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Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

September 22, 2011 13 comments

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. 1966. 239p French title: La prisonnière des Sargasses.

Wide Sargasso Sea is known as a prelude to Jane Eyre but there’s more to it than a simple addition to Charlotte Brontë’s novel. It is a stand-alone novel anyone can read even without knowing the details of Jane Eyre.

We are in the 1830s in Jamaica. Antoinette Cosway is a young Créole, a white young woman born in Jamaica from English colonists. Her brother is retarded and her father died when she was young. The first part of the novel relates her childhood in her family’s estate and the ruin following riots with black slaves and eventually the abolition of slavery (1834). It’s a first person narrative, Antoinette is rather solitary as her family is despised by other colonists. Moreover, their estate Coulibri is on a remote place of the island. Antoinette describes the country, the atmosphere, the flowers, the exotic trees. I saw paintings by Le Douanier Rousseau. She’s a sensitive child, afraid of many things, a bit superstitious. She’s impressed by the stories that her black nanny Christophine tells her. That Christophine is an uncanny character. She was prosecuted in La Martinique for practicing voodoo. She influences Antoinette with her beliefs and stories. As Antoinette is left to herself – no governess, no proper education – nothing counterbalances Christophine’s power over her sensitive mind. Her mother has no interest in her education and she runs wild in the nearby wilderness.

Antoinette’s mother is a sort of weird, proud and beautiful woman who escapes destitution by marrying Mr. Mason. He then becomes Antoinette’s stepfather. They live together until a terrible event costs her brother his life and make them flee to Spanish Town, the capital of Jamaica. Her mother will never recover and will sink into madness. Antoinette is left in a convent, to get a little education with nuns and be safely kept. The fears and ghosts are still there. When she’s old enough, her stepfather marries her to an English gentleman she has never met before. This gentleman is never named but we know it is Mr Rochester, one of the main characters of Jane Eyre.

The second part is also a first person narrative but the voices alternate between Antoinette and her husband. They live in Antoinette’s family house. He shares his thoughts, depicts the strangeness of this new environment, the fauna, the flora, the ambivalent relationships with the black domesticity. They are all old servants of the family but he feels hostility towards him and white people in general. Everything is different from what he has always known and he struggles to adapt to the customs of this country and the presence of these unfriendly servants. She details her vision of him, their marriage, their new life together.

Antoinette and he have been thrown into this arranged marriage to satisfy their greedy families. Mr Mason needs to marry his stepdaughter to a stranger, someone who ignores the background of the family and the local gossip. The man’s father needed to marry his cadet son to a rich girl, to secure his living. They’re part of a trade. The man will do his best to adapt. He knows the marriage has been arranged for financial reasons. When a local man sends him a letter revealing the several cases of madness in his wife’s family, all his good intentions vanish. Before that letter, he could live with the idea that they had both been the victims of a trade. After that letter, he will consider that Mr Mason duped him and that he’s even more a victim than she is.

Antoinette perceives the change in her husband’s mood and attitude. She resents it as she tries to love him. She’s always been unbalanced but his rejection throws her into madness, not helped by Christophine’s toxic presence and influence. It turns to hell. Their thoughts and emotions are laid bare and we watch the implacable machine of hatred, madness and violence.

This is a multi-layered book. As a background, we have the history of Jamaica, the colonies, the riots and the conflicts between Black slaves or former slaves and white colonists. Jean Rhys was born in Jamaica and her description of the nature is gorgeous. I heard her pain and her nostalgia in this book, the same kind of feeling that is underlying in the novel by Hella S Haasse I’ve read earlier this year. It’s the particular feeling of the creole, the white person born and raised in a colony. Their childhood memories are there, they belong to this country and yet it isn’t their country. They’re foreigners in their home country in Europe and considered as foreigners in their adopted country. I’ve read that Jean Rhys needed nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that it comes a long time after her other books. I suppose it was tough for her to think about Jamaica, the lost paradise of her childhood.

It is also a fantastic prelude to Jane Eyre, explaining one of its main events in a convincing manner. Charlotte Brontë’s device may seem a little artificial but it makes sense after reading Wide Sargasso Sea. It’s impressive how Jean Rhys perfectly manages to make the stories fit into each other.

I disagree with the French blurb of the book, making of Antoinette alone a victim of a cruel husband. She’s not the only victim and the English man’s hatred grows in spite of him, out of pride. The thought of being a toy in his father’s and in Mr Mason’s hands is enough to ruin all his good intentions to make the better out of the situation. It’s the story of a double imprisonment in marriage. Hence the title. The Sargasso Sea is a sea without shores, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, near Bermuda. It’s a place where the water is full of seaweed floating on the surface. It could be a place full of life. It isn’t. There aren’t many fish there and sailors dread that area as the winds are weak and the boats get stuck. It’s the perfect metaphor for Antoinette and her husband’s story. They’re stuck in Jamaica, in a nest of lies, of violence and suspicion. The vegetation is luxuriant and keeps them captive. Their relationship is sterile. It is all madness and hatred between the spouses, between white and black people and even between members of a family. The Sargasso Sea is the image of the society that imprisons Antoinette and her husband.

