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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Charlotte Bronte

Book Corner – April 2017 (1)

agnesgrey

Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte

Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.

For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.

Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale.   Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.

Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book  – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.

The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone.  But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.

Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?

I Don’t Want To Belong To Any Club That Will Accept People Like Me As A Member – Part Thirty

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The Wittinagemot of the Chapter Coffee House

At the south side of London’s Pasternoster Row in London in Chapterhouse Court stood the eponymous coffee house, opened around 1710, which was famed in the 18th century for its punch, pamphlets and goodly supply of newspapers. I assume coffee was also available. In the north east corner of the gaff was a box which was known as the Wittinagemot, named after a kind of public parliament which met annually in Saxon times.

In an area famed for its book selling trade it was no surprise to learn that at this box many of the capital’s men of letters could be found and lively conversation was guaranteed. What made for a good book in the estimation of many of those assembled was whether it would shift copy rather than its artistic merits. Nothing changes!

According to Alexander Stephens, a regular himself between 1797 and 1805, you could be guaranteed to find a certain Mr Hammond, a manufacturer from Coventry, who occupied the same spot every evening for forty five years. He was renowned for his severe and able commentaries on the events of the day and was famed for using a Socratic approach to disputation which often led his opponent down an alley sign-posted reduction ad absurdum, to the general amusement of all assembled.

Another stalwart was a Scottish episcopal minister, Mr Murray, who stayed in situ from 9 in the morning until 9 at night and was reputed to have read cover to cover every morning and evening newspaper published in London. His memory was so prodigious that he was often called upon to arbitrate upon any dispute as to facts. Stephens reported that one of his favourite companions was the political and historical writer, Dr Towers, who over a half pint of Lisbon, presumably a port, entertained with lively and sarcastic but never deep repartee.

From a club perspective, there was a loose grouping known as the Wet Paper Club who met in the early morning to receive the newspapers of the day hot off the press before the waiters had time to dry them. Another group, including the redoubtable Mr Murray, would seize on the evening editions as soon as the newsmen entered the premises.

For the fixed price of a shilling a supper could be had including a pint of porter. For one habitue, Baker, a manufacturer from Spitalfields and a great talker and eater, this was his only meal of the day. When he no longer could afford the shilling for his fare he shot himself.

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Archetypal country mice, Charlotte and Emily Bronte together with their father, Patrick stayed there on a rare trip to the Smoke en route to Brussels in February 1842. Charlotte’s biographer, Elizabeth Gaskell, described the Chapter as having low-beamed ceilings, wainscoted rooms and a broad, dark, shallow staircase. It had a few overnight guests who were mainly university men and country clergy and booksellers keen to hear some literary conversation. “The high, narrow windows looked into the gloomy Row”  and whilst the sounds of the city could be heard in the distance like the roar of the ocean, footsteps echoed down the deserted street.

In 1854 the coffee house was converted into a tavern.