Jane Austen vs. the Brontes:  Does Anyone Still Read “Shirley”? 

 Jane Austen is the most popular writer in the world. We base this on intuition, not stats: the Janeites are rather like Star Trek fans. They go to conventions and dress up in costumes. They go to balls. One hundred Janeites think nothing of squeezing into folding chairs in a smallish room to participate in a discussion of Pride and Prejudice. Alas, in such a crowd, only the loudest and fastest prevail. “Next time I’ll try pantomime,” one woman commented.

Janeites are also glued to the British film adaptations of Austen’s books: a TV series of Sanditon, one of her unfinished novels, was spun out to last three seasons. And of course they read and reread the books (as do I). Some read nothing but Jane. And they love Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. And they love the film of The Jane Austen Book Club.

I adore Austen, but I prefer the Brontes. And I have noted that Bronte fans differ from Janeites in that they tend to be one-book fans: they may love Charlotte’s  Jane Eyre, but are lukewarm about Emily’s lyrical Gothic, Wuthering Heights, or vice versa.   Charlotte’s Villette, my own favorite, is often dismissed as too bleak, and though Anne Bronte is rising in popularity, her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, does not compare to her sisters’ work. Many will disagree!

But perhaps the greatest difference is the publishers’ approach to the two authors. Take the Penguin Clothbound Classics:  the Austen collection has seven volumes: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Love and Friendship.  The Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte collection is less inclusive. It has only four novels out of the seven:  Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Villette, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Penguin Clothbound Classics Bronte Collection

I wonder:  Where is Agnes Grey, my favorite of Anne’s?   And what about Charlotte’s  ShirleyShirley, which Charlotte finished after the deaths of her brother and two sisters, while still mourning, may be uneven, but it is a solid 19th-century factory novel. Charlotte worried because one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s factory novels, Mary Barton, was published before Shirley. She thought that it might affect sales and reviews.

Shirley begins as an industrial novel, set in Yorkshire, centered on the clash between workers and manufacturers in 1811.  But it is also a romance, and a study of women’s depression.  The heroine, Caroline Helstone, is raised by her uncle, a bossy, opinionated clergyman.  She falls in love with her Belgian cousin, Robert Moore, a mill owner, and it is the highlight of her day when, during her French lessons with her cousin Hortense, Robert appears.  For very inadequate reasons, her  uncle forbids her to visit the Helstones, and lonely Caroline becomes depressed and anorexic.  Then Shirley, an energetic heiress, arrives in the neighborhood, and becomes Caroline’s best friend.  The two are present when the mill workers strike:  the men become violent when Robert Moore awaits a delivery of new machines, they fear (rightly) that some will be replaced.  And if you like Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Mary Barton, you will enjoy Shirley

If you want a complete hardcover set, I recommend the Everyman’s Library editions. They are not sold as a set, but they make a set.  Three volumes are devoted to Charlotte: one to Jane Eyre, another to Villette, and another to Shirley and The Professor;  one to Emily’s Wuthering Heights; and one to Anne Bronte’s two novels. These attractive books, have enjoyable, smart introductions by critics and novelist, but in general they are less scholarly than the  Penguins.

You can also make your own set with Penguin and Oxford World Classics paperbacks.  If you’re a Bronte girl, there are plenty of copies – even of Shirley.  There is also a boxed complete Wordsworth paperback Bronte set, which one blogger raved about. I am not a fan of the Wordsworth covers, but there is nothing wrong with the books.

Do you have favorite editions of Austen or the Brontes?

5 thoughts on “Jane Austen vs. the Brontes:  Does Anyone Still Read “Shirley”? ”

  1. I think most of the Bronte writings are now available in paperbacks, perhaps the more esoteric (their juvenilia, Patrick and Branwell’s poems) more expensively. Even Charlotte’s unpublished and unfinished novels. We did read Shirley on Trollope&Peers and found it meandered and became tedious at times; it did not truly deal with the strike it set up — Bronte made the characters we get to know far less willing to compromise than Gaskell did.

    I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall; at this point it’s my second favorite of the Bronte books. My favorite is Jane Eyre (the best and most effective), then The Tenant, then Agnes Grey, and last Wuthering Heights. I’ve come to regard WH as pro-violence and I do find it crude; it’s sado-masochistic over Isabella. I can’t enjoy it. I enjoy in small amounts Emily’s poetry — as well as Charlotte and Anne (they have only small amounts).

    Biographies: the best today to me are Claire Harman on Charlotte, Maria Frawley and Nick Holland on Anne. Gaskell is foundational.

    I probably prefer Austen because I read her much much more often; I love many of the older and faithful movies, and can very much enjoy some of the appropriations (the transposed ones to other cultures and times) and The Jane Austen Book Club too.

    1. Perhaps Austen is more consistent overall. I love the Gothicism of the Brontes). (as would Catherine in Northanger Abbey), though that is missing from Shirley and Agnes Grey. Perhaps that’s part of why they’re less popular? And even though Shirley is uneven, I enjoy it. It’s in the BRonte canon!

      Thanks for the bio recs. I”ve read Elizabeth Gaskell’s but not the others.

      Hail Brontes!

    2. I recommend a very clever, enjoyable, slightly offbeat biography: The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects by Deborah Lutz.

  2. Surprised you don’t mention the Brontes’ poems – especially Emily’s.
    I wonder what Jane Austen’s poems would be like!

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