The description of madness is masterly crafted, one of the bests I’ve read. We see Antoinette’s slow journey to hell, fighting against the ghosts of her past and the tricks of her mind. It’s full of pity but doesn’t hide the reality. It is hard for Antoinette but it is also hard for her relatives, including her unfortunate husband. It also shows how helpless he feels in the presence of that illness. Voodoo plays a part as Christophine fuels Antoinette’s craziness with her ideas.

Jean Rhys has an extraordinary style – even in translation – and yet I’ve heard this one isn’t her best book. Lucky me, I have treasures to read ahead. Many thanks to Max from Pechorin’s Journal for bringing her to my attention. He reviewed La Grosse Fifi, Quartet and Good Morning Midnight.

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? (Anne Brontë)

July 5, 2010 1 comment

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was published in 1848. It is Gilbert Markham’s letter to his best friend and telling him how he married his wife. The novel is divided in three parts. The first one is told by Gilbert and relates how he met and fell in love with Mrs Helen Graham, a widow newly settled in the neighbourhood, in Wildfell Hall. In this part are described both Mrs Graham’s temper and Gilbert’s increasing regard for her. The reader soon understands that there is a mystery in her presence in that isolated and gloomy house, alone with her child.

The second part reveals everything about this mystery through the means of Helen’s diary. It relates her miserable life from the moment she meets and marries Arthur Huntington until her arrival at Wildfell Hall. She tells all her misfortunes and describes the pain she took during these years and how she eventually escaped with her son.

The third part is narrated by Gilbert again, from the moment he ends up the reading of the diary to his wedding with Helen. During this period, she returned to her former house to take care of her dying husband and lost her uncle.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be linked to Gothic novels, as it is about a distressed young lady obliged to overcome all kinds of misfortunes to reach happiness. I noted that since Jane Austen’s chaste prose, lovers kiss, hold hands and take their fair lady by the waist. The change of narrators and tone gives a freshness to the story. Each part of the novel ends with a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Helen. Each of these three scenes is a step in their relationship. First Gilbert declares himself and receives hints that his love is requited. Then Helen acknowledges that she loves him but cannot marry him and concludes they must part. Eventually she takes control and proposes to him.

I liked the two first parts better than the last one, because they show Helen’s rebellion against general admitted principles and her confidence in her own judgement. The third part disappointed me because of its religious and virtuous tone. I didn’t like Helen going back to his husband to take care of him. It seemed unnatural and a compliance to social rules. I thought it was there only to ensure the society of the time that she really left her husband to protect her son and not for herself. It would have been too scandalous to write otherwise, I suppose.

 That book had me thinking “Every teenage girl should read this novel because it contains valuable lessons about love relationships”.

When Helen meets Arthur Huntington, she disregards all warnings upon his temper and marries him against her better judgement, thinking that her constant goodness will improve him through a sort of capillary action. To me, believing to have such a power on someone as to change them is vanity. People don’t deeply change and most of the time have nothing “behind the face”. No one has the power to change someone, unless unwillingly. Bad boys are not tortured souls in want of rescuing by a pure gentle lover, they just are bad boys who want to have fun.

It is also a very unsteady soil to build a relationship on, as it breaks the equality between the two members of the couple. His behaviour may have been highly reprehensible, but what a pain it must have been for Arthur to be constantly lectured ! Loving someone means accepting them as they are. Constantly expecting them to change for our vision of themselves is not love but alienation. Bluntly said, you’d better quickly turn your ethereal romantic young love into a more earthly but nonetheless deep feeling if you intend to happily share the same bathroom with someone “for as long as you both shall live”.

 But is accepting your beloved spouse the way they are the key of a successful marriage? The relationship between Milicent, Helen’s friend, and her husband Ralph Hattersley is interesting for that too. She is constantly physically and mentally molested by her husband and always yields. She pushes the acceptance of his temper to the farthest and he thinks she doesn’t resent his treatment of her as she never complains. It would even push him to torment her, to obtain a reaction. Helen finally convinces him that Milicent is hurt by his behaviour and having thus realised his error, he improves. Let’s imagine that such a radical change is possible. But the third relationship, between Annabella and her husband Lord Lowborough, proves that Anne Brontë was not so naïve as to think every one is reformable. This relationship could be the mirror of Milicent and Ralph’s, the wife being the torturer this time. This one doesn’t end well and it kinds of level the playing field between men and women, equally able to hurt their spouse. Here comes the second valuable lesson : a relationship cannot bloom without respect and communication.

Another defective relationship is the one of Eliza Millward and Gilbert. Gilbert is in love with Eliza and is thinking of marrying her at the time he meets Helen. He is blinded by her physical appearance and cheerfulness and doesn’t see clearly her flaws, despite his mother’s kind warnings. He gradually discovers a littleness in her and a lack of principles which drains his love for her. Third valuable lesson : the necessity to share the same values.

