Battle of the Bonnets

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Prompted by the release of the new Jane Eyre movie last month, the Washington Post ran an entertaining article about the so-called Battle of the Bonnets - the war of words between those who prefer the more upbeat and lighthearted Jane Austen to the darker, more brooding world of Charlotte and Emily Bronte.

In the article, reporter Monica Hesse makes the following comparisons:

"Jane Austen is easy to love. Her heroines are smart; her heroes are righteous. People say funny things and wear lovely clothes and spend a lot of time going to balls or sitting in drawing rooms, meaning that the scenery is just gorgeous. Everything ends happily for everyone who deserves it.

The Brontes are more difficult. Things don’t end well. The writing is beautiful, but Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff — Charlotte and Emily’s two most famous heroes — are basically thugs in morning coats. They say savage things. They emotionally torture the women they claim to love. They keep other women locked in attics and blame drunken housekeepers for bumps in the night. Things burn. People die."

Personally, while I love movie adaptations of Jane Austen's work, I find myself struggling to finish the actual books. However, when it comes to the Bronte sisters, I get sucked into their dark world right away.

I recently reread Jane Eyre and loved the fact that Jane was very much her own woman: smart, forthright and principled. Edward, the ultimate tortured hero (with the possible exception of Wuthering Heights' Heathcliff) is dark and unprincipled. He lies to the heroine, attempts to commit bigamy with her and then tries to tempt Jane into becoming his mistress. Yet, somehow, we understand his motivations and are drawn to him.

There's no question the Bronte sisters create a much more emotionally complicated world than Austen. But in the so-called Battle of the Bonnets, who would I choose? I would have to say both - in their own way.  I know, I'm not exactly going out on a limb but Austen and the Bronte sisters are a perfect balance of light and dark.


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