Why: This series of columns is all about decisiveness, but this time, I just couldn’t do it. These are the two greatest novels ever written, amazingly both by women in a time where such a thing was frowned upon. (The third greatest is also by a woman, and I’ll shine the spotlight on that one in a month or so.) I spent a fair amount of time comparing Austen and Brontë’s novels, trying to get one to outshine the other, but it never happened. It’s likely because they’re mirror images of each other: Jane Eyre is about miserable people desperately trying to make themselves happy, and Pride and Prejudice is about happy people desperately trying to make themselves miserable. Each has a riveting heroine struggling with a rigid society, and embarking on a star-crossed relationship with a difficult and wealthy landholder. The reserved governess Jane endures trial after trial, somehow holding onto a central sense of order in a time of chaos. On the other side of the social ladder, the unwilling debutante Elizabeth Bennet is often the chaos in a very ordered world in which she lives. If the two somehow ever crossed paths, they would see in each other a kinship based on their mutual force of will. (At least, Lizzy would tell Jane that in a series of barbs, while Jane demurely tried to slink off to the neighboring room.)
Impact: It’s scarcely possible to find a greatest-novels-of-all-time list without both of these. Both are required reading in high school English classes, but it’s not surprising when students will re-read the books on their own (this will not happen with, say, Ivanhoe). A hundred years from now, if there are still things called books, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre will still top the lists, and people like me will still not be able to choose. But of course, I can’t let this topic go by without discussing the scandalous adaptation of one of them into a twisted tale of mayhem amongst the living dead. The genteel society is uprooted by incursions of zombies and nightmares, but somehow manners endure. I speak, of course, of the 1943 RKO Pictures adaptation of Jane Eyre, I Walked with a Zombie. Wait, what did you think I was referring to?
Personal Connection: I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice; it’s got to be over twenty by now. On the other hand, I know exactly how many times I’ve read Jane Eyre: just three. Austen’s book is funny and breezy, and capable of being knocked down in a weekend. Brontë’s is serious and dark, requiring long breaths between chapters. I still have my heavily scrawled-up copies from high school, so upon a re-read I get a trip down memory lane as well. Only now with Keira Knightley and Charlotte Gainsbourg in my head. This works for me.
Other Contenders: Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, maybe the most entertaining book of all time; Alexander Pushkin’s gorgeous novel-poem Eugene Onegin, so good in English that I wish I could read Russian as well; Charles Dickens’ sweeping and affecting A Tale of Two Cities; Oscar Wilde’s ultra-freaky The Picture of Dorian Gray; the two derringest-do tales, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s masterful debut of Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet; sheerly for how-the-hell? value, Morgan Robertson’s The Wreck of the Titan, or Futility, which describes the Titanic disaster fourteen years earlier.