Tag: Victorian literature

Classic of the Month: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

This was my neighborhood book club’s selection for January – a good excuse to also use it for relaunching my Classic of the Month feature. It was 22 months ago (how?!) that I featured Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my monthly classic; ever since, I’ve meant to read Anne’s only other novel, Agnes Grey (1847). I’ve now read all the Brontë sisters’ works apart from Shirley, an obscure one by Charlotte. I’d recommend Agnes Grey as a short, accessible classic that echoes Jane Austen with its realistic picture of money/class and romance in nineteenth-century England.

The first-person narrative tells the highly autobiographical tale of a young woman who becomes a governess to support her impoverished family. Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman who makes a poor investment and loses everything, then falls ill. Her sister Mary can make money from her paintings, but with no particular skills and no other choice Agnes sets out to be a governess, first for the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House. The master is exacting and difficult to please, and her four charges are all unruly and obstinate. Worst of all is Tom, who seems almost autistic – he goes into rages and has to be held to calm him down. But the way Agnes writes about these children, it’s as if she thinks they’re not just naughty, but evil. Tom’s wanton cruelty to animals is wielded as a surefire sign of his badness.

It was originally published under a male pseudonym and tacked onto Wuthering Heights. TC Newby, 1847 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s a very moral book in general. Some book club folk even called it “Puritanical” for the way it dwells on goodness versus selfishness. When Agnes imagines how her pupils might describe her in the future, she concludes (speaking of herself), “she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion.” Unlike Jane Eyre, though, Agnes does little to stand up for herself in situations of injustice. For instance, when the Bloomfields put their children’s misbehavior down to Agnes’s lack of fitness for the role and dismiss her before a year has passed, she simply tries again, and soon finds a new governess position with the Murrays of Horton Lodge.

Here her main charge is the vain, supercilious teenager Rosalie, who, once she realizes Agnes admires the curate, Edward Weston, sets about sidelining Agnes and making him fall for her instead. Agnes is up front with the reader about her feelings for Weston, as in the chapter entitled “Confessions,” and she understands what’s going on with Rosalie’s scheming, but does nothing to combat it, just meekly steps back and lets things play out. Only internally does she allow herself to cry out at the unfairness of it all: “I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet: is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?” The Brontës all led fairly sad and small lives. Without giving specific spoilers, I’ll say that Agnes Grey gives Anne the happy ending she didn’t get in life.

Anne Brontë c. 1834, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (restored version).
The whole book club enjoyed this one. We talked a lot about the choices the middle class would have had in those days, and how difficult life was for women who weren’t of the servant class yet didn’t have the family money to ensure their comfort. We found the first-person voice immediately engaging, especially with the occasional confiding asides to the reader, and the style is easier than what you get from a lot of the Victorian classics.

My rating:

 

Next month: Doing double duty as my classic and doorstopper will be East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I’m doing as a buddy read with my mother – we’ll exchange thoughts via e-mail.

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Classic of the Month: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to get to this splendid evocation of 1850s–60s family life in an extreme religious sect. I’d known about Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) for ages, and even owned a copy. Two of its early incidents – the son’s anticlimactic birth announcement in the father’s diary, and the throwing out of a forbidden Christmas pudding – were famously appropriated by Peter Carey for creating Oscar’s backstory in his Booker Prize-winning novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988), which I read in 2008 but didn’t much like. I was reminded of that literary debt when I worked for King’s College London’s library system and did a summer placement in the Special Collections department in 2011. For my “In the Spotlight” article about a book in particular need of conservation, I chose Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos, his well-meaning but half-baked contribution to the Victorian science versus religion debate, and did a lot of secondary reading about the Gosses and their milieu.

The book’s subtitle, “A Study of Two Temperaments,” gives an idea of the angle Gosse takes here: this is not a straightforward biography (after all, he’d already written his father’s life story in 1890) or a comprehensive memoir, but a snapshot of his early years and an emotional unpicking of the personality clash that results from fundamentally different approaches to life. While Gosse père (1810–88) was a devoted naturalist as well as a dogged believer in the literal truth of the Bible, even in adolescence his son (1849–1928) was a literature aficionado and troubled skeptic. Philip Gosse was a minister with the Plymouth Brethren and married late, at 38; his wife was 42, very late for contemplating motherhood in those days. Like Thomas Hardy, the infant Edmund was presumed dead at birth and set aside, so it’s thanks to keen-eyed nurses that we have these two late Victorians’ significant literary output today.

Although his first word was “book” and he could read by age four, Edmund was initially forbidden to read fiction. His mother quashed her own love of making up stories because she believed fiction was in some way sinful. It was always taken for granted that Edmund would follow his father into the ministry, and early on he had a sense of a split self: the external persona he put on to please his parents, and the deeper self that struggled to divine its purpose. He would cheekily test the limits of his familial faith by petitioning the Almighty for an expensive toy that he ‘needed’ and praying to a wooden chair to see if he’d be struck down for idolatry. The absurdity of such scenes is a welcome foil to the sadness of his mother’s death when Gosse was just seven. A year later the boy and his father moved from London to Devon, where both were captivated by the sea. (Indeed, if Philip Gosse is remembered as a natural historian today, it’s largely for his work on marine life – he discovered a new genus of sea anemones in 1859.) After Philip remarried, Edmund began attending a weekday boarding school and fell in love with literature, especially Shakespeare and the Romantic poets.

