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.

Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Stephen Mitchell, 2006
Akkadian, c. 1700-1000 BCE

Humbaba said, “Gilgamesh have mercy
Let me live here in the Cedar Forest.
If you spare my life, I will be your slave,
I will give you as many cedars as you wish.
You are king of Uruk by the grace of Shamash,
honor him with a cedar temple
and a glorious cedar palace for yourself.
All this is yours, if only you spare me.”

Enkidu said, “Dear friend, don’t listen
to anything that the monster says.
Kill him before you become confused.”
(Book V)

There is a scene near the center of the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem Gilgamesh that strikes me. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his closest friend, are in the midst of the Cedar Forest. Aided by Shamash, the sun god, they have the monster Humbaba at their mercy. Humbaba is a guardian, charged by the god Enlil to guard the Cedar Forest. He is fierce, frightening. Enkidu, stout of heart and fighter though he is, fears him. Even Gilgamesh, who decreed that they must kill Humbaba to “drive out evil from the world”—or perhaps merely for the fame—grows afraid once within Humbaba’s presence. But this doesn’t stop the epic’s protagonists. They subdue Humbaba. The monster now pleads for his life, and Gilgamesh seems to hesitate. Perhaps the victory is enough. But Enkidu, initially opposed to the journey to the Cedar Forest and the killing of Humbaba, eggs the king on. So the monster is slain, the trees are cut down. It is not clear from the poem if all of the trees are cut down, or just some. Are they to be shipped to Uruk for construction, or is this merely a demonstration of Gilgamesh’s might?

It is a turning point of the poem. Leading up to these events, we have been introduced to the protagonists and have seen them set off on their early adventures. But now we watch them make a decision: to kill, to destroy. Coupled with the next episode (when they kill the Bull of Heaven, sent by the goddess Ishtar as punishment for Gilgamesh’s refusal to become her husband) we have reached the apotheosis of Gilgamesh’s arrogance. The gods will decide that someone must pay the price for these crimes against the gods, against their favored monsters. And so Enkidu must die.

Coming at this from a twenty-first century lens of conservation and stewardship, it is hard not to read Gilgamesh’s arrogance and destruction here as emblematic of the arrogance and destruction of humankind. It suggests to me to the question: who is the real monster: Gilgamesh or Humbaba? We aren’t given enough context to know. A twenty-first century reading is likely completely off base, but it speaks to the power of this ancient epic, that even with the passing of millennia, still it resonates.

One of the oldest surviving pieces of literature we know, Gilgamesh is perhaps most familiar to many Western readers for the story related in the latter half of the poem (Book IX) that greatly resembles the flood story found in the Biblical book of Genesis. But the epic is mostly Gilgamesh’s story and his personality dominates. Enkidu–wild man of nature–has been sent by the gods to relieve the citizens of Uruk of the tyranny of a king who “Takes the son from his father and crushes him,/takes the girl from her mother and uses her,” (Book I) and to the extent that Gilgamesh is distracted from his city and his people, this is successful. But Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s balance, does nothing to subdue Gilgamesh’s ego. It is only Enkidu’s death–the price paid for slaughtering Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven–that knocks Gilgamesh back. Yet still he rages: now he is forced to face mortality but still he seeks to subvert it, searching out the only known man to have defeated death and been granted immortality, Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

It is a short poem (at least what survives), but still manages to pack in what feels like a lot, not only of the adventures of Gilgamesh, but the journey he takes in learning to accept that he too will die, no matter how great he is or his city or his feats. The death of Enkidu brings this to the fore but it still takes Gilgamesh additional wanderings and ultimately, failings, before he can accept mortality for himself. Gilgamesh’s pride in his own abilities is humbled, not by another, but by the ravages of time. And yet, at the end he still brags, showing off his city, the great city of Uruk. It is if he knows that thousands of years later we will still read of him and his exploits.

I have now read two English versions of Gilgamesh, the first a prose version by N.K. Sandars (1972 revision) and the second a poetic version by Stephen Mitchell (2004, the version quoted here). I found the poetic version to my preference, though I do not agree with all of Mitchell’s liberties with the text. True, given the nature of the original—fragmentary and difficult for all but the most specialized scholars to read—any edition for the lay reader will require additions and clarification to make sense of it. Mitchell helpfully includes notes on his changes (indeed, his notes and Introduction combined are longer than the poem), but I question why he rearranged sections of the poem. And I would prefer that he hadn’t removed some of the repetitions, which he felt would be off-putting to the contemporary reader. Perhaps. But to me the circularity, the word-for-word repetitions of complete passages, gives a sense not just of what the original may have been like, but of a literature that is in fact not Western. On the other hand, he produced a very readable text that maintained a poetic from and kept the same divisions (largely) of the originals, while Sandars’s version turns it to prose chapters that break in different locations than the clay tablets on which it was originally found.

I read Gilgamesh as part of my Classics Club project list and for Back to the Classics, Translation category.

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution

The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution
Stephen Heyman
US, 2020

I imagine someone has already done this, perhaps as a personal reading challenge or a college literature course, but you could make a decent reading project of expat-writers living in Interwar France, the “Lost Generation” writers. Fitzgerald. Hemingway. Stein. Ford. A 1920s-30s project.

