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.
Although I have some semi-ambitious goals for how much I will read in 2021, I don’t feel compelled to attach myself to any particular challenges–except for Karen’s Back to the Classics challenge! This one is always fun, and after finally reading all 12 categories last year, I want to see if I can do it again. I’m also hoping to improve on 2020 in one way: reading more books that are actually on my Classics Club list. Of course, the way these things go, some shiny classic will probably pop onto my radar and distract me from my good intentions, but as long as I’m reading, it’s good!
This year’s categories:
A 19th century classic.
A 20th century classic. and posthumously published.
A classic by a woman author.
A classic in translation.
A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.
A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.
New-to-you classic by a favorite author — a new book by an author whose works you have already read.
A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title.
A children’s classic.
A humorous or satirical classic.
A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction).
A classic play.
I don’t have any specific plans at this point – there’s so many possibilities!
If I’m to stick to my Classics Club list, the play would likely be from Anne Carson’s translation An Oresteia, which I was supposed to read for a Classics Club spin in September, but didn’t get to. I don’t think I have anything humorous or satirical on my list, but I do have several P.G. Wodehouse on my shelves, so that’s a good possibility. Several people have listed The Leopard as their likely classic about an animal or with an animal in the title, and it’s on my Club list, so possible.
The category that’s a new-to-you classic by a favorite author is interesting. I still have several unread Elizabeth Gaskell I could read, or, there’s The Sound and the Fury, which I think I’ve pledged to read the last two years. Maybe this will be the year?
More likely than not, the 2021 challenge reading will be like 2020: I’ll end up reading books that strike my interest and slotting them in where they fit. And hopefully that only means one or two books to deliberately seek out at the end of the year.
There’s nothing like pushing it to the last minute, but I did it! For the first time, I’ve managed to read books for all 12 categories in the Back to the Classics Challenge AND write about them (for 3 entries in the challenge).
I actually read more than 12 classics in 2020, but that ones listed below are the books I felt best fit Karen’s categories. Other than #5, I didn’t have to make a deliberate plan for any of these categories, in fact, for some of them I had finished the book before I realized that it was a perfect fit (such as The Wind in the Willows).
It feels like it’s been a long time since I read some of these: did I really read The Nibelungenliedthis year?
As far as the books, I enjoyed most of them. (I don’t think “enjoyed” really applies to a book like Native Son, but I’m happy I read it.) I can’t believe it took me until this year to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen is always a treat, and Cranford was a wonderful treat. But if I had to pick a top read, it would probably be the short story collection Ficciones. There’s no good reason it had been previously abandoned; sometimes I just do that.
My biggest disappointment with this list? Most of them aren’t on my Classics Club list – something to work on for next year!
The Decameron Giovanni Boccaccio Italy, 1350-53 Translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013
Several things spring to mind at the mention of The Decameron: plague, sex, and corrupt priests. While the latter two items are abundant in the 100 stories that make up the pages of The Decameron, there is less of the Black Death than its reputation might suggest.
Written in the mid-1300s, Boccaccio’s collection of tales has a strong framing organization that divides the tales into sets of ten, told over a series of ten days. Each day also has a introduction and a conclusion and an Author’s Preface and Conclusion round out the book. It is in the Day 1 Introduction that one of the most famous passages, that describing the effects of the plague–which devastated Florence, Italy in 1348–is found. Interestingly, according to the Introduction of the edition I read, many of Boccaccio’s details come from an 8th century work, Historia Longobardorum by Paulus Diaconus, although Boccaccio’s father was also involved in organizing relief for the Florentines and may have shared what he witnessed with his son, who is believed to have been outside the city at the time. (It is also interesting to me to learn that the plague still exists, but is readily treated by antibiotics.) Regardless of the exact sourcing, Boccaccio’s description of the devastation caused by the plague and the subsequent civic and moral decay is harrowing. The gruesome infection, mass burials, abandonment of friends and family, abandonment of all social, moral and ethical principles–such was the state of 1348 Florence.
Moreover, since they themselves, when they were well, had set the example for those who were not yet infected, they, too, were almost completely abandoned by everyone as they languished away. And leaving aside the fact that the citizens avoided one another, that almost no one took care of his neighbors, and that relatives visited one another infrequently, if ever, and always kept their distance, the tribulation of the plague had put such fear into the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned their brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and very often wives their husbands. In fact, what is even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.
