Writer and critic George Henry Lewes lauded Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) in his review for Fraser’s Magazine of December 1847. Lewes (who later became George Eliot’s partner) praised the ‘deep, significant reality’ that he judged to be the ‘great characteristic of the book’. He advised her to ‘Persevere; keep reality distinctly before you, and paint it as accurately as you can: invention will never equal the effect of truth’.
In this letter to Lewes, Brontë responded to Lewes’s advice on realism, and also to his criticism that Jane Eyre was, in places, melodramatic and improbable. She was inclined to agree with Lewes about the necessity of real experience as a basis for fiction, but only to a point:
If I ever do write another book, I think it will have nothing of what you call “melodrame”; I think so, but I am not sure. […] When authors write best, or at least, when they write most fluently, an influence seems to waken in them which becomes their master…
‘Why do you like Miss Austen so very much?’
In his review for Fraser’s Magazine, Lewes gave the opinion that Jane Austen and Henry Fielding were the greatest novelists in the English language. Brontë’s opinion, expressed in this letter, was to the contrary: that Austen was ‘only shrewd and observant’, not profound. She found Austen’s portrait of life in Pride and Prejudice (1813) to be like a photograph of ‘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’. For Brontë, observation and lived experience had to be coupled with imaginative flight.
- Article by:
- Kathryn Sutherland
- The novel 1780–1832
Jane Austen fills her novels with ordinary people, places and events, in stark contrast to other novels of the time. Professor Kathryn Sutherland considers the function of social realism in Austen’s work.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Power and politics, The novel 1832–1880
Middlemarch is set in the period leading up to the 1832 Reform Act. Professor John Mullan explores how George Eliot uses the novel to examine different kinds of reform and progress: political, scientific and social.