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.
I wonder: Where is Agnes Grey, my favorite of Anne’s? And what about Charlotte’s Shirley? Shirley, 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?