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Sunday, April 09, 2006

A First Look at Agnes Grey

My copy of Agnes Grey arrived in the mail a few days ago. In two days I had finished it, despite having much to do (hope none of my professors are reading this...But, then, it was for a good cause). I ended up with the Everyman paperback edition which includes a selection of Anne's poetry. I read the introduction, which was, to me, informative although I question it as I did catch one error which skewed things a bit. The writer claims that proof of how Aunt Branwell's Methodism had produced a kind of hysteria in the children is seen in Charlotte 'seeing' an 'angel' beside Anne's crib. Charlotte never claimed to have seen an angel, but a fairy which is not at all the same thing. I don't believe Aunt Branwell putting much faith in fairies as messengers of the divine (and anyone at the time who did believe in them would be more alarmed at seeing one by a baby's crib, yes?).

I have been working and studying with a publisher for nearly a year now, so I must speak out at the disgraceful state of the backcover copy even though it is of little consequence. Agnes Grey is not a long book by any means... It does not take long to write backcover copy. Why on earth, then, is Rosalie consistently referred to as Matilda about 5 times in the tiny paragraph of text? Could they not flip through the book for 3 seconds and check her name? There, I've said my peace. I really think publishers need to abandon these glued bindings as well. It's only a 10 year old copy and it already creaks because the glue has gone hard. Unfortunately almost all books published today are bound in this fashion.

On reading AG itself: I had a repeat of the feelings I experienced while reading Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Once again I was probably unduly critical as I read and once again I was baffled. Now, I had 'played' Anne Bronte before and prepared for the experience by reading what I could which might help me do her justice. I have a first edition of Charlotte Bronte and Her Circle by Shorter. So, I opened the section on Anne and what did I find? The first line declares that there's no doubt that Anne would be forgotten entirely, her works discarded, if she had not been Charlotte Bronte's sister! Harsh words! I was puzzled then, and I am puzzled now. It isn't because I would like to appreciate Anne's work- there is simply much to appreciate! If you doubt me, consider that I have been trying- actually trying- to appreciate Jane Austen and I find I still cannot. My feelings are that Anne is a better writer- but before I am torn limb from limb I will admit that I have peculiar tastes and that there are flaws in Anne's work which may lower her work's value after my initial enthusiasm wanes. However, I can never see justification in pronouncing her work so utterly forgettable!

I have a peculiar way of feeling when writing is genuine and when it is contrived. Much of what I've helped publish this year is contrived (again, hoping the publisher doesn't see this... No, actually I have told him so). Anne's work is genuine, and makes me believe in it. Her beginnings are stronger than any of Charlotte's novels, and continue with an unerring movement towards the end, maintaining a steady flow- until the end. And here is where the fault lies. Her endings are disappointing, not as strong as the rest of her work by far. And being the last impression of the entire work, I think they tend to colour how the book is remembered. I recall when I read Tenant that I was convinced it was superior to all but Jane Eyre and Villette until I reached the end. There is a curious hestitancy in the endings of Tenant and Agnes Grey.

This post is already extremely long, so I will have to keep the rest of my thoughts on the book for another time.

3 comments:

mysticgypsy said...

Hi there!
Most people who aren't too fond of Agnes Grey think that the book is too "tame". The book, nevertheless, offers a harsh criticism on society even if it lacks the more "imaginative" elements that distinguishes Emily's Wuthering Heights or Charlotte's Jane Eyre.
I liked Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more than Agnes Grey mostly because of its portrayal of the subject matter. Anne was really courageous!

Brontëana said...

I had heard over and over again how 'boring' it is. I did not find this to be the case. I was anxious to finish it although I was enjoying it so that I thought I might want to postpone the pleasure of finishing it. I know that the book must have been unpalpable to Victorians unwilling to believe that children behaved in such a way. I can imagine them thinking perhaps that Agnes is really a bad governess and is trying to make excuses for her own shortcomings ;)

I confess that the proposal was very disappointing. At first I thought it was the lack of passion but really I think I am troubled because we do not see them getting to know eachother well enough. How is she to know that he is 'made for her' as her mother did, about her father? They agree on most things, this is a start, but I was left unconvinced. Especially when we have the other marriage in the novel which seems to illustrate the dangers of not knowing your prospective spouse well enough (and Agnes' walking around, reading and yet looking for Mr.Weston is so like Rosalie that I can't help but feel uneasy).

I'm not sure which book I like best, but I am leaning towards Tenant. I think it is by far the more complex work of the two. The minor characters are even more engaged. It also has a failed ending, and in the same place: I don't believe in the reunion of Gilbert and Helen. This time they do know eachother quite well, but there's just something contrained and contrived about it. It comes off as un-natural and does fit with the rest of the work.

I can only imagine what we might have seen if she had lived, and written more novels.

Cristina said...

Congrats on finally getting the book!

Some critic or other once said that Agnes Grey contained the most beautiful prose in the English language. It has also been compared to Jane Austen.

I think I need to reread both books by Anne, Tenant - which is more complex - especially. I also prefer Tenant, though Agnes Grey is sort of cute (despite the bits with the spoilt brats :P)

Interesting what Mr Shorter said. I had always heard people say that Anne would be deemed a great writer if she hadn't had Charlotte and Emily to "compete" with. Which is also unfair. At any rate, at the turn of the century and for a few decades Anne was at her lowest. Fortunately she seems to begin to get her rightful praise nowadays.