Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë shared a century, a homeland, and even some of the same characters, and both authors attempted manuscripts, both titled
In Jane Austen’s
It is a private joke between two people who have become intimate through raillery, and not everybody appreciates it. Elizabeth Langland, in her book
In this paper, I argue that this remark is accurate--but not the way that Langland thinks it is. The world being discursively reformed is not the real class society of Regency England, for as our epigraph from Adam Smith suggests, it is not the coach that owns the man but rather the man who owns the coach. What is being discursively reformed in this passage is something at one and the same time less material and more long-lasting: the world of the English novel. To this end, I shall compare Austen’s
The two Emmas belong to two different worlds: a world of returns on capital (on today’s income tax form, capital gains) and a world of earned income (on today’s income tax form, wages and other forms of non-inherited wealth). In each case, the reader is offered profound insights into the character of the heroine, and in each case, the psychological insight stems from a sociological analysis. However, only one work can lead to the key literary insight that the psychological plane of characters must be distinct from but also linked to their social milieu. Money may offer our two Emmas choices, but the choices are limited, and they are limited by real, tangible cash and not by social signifiers of money; the difference is every bit as great as the one Kant supposes between a hundred imaginary thalers and a hundred actually minted ones (505).
In “The Logic of Realism: A Hegelian Approach,” Marshall Brown proposes a method for the study of the development of the novel in general and to the realist novel in particular. He notes that realism is “not an entity” but rather an “attribute, a quality and an impression” (226). This impression of realism is produced by different literary means at different moments in the development of the realist novel, and Brown describes three of them: “ from the comic realism of details to the tragic realism of causal forces and the melodramatic realism of typological destinies” (237).
I wish to consider the two Emmas as two different moments in this transition. Our first Emma presents a realism of externally determined types, a realism of diminutive and often comic details, and this is why the attempt to read
The practice of borrowing economic terms for the analysis of literary work is hardly, no pun intended, a novel practice. Regenia Gagnier’s
For example, at the center of his work, Piketty places a longish snatch of dialogue from an early nineteenth-century novel, Balzac’s
Piketty points out that on the other side of the English Channel, Austen was writing of similar predicaments—but from the other side of the great social divide:
All this is neatly summed up in Piketty’s simple inequality: r > g. In other words, the returns on capital must always, in the long run, outstrip growth in income.
Piketty divides the complex English social class system into an r-class of rentiers who live off the returns (r) on capital (land, as in the case of Mr. Knightley, or investments such as war bonds) and a g-class of those who depend on growth (g) in earned income (professionals such as lawyers, doctors, school teachers, and governesses). Because the r-class owns nearly all of the country’s wealth but constitutes less than ten percent of the population, Piketty’s categories will allow us to make far more refined distinctions between people who in class terms may belong to the same group, the one which Langland labels “middle-class” or even “bourgeois.” Even within one family, we may find that the English system of primogeniture ensures that the elder son gets the whole family estate, living off its capital returns, while the younger sons have to be trained in the three learned professions (clergy, law, and medicine) so that they make a living on earned income. The two groups may well, thanks to a common education, sometimes within one and the same family, share the same discursive practices. Nevertheless, they must, because of the enormous inequalities between returns on capital and wages, do so within very different economic worlds.
There are, of course, always risks in approaching a work of literature through the biography of the author, and one of these is the vulgar materialist notion that aesthetic consciousness can be derived directly from economic well-being. The task of the critic is always to steer away from this Scylla without falling into the Charybdis of utterly dehistoricizing and hypostatizing the work, or, worse still, presenting literature as somehow determining social conditions, a view that Amanda Anderson finds—in my view correctly—in too much feminist criticism (46-66). The approach I shall take here is to argue that the aesthetic consciousness we observe in Austen’s novels is, in the final analysis, concrete—that is, it is the consciousness of a living, working, writing woman. While we cannot derive it in an unmediated manner from the conditions under which she lived, worked, and wrote—after all, the men in her milieu shared those conditions and did not write her novels—we can do something rather more important with her biography, namely, explain the social status of each writer conditioned the purposes for which they were educated and the aims for which they wrote, and how this in turn mediated the production of their respective novels. For women in the r-class, female education was a consumer good, whicih of course had display value but which was primarily intended for family use. For women in the g-class, the same kind of education was turned into means of production, a source of income.
