Book Corner – April 2017 (1)


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?


Book Corner – January 2016 (1)


Charlotte Bronte – A Life – Claire Harman  

This year, 2016, is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Bronte and we can expect a deluge of books about the authoress, best known for Jane Eyre. Harman’s Life of actually came out in 2015, and I read it last year, so to that extent she is ahead of the curve, following on a biographical tradition founded by Elizabeth Gaskell.

The Bronte sisters’ grim existence in their secluded parsonage in Haworth with their, at best, strange father and their opium-eating brother, Bramwell, is well-known but does not lose anything for the re-telling. The three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, spent their leisure time scribbling away, not showing each other what they had written. Indeed it was a defining moment in their relationship when Charlotte took a look at what Emily had been working on without her permission.

It is astonishing to think of the depth of imagination, the skill and artistic craft that went into their works, with little or no external influence. Harman suggests that they used laudanum and some of the vivid gothic scenes may well have been influenced by the drug. Be that as it may, it is as if three fully developed authoresses just landed in a remote part of Yorkshire from outer space.

But writing was one thing, getting published was another. Harman tells of the trials and tribulations of the girls in trying to get their initial collection of poetry published – they succeeded but only by adopting masculine noms de plume, Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and by using vanity publishing. Their initial novels, which featured Emily’s Wuthering Heights, Anne’s Agnes Grey and Charlotte’s The Master failed to excite the publishers en masse, although the first two titles saw the light of day individually. Charlotte was only published with her second novel, Jane Eyre.

There is an all-pervading sense of doom and disaster through the book. All the Bronte children died early deaths, partly as a result of weak constitutions and partly because of the hardships they endured as children. But Charlotte, who outlived all her siblings, was also unlucky in love. The book opens with Charlotte fighting against all her anti-papist feelings and attending a confession, at her wit’s end and in despair because her feelings for her tutor in Brussels, Constantin Heger, were not reciprocated. The fact that she was living in his house and he was married doubtless made it difficult for Heger, particularly as his wife constantly saw a love-struck Charlotte, and whether the feelings were ever reciprocated is unclear. Still, it didn’t stop the Hegers making a few bob from Charlotte’s subsequent fame.

Charlotte also had an unrequited crush on her publisher, who admired her for her talent but not her looks. When she did marry – to Arthur Nicholls, her father’s curate – she only enjoyed eight months of wedlock. She died early into her pregnancy, from an extreme form of the Kate Middletons, hyperemesis gravidarum.

Charlotte took some delight in exploring London society when Jane Eyre received public acclaim – she was lionised by Thackeray – but was always uncomfortable in public with little in the way of small talk. She was a woman who escaped into her imagination and what an imagination it was.

Harman serves her subject well and there is little that is ground-breaking or sensational. It is a worthy biography and will doubtless set the standard for years to come.