I find this an illuminating quotation not so much about Jane Austen but because it vividly expresses new understanding of what fiction can do drawing upon the varying influences of Romanticism.
As far as Jane Austen is concerned, Charlotte Bronte can readily be shown to be off-the-mark. There is no “daguerrotype” description in Austen. That had to await our cinematic, visual- media age. There is in Austen little or no superfluous description of characters, costume or interiors. We do not know if Darcy looks like Colin Firth or anyone else.
Bronte also fails to see in relation to Pride and Prejudice that it is her heroine Elizabeth Bennet who represents vitality and energy. When she runs across fields, she gets muddy, making herself a spectacle when she visits the “confined” society of Netherley Hall and it is obvious that it is the author is with her rather than with a conventionally confined society.
It is, however, when she writes of settings that we see what Charlotte Bronte is getting at. Austen is being placed in a pre-Romantic setting with a social ambience to match: the carefully fenced garden with its neat borders and delicate flowers reflect a tamed nature, controlled to appear ordered. This is set against a typical Romantic setting of “open country” similar to the Yorkshire moors where the streams are “becks” and where the country is open to the elements. It is a landscape that immediately reminds us of sister Emily Bronte’s novel.
In Wuthering Heights the opposition of landscapes is represented in the two main houses of the novel to which nearly all the characters relate. Wuthering Heights is set beside the wild moors open to the savagery of the elements. Thrushcross Grange is walled about with parkland and in a valley. It is sheltered, the home of gentility where the other is the home of hardened landowners, who have had to fight to keep the property in the family.
The novel shows over two generations the interactions between the two sets of families. The children of Thrushcross Grange (the Lintons, note the glancing lightness of the sound of the name) are brought up over-sheltered and confined; they are delicate in health. The children of the Heights are physical, strong, unrefined and tending to brutality.
Natural imagery is applied to bring out character differences. To take one example of what occurs throughout: when Isabella of Thrushcross House falls in love with Heathcliff Catherine warns her “Heathcliff is an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone” who would crush Isabella like “a sparrow’s egg” (Vol.1 Ch 10)
The Brontes living in what was perceived to be the bleak north (see Gaskell’s North and South) close to the moors on the edge of Haworth, the Industrial age milltown, breathed in the language of Romanticism ( and behind the Romantics, Shakespeare). They shared a love of Byron, they were steeped in the novels of Scott , they believed in Wordsworth expressing the language of the heart and exalting the nature of the Lake District. With such a background what was there there to see in the novels of Jane Austen. Wit? Irony? The intense moral criticism in a social comedy of manners? All this had much less relevance to the austere conditions they knew.
Romanticism-however we define that tricky word- encouraged the sisters, and especially Emily, to see the nature and society around them in a new way. There is the interest in wild nature. To Pope, the great early eighteenth century poet the country estate expressed the ideal balance between nature and culture. Wordsworth’s poetry gave value to wild mountainous landscapes that would earlier have been regarded as wilderness and, because uncultivated, valueless. Emily was also interested, like Scott in studying the society of wild nature. Q. D. Leavis refers to the tales Tabby, the Bronte children nurse ( model of Nelly, who takes a like role in the novel) :
Now the Yorkshire moors with the hardy yeomen farmers of pre-Victorian times who had lived thereabouts and whose histories Tabby used to tell the Bronte children in her broad dialect, must have seemed to them not essentially different from Scott’s Border farmers.Q. D. Leavis “A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights” 1969
By linking the familiar setting of the Yorkshire moors with its distinctive tales and customs with what Scott is doing in his novels, in showing Highland and Border cultures develop in the face of nature; by contrasting the society of Wuthering Heights with the more effete culture of the over-sheltered gentility of the country house; by drawing on natural imagery to present the characters of the novel and their interaction; by drawing upon the language of the labourers and servants, including the broad Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, Emily Bronte is realising the influences of Romanticism beyond the perceived confinements of Jane Austen as pointed to by sister Charlotte’s quotation.