For most today that list wouldn’t include a writer then among the most famous but largely forgotten today, his early writing deemed too old fashioned, his later novels derivative. Look Louis Bromfield up on JSTOR and the most current references are to agricultural or environmental articles. Indeed, unless you are from a particular area of north-east-central Ohio, are reading your way through the Pulitzer winners, or have an interest in the history of small scale and organic farming, you’ve probably never had reason to hear the name Louis Bromfield. A far cry from his lifetime: best-selling novelist, friend of celebrities, political activist. To quote Deirdre Bair’s cover blurb, “If Stephen Heyman had written Louis Bromfield’s life as a novel, readers would have found the tale too tall to believe.”

And it’s true. I found Heyman’s biography fascinating, unputdownable, almost novelistic in structure. Although the overall arc is chronological, a strict chronology is forsaken in favor of theming each chapter: “Foreign Soil” about the expats in Paris; “Hothouse,” about Bromfield’s Senlis garden, or “Germination” about the early years for Bromfield’s farm. I found it fitting to the telling. Bromfield’s persona and the times in which he lived also made for a memorable slice of literary and agricultural history. He may have gained fame as a novelist, but it is his passion for the land, and his early activity in soil conservation and sustainable farming that continues to resonate today.

An Ohio native son, Bromfield’s early life was unremarkable: born in Mansfield in 1896, he fell in love with farming from an early age, in spite of his mother’s dreams of his becoming a great writer. He chose instead to attend Cornell to study agriculture–though only for one semester–, before attempting unsuccessfully to save the family farm. A stint at Columbia (studying journalism) followed before he enlisted in the army during World War I. So far, so normal. But his mother’s dreams were kept alive: he moved to New York, worked as a journalist, married, and started writing novels. The novel writing funded he next ventures: a move to Paris, then later the countryside in Senlis, where he created his gardens, which would become famed across France, as were his Sunday parties. The gardens even drew the attention of Edith Wharton, who would become friends with Bromfield, as they bonded over their roses. However, she avoided the garden-parties of the younger generation. The Senlis garden also provided Bromfield an opportunity to learn from and observe the local gardeners, tilling the same soil that had been used and reused over the centuries to grow their own little crop of vegetables. Bromfield was  only too aware of the ways in which many American farmers had failed their own soil, turning it from fertile to barren through poor practices, as was at that very moment becoming clear with the appearance of the Midwestern Dust Bowl.

The idyllic interwar period could not last and Bromfield saw the clouds gathering. In contrast with many Americans of his time, he knew that isolationism was untenable; war was inevitable. At the same time, he was anxious to try out his new ideas, to return to the farms of his youth. The family made their return to Ohio, eventually buying a farm south of Mansfield, that Bromfield would christen “Malabar,” a farm that would become well-known through his books and as the wedding-site for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, both friends of Bromfield’s. It was at Malabar that he would live out the remainder of his years, tilling the Ohio soil and experimenting, always experimenting with ways to improve the soil, improve yields, while at the same time avoiding potential pitfalls: seventeen years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bromfield was speaking out against DDT. He knew the importance of yield to a farmer’s livelihood, but he could also see the dangers of monoculture and unvetted chemical solutions. His writing at the time largely turned to memoirs and meditations on farming, and in them, as well as at speaking engagements, Bromfield preached conservation and stewardship.

After his death in 1956, Bromfield’s farm was turned over to a conservation organization and eventually turned into a State Park. His literary reputation already in decline among critics,  eventually his books would be largely forgotten by the reading public as well, outside of the “farm books” which remain influential among farming-environmentalists such as Wendell Berry.

He seems to have been a complex man. Passionate about his farm, yet short-sighted and controlling enough that he drove his younger daughters away: they and their husbands would found their own farms elsewhere. His very liberal politics of the 1920s and 30s would give way to conservative politics during the Second World War when he grew angry over the Roosevelt administration’s failures (in his eyes) to account for farmers in their war policies–he wanted draft exemptions for farmers and for the factories to continue to turn out at least a moderate amount of farm equipment and parts, concerned that to do otherwise would threaten the food resources of a country at war. He was a conservationist and environmentalist who loved the soil, but was not a pure “organic” farmer in today’s sense, choosing a more moderate path that would ensure both yields and soil health.

Having read The Planter of Modern Life, I’m more determined than ever to read some of Bromfield’s novels (and maybe some of his agricultural work). Although it appears that they are largely out of print in paper editions, I was fortunate to be able to pick up copies of two of his better known novels The Farm (a favorite of the last President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush, apparently) and The Rains Came several years back at a regional bookstore. The biography focuses more on the gardens and farming than the novels, but what little it says of the novels intrigues me, The Farm as a semi-autobiographical story, and The Rains Came as a novel set in India about which at least some Indians spoke approvingly: Indian poet Krishnalal Shridharani is quoted, “You know how sensitive we Indians are to all forms of ‘imperialism,’ literary or otherwise,” he said, calling the book “the first ‘real’ novel on India by a non-Indian.” Yet another layer to the story of a life most interesting.