We at Chawton House Library and at the University of Southampton are proud to be working with the British Association for Romantic Studies and the British Association for Victorian Studies on Nineteenth-Century Matters, a fellowship aimed at postdoctoral researchers who have completed their PhD, but who are not currently employed in a full-time academic post. For the coming academic year, the Nineteenth-Century Matters fellow will benefit from affiliation in the form of a Visiting Fellowship at Chawton House Library and the University of Southampton. We are delighted to announce that Dr Catherine Paula Han is the successful recipient of this fellowship. Catherine completed a PhD on Brontë afterlives and adaptations at Cardiff University in 2015. She has previously published on costume in Jane Eyre adaptations and has a forthcoming article on the cultural myth of Anne Brontë, and writes here about her project. 

I am delighted to be the recipient of the BARS and BAVS Nineteenth-Century Matters Fellowship, an opportunity that will enable me to use the exciting resources at and participate in the research culture of Chawton House Library and the University of Southampton. It will also greatly enrich the work that I am undertaking for a scholarly book that has grown out of my previous research for my PhD thesis.

My research is inspired by a major and ongoing literary dispute. Namely, who wrote better books: Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters? This debate has raged between literary critics for generations and continues unabated in the online fora of the website Goodreads. Of course, I have no illusions about trying to settle the matter. Rather, I am interested in this area because judgments and disagreements about literary taste are frequently connected with larger concerns. For professional and leisurely readers alike, these concerns often reveal anxieties that relate to gender, class, nationality and cultural cachet. What, for example, is at stake when arguing for (or against) the view that Charlotte Brontë was the “filthy bitch, grandmother of chick-lit”?

For insight into this broader issue, I will be looking specifically at allusions to Austen and the Brontës in contemporary North American and British women’s popular fiction. These works have piqued my interest because they often imagine communities of mostly women readers who are united by their pleasure-led (and occasionally quixotic) literary relationships with the lives and novels of Austen and the Brontës. In Karen Joy Fowler’s bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), for example, the character of Sylvia pauses in the middle of a scene where she is contemplating the end of her marriage to discuss the relative merits of Austen and the Brontës with her daughter Allegra. On the subject of Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas, Sylvia admits that “[i]t does bother me that Austen wouldn’t make up a good man who finds Charlotte worth having. The Brontës would have told her story very differently.” To this confession, Allegra replies: “I will always love the Brontës best. But that’s just me—I like a book with storms in it.”

This vignette reveals some of the key concerns that I wish to explore further in my research. It exemplifies how Austen and the Brontës are often placed in opposition to each other. At the same time, they tend to be lumped together as women authors who blur the divide between “high” and popular culture (in a manner that has never been achieved by, say, George Eliot). The Jane Austen Book Club also illustrates that the conversations about these very different writers are inextricable from other matters. In popular culture, a preference for Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights is often understood as revealing much more about a person’s temperament. As in Allegra’s case, favouring one over the other tends to be interpreted as indicative of a tendency to act according to either rationality and decorum (qualities equated with Austen) or unrestrained feeling and passion (associated with the Brontës).

Through their repeated allusions to these nineteenth-century authors, these novels display striking parallels with earlier twentieth-century fiction by women.Similarly to The Jane Austen Book Club and its ilk, novels like Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931) or Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (1947) construct communities of women readers through knowing references to Austen and the Brontës. For many years, these works of popular fiction received limited critical attention due to being considered too “feminine” or too “domestic” or, perhaps most damningly, too “middlebrow”. Nowadays, the situation is quite different and many of these once-forgotten women writers have had their literary reputations recuperated. Consequently, another one of my central aims is to situate these contemporary women’s fictions within an older, only recently recognised tradition of “middlebrow” women’s writing.

To achieve this goal, I will be using the resources available at Chawton House Library, including the Yablon Archive of Brontë Ephemera. I am particularly excited about the opportunity to engage with this material in order to contextualise novels like The Jane Austen Book Club within a longer tradition of women’s writing. This fellowship, furthermore, enables me to approach the library as an object of study—particularly its status as a destination for literary tourists—that will help me demonstrate the wider significance of my research on contemporary women’s writing.

Additionally, I am looking forward to fulfilling one of the conditions of my fellowship; working with BAVS’s Jo Taylor and BARS’s Matthew Ward to design and deliver a research and professionalization event. The day – to be held in January 2017 – is aimed at postgraduate and early career researchers working with archival material. Its purpose is to help participants develop the skills necessary for public engagement and enable them to consider more broadly the ways in which archives can made accessible to non-academics.

And, on a more personal note, I am very pleased to have the chance to work in a location closely linked to Austen and, latterly, protecting the heritage of women writers.