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The Reception (and Afterlives) of Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters

Hello Janeites!

Inspired by the premise of the first live event in Jane Austen and Co.’s Austen and the Brontës series, I decided to take a deep-dive into the tangible, real-life afterlives of these talented literary women. 

If you are curious, there is still time to register for today’s upcoming event, a live, virtual staging of You are Passionate, Jane, written by Diana Birchall. Both Diana and Syrie James will feature in this fictitious conversation between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë in heaven. It premieres this evening, Tuesday, March 19, at 7:00 PM (EST). We hope you will be able to join us!

But now, let’s forge onward to the topic at hand: the reception and afterlives of Jane Austen and the Brontë Sisters.

Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë, painted by their brother, Branwell. 

In the centuries since their deaths Jane Austen and the Brontës have not only gained celebrity status, but their novels have been cemented as classics. With this in mind, there are many different facets that deserve to be addressed, most notably how their work has been received throughout the years and how fellowship and gathering of like-minded individuals have played a role in the continuation of their legacies.

You may be wondering– as I did until just recently– do the Brontë sisters have an organized society or fan club? Jane Austen has an extensive group of followers called Janeites as well as numerous societies the world over. (Like the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Jane Austen Society UK.) Well, in fact, they do! The Brontë Society, connected directly to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England, provides a wonderful opportunity for Brontë scholars and laypeople alike to join in international fellowship. (The Young Brontë Membership is a fantastic deal, which allows individuals aged 16-25 to have a free digital membership! See the above link for more details.)


Close view of Jane Austen as sketched by her sister, Cassandra

The culture of Austen fans varies widely. The Jane Austen Summer Program is a wonderful example of how scholars and super-fans can come together to enjoy celebrating their collective favorite author, her life, times, and work. Beyond faithful adaptations of Austen novels, there are many Austen-inspired movies, books, and TV series that focus on Janeites, place the main character in the role of the heroine, or reimagine characters and their stories. For the Brontës, this is much more subdued, with only a small number of film adaptations. There have been, however, a few releases of literary adaptations in recent years.

Jane Austen originally published her work under the name “A Lady”, while the Brontë sisters used male pseudonyms: Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell. While some suspected the true authorship of Austen’s novels during her lifetime, her name was not revealed until after her death in 1817 when her brother Henry published Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Similarly, in the Brontës’ case, Charlotte (Currer) only revealed the true identities of the “Bell Brothers” after the deaths of Emily (Ellis) in 1848 and Anne (Acton) in 1849. Despite this, Charlotte never used her true name, publishing all of her work as Currer Bell.  

With all this secrecy surrounding publication, what did the original Austen and Brontë fanbases look like? While today, Austen is one of the most beloved and renowned authors, during her lifetime she was well received yet not incredibly popular. The same is true for the Brontës. It is important to note that while the Brontë sisters’ novels received positive reviews when the authors were believed to be men; once the true authorship was known critics began to crack down on the more controversial story elements, which many thought unbecoming for a woman to have written. (Note that all the novels have remained in print.)

Many celebrated individuals, writers, and creatives, have been outspoken fans of Jane Austen through the years. Among them, England’s Prince Regent (later King George IV), Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, and Rudyard Kipling. Kipling even wrote a short story about unlikely fans of Dear Jane, fittingly called “The Janeites”. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Mark Twain historically disliked Austen’s work, writing positively scathing reviews much like Charlotte Brontë did. 

Well-known fans or critics of the Brontës have been less outspoken throughout the years, with many readers today displeased with the lack of attention that has been shown to them compared to Jane Austen. I wonder what Austen, had she been alive at the time of their publication, would have thought of the Brontë sisters’ work. She did dip into the Gothic genre with Northanger Abbey, and was fond of sentimental satire in her early years, but what would she have said about Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Perhaps tonight’s event (register here!) will prove to be a window to the “what if”– with an imagined conversation between two of classic literature’s most talented leading ladies. 


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