Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (Why is she the least celebrated sister?)

I started to re-read Agnes Grey last week on Charlotte’s birthday anniversary. It’s probably the Bronte novel I have read least, though I’m not sure why. Reading it again Anne’s ability as a writer is so apparent. It’s not Jane Eyre, what is? But it is a remarkably clear and shocking account of the life, work and limitations of a Victorian governess. 
Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman. Her mother was an aristocratic daughter who chose him for love and sacrificed her fortune and relations as a consequence. Agnes and her sister are educated by their mother and are accomplished in all that that means in the Victorian era. They speak French and German, draw, play the piano and are well read and versed in Latin. However, their father is reckless with his meagre finances and they are forced to find work. Agnes sister is able to earn money from her painting (a woman artist) and Agnes chooses to find work as a governess. There is no gothic atmosphere over theBloomfield’s  house where Agnes is first placed. Instead, Anne Bronte writes a gritty description of attempting to educate children with no authority or discipline permitted, the parents reserving these rights to themselves but never exercising them. Like teachers in the modern age, Agnes is expected to improve young minds with no resources to support her work. The depictions of the children are realistic. They have tantrums, are vicious to each other and often brutal to other living creatures. The description of John’s treatment of baby birds is particularly unpleasant reading. Agnes has to keep going and live the life she has, not the one she wishes for. Her next situation is a little better in terms of her students, though she is ignored and treated as inferior by all she encounters. Agnes only finds friendship when acting out works of charity amongst the poor and infirm.

The story does have brighter points and Agnes does find a friend, in the local curate, and eventual happiness as she establishes her own school. 

What really struck me was the fresh style Anne Bronte deploys as a writer and her realism which would not be out of place in a novel written fifty years later. She has always been overshadowed by her sisters and it is argued that she is only read now because of their success. I disagree with this, I think Anne Bronte’s day is yet to come and I hope as her 200th anniversary approaches readers discover her work as a writer, not just as a tragic character in the Bronte story.

Happy birthday Charlotte Bronte!

  
I grew up near Haworth, the Yorkshire town where Charlotte and her family spent most of their lives. The Bronte sisters were the first writers I really knew anything about, like so many people, the story of their lives fascinated me. I could so easily imagine them playing on the moors, not unlike my siblings and myself, telling stories and creating worlds in the wild.

But I only came to Charlotte’s stories when I was around eleven. Jane Eyre, Shirley and Villette all sat on the bookcase at the top of the stairs, though it was Jane Eyre I reached for first, a red pre-war hard back that had a slightly fusty smell. My story is the the same as so many others, Jane Eyre altered the colour of my imagination. The determined, brave, clever girl was so much who I want to be. I read Jane Eyre, then Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey and I have been reading the Bronte’s novels, biographies about them, their poetry and the juvenilia ever since.

I read something Bronte related every year, they are simply unlike any other writers, and it was Charlotte’s novel of a poor plain governess that brought me to a life long love and a lifetime of reading pleasure. Happy Birthday Charlotte!

  

April’s book club: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

   
 Though this book did win a Costa award, my book club’s reason for choosing it is that we are based in Lancashire near where much of the story is set, except is isn’t, not really, unless you shared the dark, gothic imagination of the author. Luckily, I do! 

This is a strange story that does not really slot into a genre but does seem to touch gothic horror with overtones of young adults fiction, reminiscent of Celia Rees’ stories about Edinburgh. As with Emily Bronte, the physical nature of the landscape dominates the story and the action that takes place there, though Hurley’s landscape seems to switch between Morecambe bay and the bleak mud flats of Pilling sands, with their big skies and quicksands. Though Hurley does not match Bronte’s skill, the landscape intruding, sometimes feeling so bleak it’s almost comic and the portrayal of the London home of the protagonists is so broad brush it could be Anytown.

Having said that I do understand why this intriguing story won a prestigious award. It is a dark and mysterious tale, set in the mid 1970s, about a small group of Catholics and their priest, who travel from London each Easter on pilgrimage to a small shrine in this lost corner of the Lancashire coast. The central characters are two brothers, one is nicknamed Tonto by the priest, the other Hanny, has some sort of illness which seems to be combination of learning difficulties and mutism. Though it is never quite said, the purpose of the pilgrimage in the eyes of the small group is to pray for a cure for Hanny, culminating in him taking the waters at a small shrine. The boy’s mother fanatically believes in a miracle cure, if only she prays hard enough and manipulates the group to do her bidding. There is a subplot about the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the previous priest who the boy’s mother was devoted to, and her inability to accept the new ideas of the young Irish priest who has replaced Fr. Wilfred. Fr. Wilfred’s presence lingers through the stay at the Loney and all the new priest’s efforts fall short against it. All these stories whirl around the coast as the tide comes in and out and the two boys play along the shore line. They meet some of the ‘locals’, vicious men who let their dog rip a lamb apart and seem to be working in league with a posh Daimler driving man who lives along a causeway at a house with a murderous past. These characters are rather vague and shady, at times feeling like something out of the ‘League of Gentlemen’. They have a pregnant girl at the house, possibly as young as thirteen, who possesses apparent supernatural powers. This aspect of the story remains in the shade. The multiple narratives twist around each other as faith is called into question and the price of miracles explored.

It is a page turner, I read it on a holiday flight and certainly worth reading. It did have some flaws in my opinion in the plot devices, such as Tonto’s ability to overhears confessions and the retrospective narrative structure, he is telling the story from the present as an adult. However, some of the descriptive writing is first rate, such as the description of meeting a local tramp in a bus stop, and the ability to leave gaps for the imagination to fill is excellently executed as in the best gothic fiction. This is a really good first novel and I think Hurley is definitely an author to watch.

The Golem and the Djinni

  I chose this from the rejected pile at my book club: one person’s rejection is another’s treasure :-). If you enjoy stories like Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’, where magical worlds intersect with our reality then I think you will enjoy this story – though it’s not in Gaiman’s league.

The story is set in the early part of the twentieth century and centres on the migrant communities as they land on Eliis Island and have to make a life in New York. The Golem of the title finds herself alone and master-less, struggling within hours of her arrival to manager her created purpose to please with the multitude of demands in New York. After she is taken in by a kindly Rabbi who recognises her for what she is and wonders how much she will be able to deal with free will. The Djinni is accidentally conjured from a lamp, a tiny cliche, but by the tin smith who is repairing it, not a princess or a magician. The Djinni demonstrates his own metal working skills and stays on in the Syrian community where he finds his new home.

Of course, the two magical creatures eventually meet and search ways to support each other in containing their special abilities in a new world where magic is left behind. It wouldn’t be a story if things went easily. There are complications of the heart, their cultures collide and their magical pasts follow them from the Middle East as sinister characters cast long shadows into the immigrant community of New York.

This is  a good story with lead characters you can engage with in New York of the last century. To be honest, I did find the story dragged in places and I felt I was waiting for the writer to get on with it! But it is worth pushing through these moments as it is unusual and, like the best fantasy fiction, asks as many questions about the real, modern world as about the parallel world of the story. Welcoming strangers, hospitality, inclusive beliefs and the very question what makes a human are all carefully interwoven with the narrative. It is a bit longer than a usual paperback at around 500 pages, still, a good holiday read and highly recommended.