Day 1, Introduction
Against this backdrop, Boccaccio sets his collection. A group of young Florentines, seven women and three men, feeling abandoned by family and friend, though yet healthy themselves, gather at Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Florence and decide to leave the city, embarking a few miles away to the countryside, to “hav[e] as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way” (Day 1, Introduction). This is the last the plague is mentioned, as we enter into a world of feasting, dancing, nature and storytelling.
It is quickly established by the young people that they will select a “queen” or “king” to order their existence on each day, with the first queen, Pampinea, setting the rhythm for the days that follow: they spend the mornings in gardens or meadows, a midday luncheon followed by music, dance and rest before finally gathering in a shaded spot during the hottest part of the day to tell their stories, one each. They deviate from the schedule only on Fridays and Saturdays for religious observance and personal hygiene. It is an idealized world they find themselves in, without intrusion of the outer world or its concerns. On one day, they visit a garden of such pristine beauty and isolation, that it seems as if it is meant to represent Eden. They are separate from–and we as readers in turn are separate from–all outside consideration or care.
Although on Days 1 and 9 the storytellers are allowed to give free reign to share whatever they wish, the remaining eight days are each themed, on stories ranging from tragic love to love overcoming all, from tricks played on others or wit employed against other to get something the trickster or wit desires to stories of liberality or magnificence of wealth and deed. Some are humorous while some are tragic. Intelligence and wit are roundly celebrated while foolishness and ignorance are punished or denounced. And yes, there is plenty of sex–and while early English translations altered or omitted some of the most scandalous tales, in general Boccaccio sticks with tame statements (embracing, sleeping with) or euphemism. I was put in mind of the bawdy humor of Shakespeare.
I was also reminded of Shakespeare by the style or themes of some of the tales, especially those dealing with lovers and confused identities. This isn’t perhaps surprising; although there were about 250 years between them, they had some of the same, or similar sources to reference, and it is believed that Shakespeare took a portion of the plot of Cymbeline from Day 2, Story 9 and As You Like it from Day 3, Story 9 (likely by way of a French translation).
What is perhaps more surprising–although not unprecedented, as Dante’s Inferno places not a few clergymen in the torments of Hell–is the number of stories featuring a corrupt or immoral priest, nun, or other religious figure. Clearly, even well before Martin Luther’s famous 16th century critique of the Catholic church, those outside of it–but still of the Catholic faith–saw hypocrisy, avarice, and lust within. (Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising in an era in which the Church might be chosen as an occupation, not out of faith, but due to poverty or lack of other opportunity, or that might be chosen for a child by their parent.) However, the context of the stories–and especially within the framing introductions and conclusions–makes clear that the humor at the expense of the clergy is not reflective of any disbelief in the Christian faith, even if perhaps it expresses a cynicism at the honesty and integrity of the faith leaders.
At times the stories can feel a bit tedious or a bit repetitive. Although there is a wide variety of stories, a group of 9 or 10 stories on a topic (the tenth storyteller, Dioneo, doesn’t always stick with the program) can sometimes make it feel as if one story is blending into the next. And even between the different topics, many of the stories somehow still end up about love (or lust). With 100 total stories, it is also easy to forget many of them by the time the book is completed. That is not to say there aren’t memorable stories. I especially found amusing the handful of stories from Day 8 and 9 that featured the (real) Florentine Calandrino. Portrayed in this context as a gullible dupe, his friends were constantly playing practical jokes on him. In general, in fact, the stories of Day 8 were some of my favorites, as many were amusing tales of tricks people play on one another, although there are other stories throughout that are laugh-out-loud as well. There are also some rather sweet stories in Day 2, of people who have suffered great misfortunes only to wind up with a happy ending.
However, we are also reminded that these stories are very much of their time–women as property, the nobility as far superior to those low-born (and therefore subject to different rules). Additionally, while most of the stories are grounded in the real world (if occasionally a bit far fetched), at times moments arrive that remind us that The Decameron was still a Medieval work, although one tiptoeing on the edges of the Italian Renaissance. We are starting to see the influence of learning and intellect, but there also remains the evidence of courtly love, chivalric behavior, and even on occasion a bit of magic.