Like other genteel families of the time, the Austen family fortune had always been handled by making sure the eldest son was left rich to live off returns from capital in each generation, leaving everybody else dependent on that elder brother’s largesse or else upon earned income. The inequitable will of Austen’s great-great-grandfather left one child with a huge fortune and sent the rest of the children out as apprentices under conditions well below the expectation of children from wealthy families to live on earned income. The injustice became legendary in the Austen family, and it directly affected the way William, Austen’s grandfather, a quite successful surgeon, left his will. He was determined that the injustice he had suffered would not happen to his own children. In order to make sure all of his children, regardless of age and gender, got equal shares, he asked that the property he had acquired by virtue of an advantageous marriage and his own hard work be sold upon his death and the money divided equally amongst them (Spence 1-3, 8). As a result, Austen’s own father, as rector of Steventon, could live off a combination of earned income and returns on capital; he had inherited 1000 pounds from his parents. Austen’s mother, Cassandra Leigh, came from a quite wealthy family and inherited 3000 pounds (Spence 15-6). On this sum, she enjoyed an annual return of about 150 pounds. In addition to the proceeds of a farm attached to the living, the Austens would, with a capital of 4000 pounds, receive 200 pounds a year from their investments, roughly the same amount as the 210 pounds of earned income from her father’s two livings (a second one bought by his uncle Francis for him about the time of his marriage). By 1801 Austen’s father was receiving about 600 pounds a year—not a stipend, but regular income from tithes and from land. Every generation of the Austen family was well-connected; no generation lived on earned income alone.
Austen’s own generation was no exception. The family was a large one, so all the boys had to be educated to earn their own income. Nevertheless, the parents also had expectations for their children, and these expectations were entirely realistic given the family’s connections. Edward, the third son, was adopted by Thomas Knight, a cousin of Mr. Austen, the owner of Godmersham House, one of the largest estates in Kent. The adoption immediately transferred Edward from the g-class to the r-class and made him the richest among his siblings and also a lifelong benefactor to them (Spence 24-5). For the Austen family, going into the clergy was always a second best choice. Jane’s brother Henry, for example, was trained to become a clergyman but took the first chance coming his way to do something else, marrying a rich cousin with 10,000 pounds (Spence 77). This yielded him an income 500 pounds a year and a life of ease and pleasure in the fashionable world of London. His wife’s fortune and connection apparently was enough to help him to launch a new career in banking, and it was only when his wife died and his banking business failed and that he decided to go back to the profession he had originally been trained for.
Although Jane Austen did not have any money settled on her, and Cassandra had only 1000 pounds from the will of her fiancé (Spence 152), neither of them was at any time under any pressure to marry or use their education as a source of income. Their quiet domestic life at Steventon parsonage was punctuated by extended visits to Edward and Henry or other relations and family friends. It was simply understood that the Austen women would be taken care of, and so they were: after the death of her father, the Austen sons pooled together 200 pounds a year to bring the income up to 450 pounds a year (15 times the national income) for their mother and the two unmarried sisters. Edward later offered his mother Chawton Cottage on his Chawton estate (Spence 148, 169). Austen eventually did make some money out of her books, but Henry repeatedly made the point that his sister wrote for family entertainment not for money; Austen’s closest brother understood perfectly the difference between living on returns from land and writing for an income.
Historically, Brontë’s first work comes three decades after Austen’s death, and so we might be forgiven for thinking that her career must begin somewhere near Austen’s left off. Economically, however, we can see that things are very much the other way around: Brontë’s world ends exactly at the threshold of income and expectations with which Austen’s world begins. As Piketty notes, people who die with only the clothes on their backs are considerably less interesting to historians, economists, and even to their own descendants, and consequently, the story of Brontë’s world is considerably shorter, or at least shorter on data.
Born in a big poor Irish peasant family of ten children, Brontë’s father Patrick Brontë dragged himself out of poverty by sheer determination and hard work: even his aristocratic sounding name was self-made (he was apparently born “Patrick Brunty”). After becoming a student at Cambridge, he was more than ready to leave his Irish connections behind and did not bother to revisit his birthplace even once. With no rich uncle to buy him a living, the best he could do for himself was to become a badly-paid curate (200 pounds a year) in a poor parish in a remote place in Yorkshire. It was considered a stroke of good luck for Patrick Brontë when he married Maria Branwell, the third daughter of a merchant because she had a small annuity of 50 pounds a year from her father’s will (Gaskell 34-5, 37, 39). As a curate, Patrick Brontë was not entitled to the “tithe” of the living; a curate’s earned income was the most attainable, realistic goal for which he could strive. Piketty’s dictum of “r” and “g” demonstrates the glass ceiling placed over how high a man living on earned income could reach: all Brontë children, including the girls, were forced to see education as a way to make a living.
