Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey
Anne Brontë
England, 1847

Agnes Grey is unremarkable. Not remarkably pretty, or wealthy, she is home-educated and sheltered from the larger world, yet she has a hidden desire to see more of it. The youngest daughter in a respectable family, she is raised in love and kindness. Poor financial decisions by her father–in a foolish gambit to provide better for his family–lead instead to near-ruin. So Agnes seeks a post as governess, one of the few respectable options for a woman, hoping to contribute a small sum to the family coffers, and see a little of life beyond her village.

Agnes Grey is unremarkable. It is Agnes’s first-person narration of her life as a governess, in two different positions. It is to the point, illustrating her powerlessness in a situation where she is neither servant nor family, expected to instill knowledge and character in reluctant learners over whom she has no power to enforce obedience. Her position is impossible. And while there is potential is such a story–certainly, it offers a slice of Victorian life to a contemporary reader–the novel seems instead to me slight, or perhaps inconsistent. There is somehow a change in tone in the narrative as it transitions from the first family to the second—something that I can’t quite put my finger on to define, but that created a different feel to the reading between the first two parts. For while the opening chapters read as pure memoir, a non-fiction narrative, the larger portion of the novel trips along in the more customary manner of a light-romance. Neither feel is wrong, but to me they don’t blend well together.

There is, however, something very charming in the tale of Agnes Grey, at least once you get past the dry recitation of the opening chapters narrating her life up until the point she joins the Murray family. It is with the Murrays, though, that life is allowed to happen for Agnes, for despite her duties, she still has opportunity to meet those outside the household–often on behalf of a household member who no longer wishes to keep a promised visit. Agnes’s world opens up, and we see with her the happinesses and sorrows that accompany it. But though charming, I found it conventional (and perhaps a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author). The conventionality of the telling, the lack of character growth, and the unambiguous moralizing (guess who gets a happy ending) diminish the importance of Brontë’s message. We can read it for the second-half romance, be thoroughly charmed, and put it away on the shelf, forgetting the messages of how we ought to treat one another, which ultimately is the most valuable point of the novel.

I read this for the current Classics Club spin and as a title by a woman for the 2021 Back to the Classics challenge.

Classics Club Spin 26

I was happy to see another Classics Club spin pop up this week–while I’ve been steadily reading all year, I haven’t been doing so well with my Classics Club list. Time for some accountability!

Books selected primarily (thought not exclusively) by what I already have on hand, and order randomized. Can’t wait to see what I’ll be reading!

  1. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  2. Anonymous: Njal’s Saga (Iceland, 13th century)
  3. Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain (U.S., 1953)
  4. Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1940)
  5. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  6. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)
  7. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  8. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  9. Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de: Three Exemplary Novels (Spain, 1613)
  10. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  11. Brontë, Anne: Agnes Grey (England, 1847)
  12. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  13. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
  14. Tomasi di Lampedusa, Giuseppe: The Leopard [Il Gattopardo] (Italy, 1958)
  15. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
  16. Homer: The Iliad (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)
  17. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  18. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  19. Radcliffe, Ann: The Italian (England, 1797)
  20. Swift, Jonathan: Gulliver’s Travels (England, 1726)

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford
Elizabeth Gaskell
1853, England

Originally published between 1851 and 1853 in a series of installments in the periodical Household Works, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is outwardly a charming illustration of a small slice of English village life at a time when the world was changing rapidly around it. Cranford is ruled, socially at least, by the “Amazons”—for the genteel classes are represented entirely by women, the men apparently finding it inconvenient to live long in this safe harbor of femininity. But into the charm of the village life, we also see at times the finger-hooks of outward realities creeping in. Cranford is no stranger to death and sorrows, and at times Gaskell, known for her novels depicting the hardships of working-class life in the mill towns of England, sneaks some of her critiques in here as well. No matter how genteel a lady, she must have something to live on, yet the truth of Victorian England is that there are few options for a gentlewoman to make a respectable living. The spinsters of Cranford may be resistant—at times almost comically—to the idea of marriage, but we are reminded of Jane Austen’s writing: marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her future economically.

I found Cranford slow to get into at first, with its episodic early chapters that seemed divorced of each other. But as I read more, I grew familiar with the regular characters that populated the pages, tying the story together, and the brief episodes began to give way to a more linear structure, the events of one chapter more strongly linked to the preceding. By the very end, episodes and characters that seemed all but forgotten had returned to recollection, of both the town and the reader.

It is the characters that are perhaps the strength of the book, with their individual quirks and foibles. Their personalities permeate the novel; their fears, their hopes, their anticipations, their follies bring the pages to life. We are aided entry by the narrator, Mary Smith, a non-resident who visits frequently and shares with us her keen observations, even as at times she gets caught up in events herself and no longer remains a passive observer. But it is her very involvement that allows the reader to enter the town and become invested the story; to be touched by the real generosity of spirit seen not just among the principal characters, but among their servants as well. These are people that care about each other and each other’s well-being, even while they may be resistant to outsiders and changing ways of life.

Cranford is not quite the same as the other Gaskell I’ve read (Mary Barton and North and South). The intrusions of the outer world are gentler, the love stories are to the side or in the past. But in its gentle way, and in the warmth of its population, I find that it may just be my favorite.

I read Cranford as part of my Realists and Romantics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with a Place in the Title.