There’s a stretch of the book at about the two-thirds point that I found less compelling; much of it describes the other members of his father’s congregation (“the saints”) and the tedium of Sundays. It’s also a shame there isn’t a brief afterword that continues the story through to his father’s death. But for much of its length this is a riveting investigation of how the conflict between reason and religion plays out both within individual souls and between family members. The purpose here is to chart the course that led him out of religion and made the supernatural rift between him and his father permanent by the time he was 15 or so, and Gosse fulfills that aim admirably. In doing so he maintains a delicately balanced tone: Although he vividly recreates funny moments from his childhood, he also makes clear-eyed, scathing assessments of a religion that is ostensibly based on love but all too often veers towards judgment instead:

Here was perfect purity, perfect intrepidity, perfect abnegation; yet here was also narrowness, isolation, an absence of perspective, let it be boldly admitted, an absence of humanity. And there was a curious mixture of humbleness and arrogance; entire resignation to the will of God and not less entire disdain of the judgment and opinion of God.

[H]e allowed the turbid volume of superstition to drown the delicate stream of reason.

He who was so tender-hearted that he could not bear to witness the pain or distress of any person, however disagreeable or undeserving, was quite acquiescent in believing that God would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.

Even so, this is a loving portrait, as well as a nuanced one, and a model of how to write family memoir. I enjoyed it immensely, and will no doubt read it again.

My rating:

 

Further reading:

  • Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse 1810–1888 by Ann Thwaite
  • In the Days of Rain, Rebecca Stott’s memoir of growing up in the Plymouth Brethren in the 1960s

Classics of the Month: Hardy and Sackville-West

This is the first post in a new monthly series intended to encourage myself to read more of the classics I own. In January I read two works of classic literature: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy and No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West.

My battered Jacket Library edition.
My battered Jacket Library edition.

Between college and grad school I read Hardy’s five major novels, but it’s probably been ten years or more since I tried a new one. Far from the Madding Crowd is one of my favorite books of all time, so I couldn’t help but compare Under the Greenwood Tree* to it – unfavorably, alas – as I was reading.

Greenwood was Hardy’s second novel, published in 1872. That’s just two years before Madding Crowd, and the two are quite similar in a few ways: the main female character is a conceited flirt who has to decide between three potential suitors; the supporting cast is made up of “rustics” who speak in country dialect; and the Dorset setting, including the landscape, weather and traditional activities, is a strong presence in its own right.

But where Bathsheba Everdene, though periodically maddening, is ultimately a sympathetic figure, Greenwood’s Fancy Day is a character I could never warm to. As the new schoolteacher and organist in Mellstock village, she puts on airs and imagines she’s too good for Dick Dewy, a salt-of-the-earth peddler. She’s also incurably vain. “Yes, I must wear the hat, dear Dicky, because I ought to wear a hat, you know,” she says, even though Dick calls the hat “Rather too coquettish.”

A bare-bones summary of the novel makes it sound more entertaining than it actually is: A set of country musicians (the “Mellstock Quire”) learns their services are no longer required at the local church; they are to be replaced by an organ. The novel opens on Christmas Eve and in the early chapters proceeds by way of caroling, cider drinking and dances. It’s rather jolly, but where is it all going? Then, once the plot takes over, Fancy’s weighing up of the wooing attentions of Dick, Mr. Shiner and Parson Maybold soon grows tedious.

The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.
The musicians in their choir stall. Wood engraving by Peter Reddick from the Folio Society edition, 1989.

Whereas the passages about the rustics are brief, welcome interludes in Madding Crowd, here they are nearly constant and start to feel overpowering. “You are charmed on condition that you accept Hardy’s condescension towards his characters,” Claire Tomalin observes in Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man. They are harmless folk, but their rural way of life will soon be superseded. The novel is set a generation back, in about the 1840s, so has an elegiac tone to it, and Hardy’s subtitles suggest he was trying to freeze an image of a bygone time.

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Fancy’s directives for her wedding reception make clear the divide between old and new:

The propriety of every one was intense by reason of the influence of Fancy, who, as an additional precaution in this direction, had strictly charged her father and the tranter [Dick’s father] to carefully avoid saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their conversation, on the plea that those ancient words sounded so very humiliating to persons of newer taste; also that they were never to be seen drawing the back of the hand across the mouth after drinking—a local English custom of extraordinary antiquity, but stated by Fancy to be decidedly dying out among the upper classes of society.