As a self-made man, the father was well aware of what education would mean for his only son, Branwell; however, the family’s restricted resources did not allow him to provide Branwell with a formal education. As a result, the son was educated at home, mostly by his father, whose hard-won membership in the g-class was apparently not enough to impress the son. Trying different jobs but failing to hold down any job for long, he worked briefly as a portrait painter, a railway station clerk, and a tutor in two different families. The second tutoring job appeared to have triggered his final downfall, through an extramarital affair with the wife of his employer. Quite contrary to his father’s plan, and in conformity with the advice offered by Vautrin to Rastignac, Branwell apparently expected that the wife of his employer would marry him after the death of her husband. Of course, a poor young man marrying a rich widow did happen, as we see in Austen’s brother Henry’s case. But it cannot happen to every poor young man; it happened to Henry precisely because Henry and Eliza were cousins belonging to the same extended family and because the Austen family was well-connected with the upper crust of society; they would make sure Henry would be able to go into the clergy if their other plans failed. Branwell’s case was entirely different. When the husband at last died, the rich widow jilted him, and Branwell died of a combination of drink, drugs, and disease.
The father’s example, however, made a deep impression upon Branwell’s sisters. Having no rich relatives, they had to earn a living, and the only way available to them was to become a governess or a school teacher. From the very first, their education had the decidedly specific goal of making a living by teaching, and they were sent for this purpose to Cowan Bridge School, a cheap school set up for impoverished clergymen’s daughters. The tuition of 14 pounds a year for a very basic education, was quite cheap (22 pounds and more a year was standard at the end of the eighteenth century according to Erasmus Darwin’s
So it was inevitable that the three adult Brontë sisters undertook literary production with a mind to publication rather than for family entertainment: while Austen kept the money she made from her books all to herself, Charlotte spent the money from her books for running the everyday life of the Brontë household. The fact that Austen never sold the copyright and Brontë never kept it also says a great deal about the different economic spheres they lived in. As we shall see in the next section, this is faithfully reflected in the literary worlds they create.
It is certainly true that Austen’s previous novels are congenial to Langland’s narrative about the triumph of female subjects through the mastery of discursive practices. Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price do indeed represent a variation of the female social mobility plot of virtue rewarded by economic means pioneered by Samuel Richardson in
The beginning of the novel might, indeed, appear to the unwary to offer strong evidence in favor of the social mobility that can be conferred by female accomplishments. Governesses not only impart accomplishments to highborn characters like Emma, they also lead enviable lives themselves—at least in comparison to the real variety.
Langland seems to think that the subsequent marriage of Miss Fairfax to Frank Churchill is evidence enough to prove that elegant manners are both necessary and sufficient for the acquisition of high social status (227). However, here too, the reader should pay attention: the manifold warning signals are many, and the reader should not, as Emma does, jump to the conclusion that anything is possible. Jane Fairfax is an orphan, true, but she is an orphan from a respectable family, adopted by Colonel Campbell at a young age and brought up alongside his only daughter. Although both girls were given an excellent education, it was well understood that Jane Fairfax’s education was meant to be “the means of respectable subsistence hereafter” (146). She is destined for a life as a governess, earning her own livelihood. This preparation does indeed allow her to make good the lack of a portion (i.e. a marriage settlement)—but within limits. As Mr. Knightley points out, Jane Fairfax lacks the “open temper which a man would wish for in a wife” (259). This too is externally determined; it has a lot to do with her peculiar position in life. The secrecy of her engagement with Frank Churchill is largely a result of Frank Churchill’s own fear of losing his inheritance by displeasing his aunt over a match with somebody below her expectation. Jane Fairfax’s superior mastery of feminine accomplishments compared with that of Emma is paradoxically a proof of her inferior economic standing. She has to be good in order to teach others.
The failure of Emma’s re-branding of Harriet is final proof of the limits of female accomplishments. Emma is too confident of her own influence, assuming that her patronage, without any economic backing, can raise Harriet’s social standing and make her a desirable marriage partner for gentlemen of good society. Mr. Elton’s rejection of Harriet shows how illusory it is to attempt social mobility without a sound socio-economic base. Stung by Emma’s attempt to match him up with somebody so much beneath his own status, he cries “Every body (sic) has their own level...I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith” (119-20). Mr. Knightley is not a snob of the Elton stripe, but his objection to Emma’s meddling with Harriet and Mr. Martin’s courtship is also very much based on Harriet’s birth. He sees Harriet as “the natural daughter of nobody knows whom” (54-5). Mr. Knightley is acutely aware that the illegitimate children of wealthy families have no prospects of inheritance.