Classics Spin #24

Question Mark - cover place holder

I don’t really have time for this. I have so many books already planned for the next few months, especially library books either to finish or already on hold, as well as a couple possible readalongs. I don’t have time to be adding any more books to my ‘immediate plans’ list. Nope, really should skip this one…so here’s the list. 🙂

  1. Gaskell, Elizabeth: Wives and Daughters (England, 1865)
  2. Poe, Edgar Allan: Tales of Mystery and Imagination (U.S., 1830s-40s)
  3. Dickens, Charles: Bleak House (England, 1853)
  4. Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls (U.S., 1940)
  5. Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World (England, 1932)
  6. Morrison, Toni: Beloved (U.S., 1987)
  7. Lawrence, D.H.: Sons and Lovers (England, 1913)
  8. James, Henry: The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (U.S., 1878-1908)
  9. Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man (U.S., 1952)
  10. Camões, Luís Vaz de: The Lusiad (Portugal, 1572)
  11. Homer: The Odyssey (Greece, c. 8th century BCE)*
  12. Anonymous: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, between 8th-11th centuries)*
  13. Trollope, Anthony: Barchester Towers (England, 1857)
  14. Virgil: The Aeneid [Aeneis] (Rome, 29-19 BCE)
  15. Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (U.S., 1927)
  16. Bolaño, Roberto: 2666 (Chile, 2004)
  17. Faulkner, William: The Sound and the Fury (U.S., 1929)
  18. Carson, Anne, translator: An Oresteia (Greece, 5th century BCE)
  19. Bromfield, Louis: The Farm (U.S.-Ohio, 1933)
  20. Tolstoy, Leo: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Russia, 1886-1912)

A randomized list of my remaining classics club books I already have or are readily available from the library. Titles with an * are rereads.

Looking over the list, I’m reminded why I want to participate in the spin: I can’t decide which of these I want to read first! Even the long titles are appealing (I’m kind of hoping for 2666, actually, and I’m sure I don’t have time to read that, even with a September 30 deadline.)

Here’s to a good spin!

The Nibelungenlied

The Nibelungenlied
Anonymous
c. 1200, Germany
A.T. Hatto, translator

We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors – of such things you can now hear wonders unending!

Thus begins the medieval German epic poem, The Nibelungenlied. The poet’s introductory description is indeed apt, for it is full of both brave heroics and great tragedies.

One of several sources for Wagner’s four-work cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, The Nibelungenlied tells us the story of the great hero Siegfried and his fair Kreimhild. As the epic opens, Kreimhild declares that she will never love, for she believes that if she ever knows such happiness, it will only come with great pain. Siegfried, for his part, has heard the tales of Kreimhild’s beauty, and vowing to make her his wife, sets out from his homeland for Burgundy, where Kreimhild lives with her three brothers, Kings Gunther, Gernot, and Giselher. The tales of Siegfried’s great strength and prowess as a warrior go before him, and he is warily greeted, but the kings are won over to admiration and friendship for Siegfried by his great bravery and he soon joins them in battle. The reward for his success in battle is his first sight of Kreimhild–who he nevertheless was already in love with–and despite her earlier protests against love, she in turn loves him. Gunther and Siegfried soon agree: if Siegfried will help Gunther win the hand of the proud Icelandic queen Brunhild, Siegfried will be granted Kreimhild’s hand in return.

A series of great feats–and great deceptions follow. And from these deceptions, great tragedy will come. Brunhild’s mistaken belief in Siegfried’s status as an inferior to Gunther (rather than an equal) will spur a great fight between herself and Kreimhild, and Brunhild, publicly humiliated, will plot Siegfried’s death in revenge. This can only mean further plotting and vengeance, for due to Brunhild’s schemes, Kreimhild’s brothers have twice betrayed her, and so many years later, remarried to King Etzel of Hungary, Kreimheld will plot against her brothers and their vassals in return.

One point of interest for me–and some mild amusement–is the frequency with which the poet tells us what is going to happen. There is no doubt from the first chapter that this will not end well, for so we are told: “the maidens will have reason to weep,” or, “the knights will rue the day that…” What a contrast to our contemporary abhorrence of “spoilers”! But this poem was written for an audience that knew the stories being told; The Nibelungenlied is likely the formalization of an oral tradition already well established.

The Nibelungenlied is described by its translator and a heroic epic “surpassed only by the Iliad,” and while I have not read enough epic poems to know the justice of this assertion, I did note points of comparison between the two poems. In both, themes of honor and vengeance underline much of the action. Just as Achilles, smarting from Agamemnon’s insult to his honor, does not enter the fray until he has reason to seek revenge for his dear friend Patroclus’s death, so many of Etzel’s sworn allies will not entertain Kreimhild’s schemes of revenge against the Burgundians until they feel compelled to defend their own honor as warriors or to seek revenge for their own friends, slain in the Burgundians’ desperate attempts to escape fate. In the end, in both poems, we see great feats of battle, great tests of courage and honor–and many, many deaths. More deaths, in fact in The Nibelungenlied–this is a story in which is seems the cycle of violence cannot end until nearly all in its path are consumed, save a scant few to tell the tale. It reminds me rather of the bloody revenge drama Titus Andronicus, though here we are spared the cannibalistic feast.

There is some inconsistency in The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild, so important to much of the inciting action, nearly completely disappears in the second half, and we never learn her fate. Characters seem to be introduced more than once. Some actions or words seem inexplicable on their own. The translator provides helpful notes and Appendices that explain possible reasons for these seeming contractions, primarily being, it seems, the melding of multiple older sources and adapting certain scenes to the more ‘modern’ sensibilities of his audience (such as making Siegfried more chivalrous). These minor inconsistencies aside, it is a gripping tale well told, and a poignant reminder that injustice and violence beget too often only more violence.

I read this for the Classics Club Spin #23.