This is a pleasant enough book, and at just 160 or so pages goes by fairly quickly, yet I found myself losing interest at many points and often could not bear to read more than one short chapter at a time. At this rate, will I ever get to decidedly minor Hardy novels like The Hand of Ethelberta, The Trumpet-Major, A Pair of Blue Eyes, and A Laodicean?

2-5-star-rating

*“Under the greenwood tree” is a line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

Favorite unrelated line: “Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em.”

 

No Signposts in the Sea (1961) is my second taste of Sackville-West’s fiction (after All Passion Spent). It was her last novel, published just one year before her death, and was inspired by world cruises she and her husband, Harold Nicolson, took in later life. She was at this point already ill with the cancer that would kill her, though it was as yet undiagnosed.

That context goes a long way towards explaining the preoccupations of No Signposts, set on board a cruise ship and narrated by fifty-year-old Edmund Carr, a journalist who has been told by his doctor that he has just a few months to live. He’s embarked on the voyage to be close to the woman he loves, forty-year-old war widow Laura Drysdale. She has no idea that he’s ill, and as the weeks pass and they share tender moments – dinner on shore at an island based on Macao, a lightning storm viewed from her private balcony – he dares to hope that she might return his feelings but still doesn’t tell her about his imminent death, even as she makes tentative plans for excursions they might take once they’re back in London.

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The novel is presented as Edmund’s diary, found after his eventual death. It’s full of his solitary musings but also his conversations with Laura, who is refreshingly unconventional in her approach to relationships:

I can’t abide the Mr. and Mrs. Noah attitude towards marriage; the animals went in two by two, forever stuck together with glue. I resent it as much for other people as I should for myself. It seems to me a degradation of individual dignity.

She also tells a story about a lesbian couple she knows who are aging happily together; it feels a bit out of place, but its inclusion is striking given Sackville-West’s history of lesbian relationships.

I’d recommend this short novel to anyone who’s looking for a quick women’s classic with plenty to say about what matters in life.

3-5-star-rating

 

Next month: I’ve never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and it seems to be having something of a resurgence in popularity at the moment, so perhaps now is the time?

Literary Connections in Whitby

This past weekend marked my second trip to Whitby in North Yorkshire, more than 10 years after my first. It was, appropriately, on the occasion of a 10-year anniversary – namely, of the existence of Emmanuel Café Church, an informal group based at the University of Leeds chaplaincy center that I was involved in during my master’s year in 2005–6. I was there for the very first year and it was a welcome source of friendship during a tough year of loneliness and homesickness, so it’s gratifying that it’s still going nearly 11 years later (but also scary that it’s all quite that long ago). The reunion was held at Sneaton Castle, a lovely venue with a resident order of Anglican nuns that’s about a half-hour walk from central Whitby.

Sneaton Castle and grounds
Sneaton Castle and grounds
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Whitby harbor, with St. Mary’s Church on the hill.

The more I think about it, Leeds was a fine place to do a Victorian Literature degree – it’s not too far from Haworth, the home of the Brontës, or Whitby, a setting used in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Two of my classmates and I made our own pilgrimages to both sites in 2006. The Whitby Abbey ruins rising above the churchyard of St. Mary’s certainly create a suitably creepy atmosphere. No wonder Whitby is enduringly popular with Goths and at Halloween.

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Another resident of Victorian Whitby, unknown to me until I saw a plaque designating her cottage on the walk from Sneaton into town, was Mary Linskill (1840–91), who wrote short stories and novels including Between the Heather and the Northern Sea (1884), The Haven under the Hill (1886) and In Exchange for a Soul (1887). I checked Project Gutenberg and couldn’t find a trace of her work, but the University of Reading holds a copy of her Tales of the North Riding in their off-site store. Perhaps I’ll have a gander!

resolutionIMG_0306There are other connections to be made with Whitby, too. For one thing, it has a long maritime history: it was home to William Scoresby (“Whaler, Arctic Voyager and Inventor of the Crow’s Nest,” as the plaque outside his house reads), and Captain James Cook grew up 30 miles away and served an apprenticeship in the town. There’s a statue of Cook plus a big whalebone arch on the hill the other side of the harbor from the church and abbey. It felt particularly fitting that I’ve been reading A.N. Wilson’s forthcoming novel Resolution, about the naturalists who sailed on Captain Cook’s second major expedition in the 1770s.

(My other apt reading for the sunny August weekend was Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime.)

On our Sunday afternoon browse of Whitby’s town center we couldn’t resist a stop into a bargain bookshop, where my husband bought a cheap copy of David Lebovitz’s all-desserts cookbook; I picked up a classy magnetic bookmark and a novel I’d never heard of for a grand total of £1.09. I know nothing about Dirk Wittenborn’s Pharmakon, but this 10 pence paperback comes with high praise from Lionel Shriver, Bret Easton Ellis and the Guardian, so I’ll give it a try and let you know how it works out in terms of literary value for money!

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Have you explored any literary destinations recently? What have you been reading on summer weekends?