Two names pretty much sum up 19th century “chick lit”: Austen and Brontë. Austen is Jane Austen, of course, who is often credited with inventing the genre. Brontë is the surname of sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who wrote gothic tales of romance.
People sometimes get them mixed up. “Jane Austen…didn’t she write Jane Eyre?” someone asked me recently. It’s amusing, really, since Austen and the Brontës wrote in radically different styles. Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre, wrote disdainfully of Austen:
“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 with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood…”
Austen couldn’t return the compliment because she was dead by the time the Brontës were setting pen to paper, but Northanger Abbey nicely parodies the sort of hyper-imaginative tales the trio of sisters excelled at.
(Many would argue, of course, that there is a great deal of passion in Austen’s work, floating just below that quietly rippling surface. )
Austen drew her drama from the world she knew. Her characters are engaged in real endeavors: dancing, trying to make or keep money, marrying, courting, gossiping. You’d never catch Mr. Darcy mooning about the moors in a raging snowstorm or locking up a crazy wife in his attic.
The Brontës drew their drama from the imagination, pouring passion and emotion into gothic tales of star-crossed lovers. Insanity. Revenge. Passion. Ghosts. Heathcliff, the hero of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, is memorable indeed, but he doesn’t talk like any guy you’ve ever met.
But what Austen and the Brontës share may be more important than where they differ. They won respect for female authors in a century where such respect was rare, paving the way for the women writers of the 20th century. They also gave life to strongly independent female characters. Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre may love their men, but they are prepared to go it alone rather than give up their principles.
And, after all these years, they are still entertaining us. That’s no small feat.