Archive for the ‘Anne Brontë’ Category

Anne Brontë is easily my favourite Brontë sister but, frankly, she held that position without me knowing anything of her or her writing, her standing based entirely on my dislike of her sisters’ books.  I have also always rather liked her pen name, Acton Bell, which is perhaps a silly reason to favour a person but there you have it.  My dislike of Jane Eyre is well documented and my opinion of Wuthering Heights is so low that expending the effort to express it would be to give the novel more attention than it deserves.  But, other bloggers were quick to cry, Anne Brontë is different!  Hate Charlotte, loathe Emily, but give Anne a chance!  Who am I to resist the advice of such learned friends?  I picked up Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, read it, and, I am happy to report, rather enjoyed it.

The eponymous heroine of Agnes Grey is the youngest daughter of a well-meaning clergymen, beloved by his wife and daughters but rather irresponsible when it comes to managing the family’s wealth.  When they fall on hard times, Agnes is determined that she shall not be a strain on her parents’ limited resources so she hires herself out as a governess.  And, thank goodness, this is where the story began to both surprise and delight me.  It is funny!  I had not anticipated that, not realised that Anne Brontë would be able to make me smile and chuckle as she unerringly portrays her overbearing employers and ill-behaved charges.  This is not an affectionate portrayal of the life of a governess.  It stresses the isolation Agnes feels in the households where she is employed, how powerless she is in dealing with both the children and the adults but, generally, it is by no means a dreary book.  If anything, it attempts to cover too many things in too few pages, turning this into a book crammed with wit, romance, a shocking amount of moralizing (usually expressed with some painfully affected writing), and some rather heavy themes (isolation and oppression being the two main ones).  It is an interesting but confusing mix.

In Mansfield Park, the morally malleable Crawford siblings steal the show from the pious, respectable Fanny.  Miss Murray, one of Agnes’ grown charges, does the same thing here.  Beautiful and very conscious of it, Miss Murray is out to break hearts and toy with the local men before making the most brilliant match she can manage.  She is selfish, vain, and greedy and I adored her.  There is much moralizing done at her expense but her little speeches, her maneuvers when it came to attracting the attention of the gentlemen of the region, were, to my way of thinking, Brontë’s most realistic passages in the entire novel (and some of the most entertaining, it should go without saying):

…if I could be always young, I would be always single.  I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have. (p. 71)

I have mixed feeling about the central romance story.  Agnes falls in love with the new curate Mr Weston almost immediately after meeting him.  Mr Weston is very, very good (as behoves a clergyman) and very, very boring.  It takes only a few glances at him in the pulpit, a few words of praise from a mutual acquaintance, and one face-to-face conversation before she is quite enamoured.  This alone amused me.  What young woman hasn’t nursed a crush through such adversary, through a total lack of contact or communication, through complete ignorance of his interests, background or, indeed, character?  Who hasn’t, like Agnes, built castles in the sky on the strength of one perfunctory conversation?  I adored Brontë’s description of Agnes’ rapture on seeing him speak in church.  How convenient to be in love with someone who you can so easily gaze on and listen to without looking like a stalker! 

…at church I might look without fear of scorn or censure upon a form and face more pleasing to me that the most beautiful of God’s creations; I might listen without disturbance to a voice more charming that the sweetest music to my ears; I might seem to hold communion with that soul in which I felt so deeply interested, and imbibe its purest thoughts and holiest aspirations, with no alloy to such felicity, except the secret reproaches of my conscience which would too often whisper that I was deceiving my own self, and mocking God with the service of a heart more bent upon the creature than the creator.  (p. 118)

It is a strange novel in that, though it covers many years of Agnes’ life, she does not develop during that period.  She remains exactly the same from start to finish.  As a reader, I am usually eager to feel sympathy with the heroine but there is nothing particularly sympathetic about Agnes.  Respectable and admirable, yes, but not sympathetic.  I want to like Agnes, do in fact love her when she is thinking catty things about her charges and employers, but she turns into a bit of a drip over Mr Weston, mooning over him and daydreaming about him with no encouragement, which I suppose is realistic enough but still tiresome.  The ending is disappointingly formulaic and needlessly drawn out.  The good, moral characters get good endings while the selfish ones are punished for their sins – instructive, no doubt, but not particularly satisfying or memorable.  Still, it is a highly entertaining novel if not necessarily a great work of literature and I’m very happy to have finally found a Brontë whose work I enjoy!

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