At Chawton House Library they are marking the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) with an exhibition charting how this very English novel went on to attain global appeal. Following the self-guided tour around the house which was once home to Austen’s brother Edward, visitors can see the first American edition (1816) alongside the first French translation (1816) as well as works which either inspired Austen or are mentioned in Emma, including one of my personal favourites – Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791).
One of the highlights of the exhibition is a letter Charlotte Brontë wrote to her publisher, W.S. Williams after reading Emma, which is on loan from the Huntington Library in California until September. During my time working at Chawton House Library this summer I have particularly enjoyed showing visitors this original manuscript and hearing the various discussions regarding the relative merits of Brontë and Austen it invariably elicited. Brontë was not overly impressed with what she had read – but then an outpouring of emotion is not the response she thinks Austen would want from her readers.
Charlotte Brontë to W.S. Williams, 12th April 1850:
‘I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works Emma – read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant. 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. Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death – this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in hid heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete, and rather insensible (not senseless) woman, if this is heresy – I cannot help it. If I said it to some people (Lewes for example) they would accuse me of advocating exaggerated heroics, but I am not afraid of your falling into any such vulgar error.’
It may sound derogatory, but Brontë is a very different kind of writer to Austen. This letter sees Brontë engaging with Emma whilst trying to negotiate her own place in relation to that of her predecessor, who was held in such high esteem by critics like George Henry Lewes. Lewes had suggested that Brontë could learn a thing or two about control from Austen and recommended that she read Pride and Prejudice (1813) – to which she wrote the following reply: ‘I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place 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. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.’ It is interesting to note that in both this letter and the one to W.S. Williams above Brontë uses the metaphor of painting to describe Austen’s writing style. Brontë’s reference to Austen’s ‘miniature delicacy in painting’ particularly recalls Austen’s own description of her craft as ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.’ Whilst Brontë sees the skill in this, she does not want to emulate Austen; she wants to delve beneath the surface detail.
The ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition runs through until 25th September 2016 – plus there will be special events throughout the summer, including Emma-inspired strawberry picnics in the beautiful grounds. Chawton really is the perfect place for this given that the house is supposed to have provided Austen with the model for Donwell Abbey – and is doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the home of Mr. Knight became that of Mr. Knightley!
You can read all about my summer internship at Chawton House Library here.