Langland maintains that Emma’s hostility to Mr. Martin is a sign of social insecurity; according to her, the very chasm that separates Emma and her friends from people like him is proof positive of this. “The line between lower-middle-class prosperous yeoman farmers like the Martins and the upper-middle-class gentry is drawn all the more rigidly because society implicitly recognizes the divisions based on social manner and etiquette can be readily breached” (230). True, Emma’s response to Martin’s letter suggests there is not much discursive difference between Emma and Martin; she notes that:
But Emma also adds:
Langland contends that “Emma’s arrogance reveals, even as it attempts to conceal, the social threat posed by families like the Martins” (230). It must seem inexplicable, then, that Mr. Knightley, who as we have seen shares Emma’s status, does not share this sense of social threat, and stranger still that Emma should become reconciled to Mr. Martin by the end of the novel.
But all can be easily explained. J. V. Beckett informs us that in 1811, five years before Emma appeared, the richest yeoman is reported to be worth 300 pounds in the year of 1811 (101). This is still quite a long way from the threshold of 500-1000 a year of the social circle of Emma. There is, therefore, a thick glass ceiling that separates Robert Martin, with all his good sense, propriety, and delicacy of feeling, from Emma and Mr. Knightley. Harriet Smith, by virtue of her illegitimate birth and indifferent education, also finds herself beneath it. Neither Emma nor Mr. Knightley need feel the slightest bit threatened by Mr. Martin’s mastery of middle class discursive practices.
We observed in the previous section that for Austen and Brontë, the same separation held. In the last part of this paper, I will examine an uncompleted fragment from the very end of Brontë’s life, which is coincidentally—or is it a coincidence?— entitled
Austenian characters do appear in the work of Brontë, and some critics have even speculated that her first novel is really an elaboration of Jane Fairfax. But if Brontë's
In the closing months of her life, Brontë attempted another manuscript and gave it the title
Neither continuation of the story explores what must have been the most likely outcome of the story in the nineteenth century. For a cast-off like Miss Fitzgibbon, the only real option is education—not as a luxury consumer good on which to spend returns on capital, but as an investment in expectation of a life of labor and earned income. Brontë, who worked as a governess but at one time planned to open a school with her sisters, must have been acutely aware of this, for we find that all her heroines, with the single exception of the two heroines in
Virginia Woolf, who saw in Austen’s fiction the origins of her own preoccupation with the internal plane of characters, wondered how it was that with less facility for writing than Brontë, Austen “got infinitely more said” (77). This paper has tried to address that question by disentangling the separate roots of the Austenian Emma and the Brontëan one on three different levels, which we may call the sociogenetic (that is, the historical), the ontogenetic (the biographical), and the logogenetic (the textual). First, we saw the sociogenetic differences that determine that female education may be treated as directly consumable goods or as education to be imparted to others in exchange for money. Second, we considered some “ontogenetic” or biographical differences between the two authors: one an unmarried woman under no great pressure to marry, and the other, recently married under precisely that great pressure to marry, is a woman who finds it somewhat difficult to make time to finish her written work. Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that one
In Brontë’s fragment, we glimpse a marked, damned, utterly alienated Emma implicitly contrasted with the other girls in her surroundings, precisely the sort of Emma whom Brown would have expected to succeed the original one, so rich in comic detail. It is this realism we see in the perfect compatibility that makes possible the initial exchange outside the Coles’ door, where Emma says that even had she met Mr. Knightley in the drawing room she could have seen by his self-conscious bustle whether or not he had arrived in a carriage. To see this exchange as the mere flaunting or flouting of middle class discursive practices is to miss what Terry Castle rightly calls “the deepest source of pleasure in Emma” for the reader, namely “its profoundly therapeutic emotional rhythm” (xxi). But there is more to this emotional rhythm than therapy, or even pleasure. It is precisely this psychological insight, this interpersonal understanding that leads to self-understanding, that will form the main focus of the novel in the centuries that follow, from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf to our own time. Here indeed, we do have a lasting transformation of discursive practices—a transformation of the novel towards a preoccupation with the patterns of social relations that are transformed into interpersonal and even intra-personal ones. As Woolf points out in the very title of