The relationship between Helen and Gilbert is the one that brings them happiness. But they almost missed each other because of Gilbert’s pride and because of his prejudice against the difference of wealth between them after she inherited from her uncle. He was too proud to ask her brother if she sometimes inquired after him, too proud to ask him her address and write the letter she expected. He was too prejudiced against her wealth to show up at her home, though he had travelled a long to time to reach it.

Anne Brontë seems to say to her contemporary girls: don’t hurry, take the time to know each other before marrying and don’t surrender to parental pressure to accept a man for his title or his wealth. She shows how women are abused in their marital life but she is clever enough not to describe women as only pure and innocent. She also pleads for women to be the master of their destiny. Helen makes her decisions herself and doesn’t complain about the consequences. She takes control of her life and she is a very modern woman. Anne Brontë’s novel is a cry for equality between men and women. A feminist novel.

How shall we react to injustice and harassment ?

May 17, 2010 Leave a comment

 I promised in a previous post I’d write about Jane Eyre’s important talk with Helen Burns in chapter 6. It happens just after Jane witnessed a scene where Helen is beaten by one of her professors, Miss Scatcherd. She endures the punishment without a cry and she does not resent Miss Scatcherd for it.

Jane cannot understand why Helen does not retaliate against unjust critics or at least feels like doing it. She thinks she should resist as she says :

If people were always kind and obedient to those who are cruel and unjust, the wicked people would have it all their own way : they would never feel afraid, and so they would never alter, but would grow worse and worse. When we are struck at without a reason, we should strike back again very hard; I am sure we should–so hard as to teach the person who struck us never to do it again.”

But Helen considers that “It is not violence that best overcomes hate–nor vengeance that most certainly heals injury.”

Here lays, in a few lines of a novel of the 19th century, a very important issue for individuals, minorities and nations. How should we react to injustice or harassment ? Shall we accept it or resist ? For Jane, there is no reason why she should accept injustice without trying to fight back whereas Helen would think a Christian should endure it with forbearance.

Though Helen is right in the way that hate and resentment never bring any good, Jane wonders why she should like someone who’s not good to her and especially asks the question about the resistance. Shall we resist to people who misbehave and fight back to protect ourselves and make them stop their harassment ? How do these people stop misbehaving if no one fights back ? This question has no definitive answer, of course. It depends on the situation and what one means by “fight”. Physical fight is condemnable and I really agree with Gandhi’s famous saying “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

But the resistance is something else, it can be visible as well as invisible, collective or individual. It can be violent or non-violent. It goes from one person not willing to bend under oppression to black people boycotting buses in Montgomery in 1955. It’s the debate between Martin Luther King and Malcom X.

Jane still does not understand and justifies her position by telling Helen how Mrs Reed treated her and about the resentment she feels. Helen reacts with the Christian vision of how one must like their enemies, forgive and not waste energy in hate and vengeance. She points out :

She has been unkind to you, no doubt; because you see, she dislikes your cast of character, as Miss Scatcherd does mine; but how minutely you remember all she has done and said to you! What a singularly deep impression her injustice seems to have made on your heart! No ill usage so brands its record on my feelings. Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs.”

And then comes the next issue : when the damage is done, how should the person, the nation react? Shall the victim forgive their torturer? After a civil war or a collective injustice against a minority, what is the best way to go on living together as a social body ? Recent history seems to show at least three different ways :

  • France, after World War II went for hasty punishment of the most visible criminals and silence for the others.
  • Algeria, after Islamic terror decided to vote a law to forgive the criminals, to restore peace and unity of the nation.
  • South Africa chose to face the facts through the “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions”, to let the victim talk and have their country acknowledge the violence committed against them. Nelson Mandela also tried to create a united nation through the rugby team (see Clint Eastwood’s Invictus)

All these methods have pros and cons. As for me, forgiveness without forgetting seems to be the healthiest way to go on, but I guess it’s easy to say when you’re safe in your living-room. No one knows how they would react, were they obliged to choose a side or be the victim of an assault.

I have to admit I didn’t expect to find such a topic in Jane Eyre, which I imagined being a book like Pride & Prejudice. Well, I guess the classics are always full of surprises !

Forgetting the nightmare of housework by listening to books

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve tried something new this morning.

As I’m quite allergic to housework, I thought I could transform this duty in a less painful moment by listening to audio books. So I downloaded Jane Eyre for free in mp3 files (one per chapter) and started listening the book. The readers are quite good and cleaning was much more pleasant. However, as the readers change from one chapter to another and the first minute or so of a new chapter is a bit strange because you need to get used to the new voice.

It’s going to be a good way for me to know English & American classics. As far as the language is concerned, it is read very clearly and 19th century English is easier to understand for a French than contemporary American like in Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons. The 19th century language has no slang words and the fancy words they used are often of latin origin, very closed to French. I had already read some Jane Austen’s work and Wuthering Heights in English and it was, if not easy, at least manageable.

So this little experiment has been a success.

 I reached chapter 6 of Jane Eyre, and I like it. Jane Eyre has just had her first long conversation with Helen Burns and it raises interesting questions about how someone should react to harrassment. But I’ll talk about it later in another post.

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