Jane Austen v Emily Brontë, an Intelligence Squared debate, was also John Mullan v Kate Mosse, but for much of it the professor and the novelist seemed too well mannered, too eager to eschew negativity. Only Mosse was ready to make an occasional hostile point, broadly echoing Emily’s sister Charlotte’s famous verdict on Austen’s work (“a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden” where Charlotte wanted “open country – fresh air”; an accurate portrait of “a commonplace face” where she wanted “a bright vivid physiognomy”), though tellingly not quoting it – too unsisterly? – as she complained of the limitations of the worlds of Emma and Pride and Prejudice.
Explaining his reluctance to be critical at the outset (“I love Wuthering Heights, and slightly love Kate too”), Mullan headed off Charlotte’s other accusation – “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her” – by using scenes from Persuasion and Emma, performed by actors, to show that Austen “does do feeling”. The somewhat defensive note of this argument disappeared as Mullan went on to extol Austen’s brilliance and “wonderful sentences”, pointed to the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice to suggest she was “the greatest writer of dialogue in English literature”. He went on to call her pioneering use of free indirect style “the most important invention in the history of the novel”.
If there was a barbed element in this celebration it was subtle and aimed primarily at Austen deniers. Like Mosse, Mullan recalled, he had found Austen “trivial” and “all about getting married” as a teenager, but lost this silly prejudice when around 26 – you have to be grownup, in other words, to “get her” (so only teenagers, or those hanging on to their teenageriness, the audience were led to infer, preferred Wuthering Heights). Yes, they were “courtship novels”, he conceded with a hint of donnish impatience, but this was just the “frame” and to condemn them for that was as callow as dismissing Shakespeare’s comedies for being comedies.
Mosse also deployed acted scenes deftly – Dominic West fans were given a tantalising glimpse of his Heathcliff – as she insisted she had been right, at 17, to feel that there must be “more” to fiction than “the pursuit of marriage”, and that Wuthering Heights was a multilayered demonstration of what else it could be: not only a love story but a social novel incorporating “all types of people”, a tale of ghosts and past and present, a “pantheistic” work linking us to the rest of nature and asking “what it means to be human”.
Central to the Women’s prize (formerly the Orange prize) co-founder’s case was the book’s liberation of both sexes – men “allowed to have feelings”, women not reduced to husband-hunters. By being more “ambitious”, Mosse concluded, Brontë “changed what it was possible for women to write, for women and men to be, and for men to write”. She turned out to have won the argument on the night, though not quite the vote. An audience poll at the end narrowly elected Austen as queen of English literature (51% to Brontë’s 47%), but as the pre-debate split had been 55% to 24% with 21% don’t knows, all the swing vote had gone to Brontë.