Three Great Authoresses: Brontë, Austen and Eliot

austen eliot bronteCharlotte Brontë, Jane Austen and George Eliot are three of Britain’s greatest women writers, but which one is your favourite? Which one do you think is the greatest? You can add your own vote to the poll at the end of this post.

I attended an event at the Stratford Literature Festival last weekend, with a panel of three biographers. Paula Byrne (The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things), Val Dodd (George Eliot: An Intellectual Life) and Claire Harman (Charlotte Brontë: A Life) each presented the case for their favourite authoress.   

The venue was The Bear Pit, a cosy theatre hidden behind a church, next door to Stratford Artshouse. It was sold out. The theatre was a great venue, but unfortunately the sound system didn’t work, so it wasn’t always easy to hear what they were saying.

Charlotte Brontë – breaking the mould

Harman argued that Brontë had “a genius which she was determined to get out”, saying that “her determination is what makes her a great novelist, her desire to break the mould”. Jane Eyre, she explained, was Brontë’s attempt to create “the perfect novel”. She described her as “an agitated woman,” more able to express herself on paper than in person, and “an ardent writer”.

George Eliot – intellectual and analytical

Dodd spoke for George Eliot, saying that she was “an extremely good journalist”, “very, very funny” and “wonderfully sarcastic”. She also described her as a thinker in “theology and philosophy” and said that “her best moments” were when she was being both “intellectual and analytical”, moving “from the analytical to the dramatic”.

Paula Byrne speaking for Jane Austen

Paula Byrne presenting the case for Jane Austen

Jane Austen – a genius

Byrne described her own obsession with Austen, and in particular Mansfield Park. She gave a very passionate speech about how some of Austen’s earliest critics compared her to Shakespeare. “You feel you know the characters” she explained, and added “she’s just so funny – her sentences are so brilliant”. She ended by concluding: “She’s always reinventing herself” and “she is a genius!” She then admitted that she does, in fact, judge everyone she meets based purely on whether or not they like Mansfield Park.

Did they know they were ‘great’?

Harman described how the Brontë siblings had access to the work of writers such as Byron from a young age. She argued that in the case of Charlotte, “it wasn’t just nature but nurture as well”. The Brontës were pretty much left on their own, and were able to spend time creating and developing their complex inner world.

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë

Byrne argued that Austen knew she was ‘great’ even as a child, and was “extraordinarily self-confident”, writing plays and skits from the age of 11. Her father bought her a notebook so she was able to collate her work, seeing herself as “a fledgling author”. She was confident, even at that young age, to “take on literary giants like Samuel Richardson”. Byrne described her as “so different, so pioneering” with “incredible self-belief”.

Dodd suggested that George Eliot actually didn’t know she was ‘great’. She described her as having a “fragile ego” and being “overprotected by Lewis”.

Personally, I would have preferred a slightly more competitive feel to the event, but at least it finished with a vote from the audience as to which authoress was the greatest. There was a smattering of hands for George Eliot, two or three for Charlotte Brontë, and an overwhelming majority for Jane Austen.

What do you think? Vote for your favouite authoress in the poll below…

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