There is another way The Decameron took me back in time. Many of the stories, especially in the second half of the book, are set in Florence, a city I know well, having spent four months there as part of my university course. The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, near where our storytellers gather at the beginning and disperse in the end, is very familiar, as we passed through almost daily on our way to classes. An endnote for the third story of Day Eight sent me down a Google maps rabbit hole: it identified the location of Calandrino’s house as being near the corner of present day Via Ginori and Via Guelfa–which is where our apartment was (although in a 19th century building). Another story has the protagonist walking along Via della Scala, another familiar street: it was where our classes were located at the time. It was an unexpected jaunt down memory lane, but enjoyable nonetheless.
I picked up The Decameron as part of my libri Italiani project list, but also greatly inspired by Cleo’s (Classical Carousel) plans to read it this fall/winter. I’d previously read several of the stories for a college course, and it was fun to return to them. The edition I read was translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, and while I generally found it very readable, I did find his decision to use words such as “guy” and “buddy” to represent common speech a bit jarring. On the other hand, Rebhorn provided a contextualizing introduction and copious endnotes providing information on Boccaccio’s sources, translation decisions or explanations (such as puns that don’t translate), and historical background, all of which can be useful to the reader. (Depending on your reading preferences–I found reading each note as I came to it too interrupting, so I took to reading all of the notes for a story before starting it.) Generally speaking, regardless of whether the reader wants all that sort of extra material, this is a book where it’s perhaps best to use one of the newer translations (there are a couple to choose from), as the older editions are often incomplete or bowdlerized.
So I said no challenges this year. Right. Just call me a lemming, following the crowd, but all the posts about Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge, and I find I’m somewhat helpless to resist. Especially as there are some fun categories this year (I’m looking forward to “Family” and “Nature in the Title”). It also helps that I have one qualifying title read already and another half-done. So there’s that.
The categories this year, and some possibilities:
19th Century Classic.Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1800-1899.
20th Century Classic. Whatever doesn’t fit into any other category and was published between 1900-1970.
Classic by a Woman Author. Too many choices to decide so early. Agatha Christie? Jane Austen? Elizabeth Gaskell? Willa Cather? Edith Wharton?
Classic in Translation. Hmm….well, if I read something else for #11 (Abandoned Classic), Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges) could slot here. Most likely something translated from Spanish (knowing me), although it’s been along time since I’ve read anything from French. And I’ve never read any Russians (really!), so maybe I should try something there. I do have some Tolstoy on my shelves.
Classic by a Person of Color. I have several possibilities on my Classics Club list: Native Son, Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), or Go Tell It on the Mountain (Or…Go Tell It on the Mountain could go for #9). I also keep seeing Nella Larson’s name, and it’s about time I finally read one of her novels.
A Genre Classic. The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie. Already finished; I’ll be working on the post next!
Classic with a Person’s Name in the Title. Karen says plays are okay and I’m thinking some Shakespeare this year, so maybe finally King Lear or Othello. Or Henry VI or Richard III or… Or maybe Jane Austen’s Emma, because rereads for the win?
Classic with a Place in the Title. Is this the year I finally read Cranford? (Why I haven’t yet, I don’t know. I love Gaskell.) Or I might reread Mansfield Park, which I’ve been itching to get to for a while.
Classic with Nature in the Title. I really don’t know what I want to read here. From my shelves, there’s The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield, which I could read as part of my Reading Ohio project as well.
Classic About a Family. This will be a reread of One Hundred Years of Solitude. No debate.
Abandoned Classic. I don’t actually have very many books I could choose from (and I do NOT plan to read both part of Don Quixote this year, even though Part 2 would count). Most likely Ficciones, although I could also finally read The Sound and the Fury (which only got away because of too many library books; I loved what I read).
Classic Adaptation. Another fun category, I’m (currently) reading Far From the Madding Crowd for this. I also plan to watch the 2015 film once I’ve finished the novel, but that’s just for fun.
Of course, 2020 is very likely to be a year of lots of Agatha Christie (I’m on a roll…). She doesn’t count for every category, but I’m sure I could hit #s 2, 3, 7, 8, and 12 just with Dame Agatha alone. Last year, I even contemplated (but did not follow through on) the possibility of completing the challenge with only classic mysteries (I think it would be doable most years, although I’ve never abandoned a mystery, so #11 would be impossible for me this year). Which leads to other tantalizing list ideas…but more on that soon.
So many possibilities, but that’s half the fun of it! But will this be the year I actually read books for every category (and more importantly, write about them)? And do you have any votes for what I should (or shouldn’t read)? Community input always makes reading more fun!