another, who waited in prayer for the priest to come with a silent sweep of his cassock. The imposition of his hands would tug aside one tiny corner of the veil, uniting heaven and earth in one otherwise unremarkable point in space and time, and his words call forth grace divine.

Mrs S’s faith is at times a heavy, earthbound thing.  She is blessed with certainty, clarity and every assurance that intellect can give.  In this peculiar spot of cultivation, this safe and ordered refuge amongst the tangle of indiscipline, intemperate desires and the unpruned bramble of fantasies, she is not a slave to passion. She does not grasp at the sensational or make a virtue out of strength of feeling. In faith — such a tiny patch of order in her soul! — she is impassibly serene. She knelt now not in hope of a sign or miracle, but in determination to be humble and obedient. This blessing she awaited was one small activity in the larger economy of grace, nearly meaningless in isolation. There is no magic in a blessing, nor, indeed, in a priest. But still, there is grace to be had, faith to be lived, obedience to be practiced: for it is in the greatness of God that he can be glorified through the humble just as through the magnificent. Touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in quiet faith; or wash his feet with your tears, dry them with your hair and annoint them with costly perfume and his grace will likewise be yours. Mrs S knows this, but she has never felt grace as it enters her soul, never been given to rapture or irrepressible exaultation.  And this lack of feeling has seemed more a freedom than a loss, for she can practice her faith without reliance on the great emotions to confirm the truth of her beliefs, and continue without despair in their absence. 

The priest placed his hand upon her head. He spoke her name and she felt a breeze on her face like feathered wings disturbed the air. His voice was deep and gentle, like the swell of a calm sea, quiet enough that only she could hear: “…may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…” the soft breeze became a wind, audibly bowing all around her. Mrs S caught her breath as the priest continued to speak slowly and reverently, oblivious to the whirling tumult that his words brought with them. “…descend upon you and remain with you forever…” 

Her scalp tingled as the wind caught her hair. Every nerve reacted as it tugged at her clothing, blew cool and fresh on her face. The only still point in the room was where the priests hands rested on her head in benediction, barely touching her, but solid and real as Earth is not. “Amen,” said the priest, and Mrs S looked up, engulfed in an unrelenting gale. But while every palpable sensation testified to the reality of the wind, the incense lingering above the altar did not stir and the priest’s alb and cassock hung in elegant, unmoving folds. He lifted his hands from her head and the wind stilled. 

As she had stood waiting for the blessing, Mrs S had resolved not to kiss the hands of the priest, believing that this could never be anything but an empty pantomime piety, and knowing that if she kept her head bowed he would simply move on to the next kneeling congregant. Now, as she looked up, the priest extended his hands and without needing to reflect she kissed each one, not merely knowing that reverence was proper, but feeling reverent, grateful and exultant. There was no awkwardness or anachronism in the ancient gesture of gratitude. The priest inclined his head and smiled benignantly.  Then he was gone, standing before another kneeling supplicant, speaking the same words of blessing.

Mrs S rose reluctantly to relinquish her place at the rail. She paused before the altar in a moment of unplanned adoration. And as she drew in a deep breath it was as though she inhaled the whole of the gale that had moments before swirled about her. She felt it race through the wild untamed parts of her soul, shaking loose stubborn attachments, blowing away limp tepidness and preparing the passions for cultivation. Her chest swelled with joy and she felt her limbs vibrate with an unknown energy. Her mind rang in single voice with words from Scripture that she did not know she knew — “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” — and she trembled to hear them.