After about two decades of being a voracious reader -- the kind that consumes books more than merely reads them -- I'm still at a loss as to why so many people have elevated Jane Austen to the level of literary hero.
To put it bluntly, I just don't understand the seemingly female-gender-wide obsession with Ms. Austen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best in his scathing review of Austen's literary portfolio.
I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen's novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and narrow. ... All that interests in any character [is this]: has he (or she) the money to marry with? ... Suicide is more respectable.
In Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club (my current literary endeavor) the six book club members idolize Austen's romantic plot lines. They spend hours theorizing about which character was most deeply in love. Was it Emma, or Darcy, or Willoughby?
But in all those arguments, the debate always comes back to love... often caused in some part by family relationships. There seems to be no deeper cause or darker torment. (Basically these characters just aren't relatable, this can't really be their biggest problem.)
And while I agree the themes of love and familial devotion play a large role both in the literary and actual world, there is so much more that motivates human behavior. Again, we're going back to real problems, people!
Emily Brontë captured true human emotion in a much more believable, dramatic fashion than Ms. Austen did in any of her novels.
Brooklyn College's analysis of Brontë's subject matter best describes why her characters are far superior to those in Austen's novels.
Romantic love takes many forms in Wuthering Heights: the grand passion of Heathcliff and Catherine, the insipid sentimental languishing of Lockwood, the coupleism of Hindley and Frances, the tame indulgence of Edgar, the romantic infatuation of Isabella, the puppy love of Cathy and Linton, and the flirtatious sexual attraction of Cathy and Hareton. These lovers, with the possible exception of Hareton and Cathy, are ultimately self-centered and ignore the needs, feelings, and claims of others; what matters is the lovers' own feelings and needs.
Heathcliff and Catherine's toxic, all-encompassing affair makes for a much more interesting read, and a deeper introspection of humanity, despite its overly dramatic nature. As anyone who has been deeply in love more than once can attest, love is often dark. Jealously, worldly concerns, obsession... all are factors that often make up at least part of a great love affair.
No two characters explore all the highs and excruciating lows of fatal human attraction than Brontë 's most famous characters. The same cannot be said of Austen's characters, which largely contributes to my intense dislike of her work. They are not relatable and they do not have the multi-faceted personalities to ensnare my undying obsession.
Can Austen's characters really still teach us anything? Does her message actually translate into the 21st century world in the same way as Brontë's?
I say no. (Except if you're a girl who just wants a boyfriend. Then maybe we have bigger issues to talk about.)