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.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

Cover: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

The Secret of Chimneys
Agatha Christie
England, 1925

When I picked up The Secret of Chimneys this summer it turned out to be one of those “perfect books for the time” sort of events. I’d been reading some heavier books that required a good deal more brain power than a Christie novel does, and it was a breath of fresh air to pick up a mystery, especially one with such charming young characters.

We first meet Anthony Cade, working as a guide for British tourists in southern Africa. A chance meeting with a friend provides him with an opportunity for easier cash: get a manuscript to the publishers in London and return some letters to the lady who wrote them. Neither seems the sort of task likely to present difficulties, but Anthony is beset with adventures almost the moment he arrives in England. And when Virginia Revel turns out not to have written the letters, we discover that we are only at the beginning of a multi-layered intrigue involving a French crook, oil rights, a lost diamond, a missing prince, and, of course, an old country-house known as Chimneys, the scene of crimes both past and present.

Anthony and Virginia are both wonderfully fun characters, as they embark on their own investigations, independent of the professionals on the scene, Inspector Battle and M Lemoine of the Sûreté. And although amateurs, they are not without the ability to detect, if at times their lines of investigation prove unprofitable. Inspector Battle was an interesting character to me. He clearly has a handle on what’s going on, but doesn’t have as much “stage presence” as I would have expected from an “Inspector Battle” novel. He will appear in a number of Christie’s later mysteries and I look forward to seeing how he is presented in these.

As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s one of her stronger ones: although there are many layers and lines of inquiry, I worked out many of the answers without effort, and thought perhaps she left too many clues on the page (which I suppose is a better problem than not enough!). Or perhaps I’m just getting used to her methods and it’s easier to see where she’s going? Nevertheless, a delightful romp.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

Opening line

I have just finished Piranesi, a hauntingly beautiful novel by Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is short, only 245 pages, but this only proves to emphasize that every word matters, from opening page to the perfect final lines.

Told entirely in journal entries, this is the story of a man called Piranesi, seemingly lost in a labyrinth of marble statues, sea-water filled halls and vast chambers, yet filled with child-like wonder and love for all that is around. Gradually, his world opens to the reader, while at the same time other forces start to intrude on his ordered existence to suggest that there is a mystery at the heart of all this that he doesn’t even know to investigate and darkness threatens to shatter the innocence.

It is a novel classified as fantasy or science fiction, and perhaps it is, but I found the magic more in the telling than the plot. The gentle play of words, the gentle unfolding, the final revelation. At times I wondered if it is meant to be a meditation on being lost in our own brains, whether through over-rumination or mental illness, or on being lost in our 21st century lives, rather than the plotted mystery it first appears to be. Regardless, there is one lesson to take away, one appropriate to our current holiday season: the importance of child-like wonder and appreciation. Something that is too easy to loose, to all or our detriment.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

4

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.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw
Henry James
US, 1898

Every year as summer rolls into autumn, I’m tempted to read something appropriately seasonal—something spooky or mysterious, a story shrouded in mist of the moors or night’s chill darkness. The Hound of the Baskervilles is perhaps my ur-example, but The Turn of the Screw very neatly fits the bill as well. It is—by all outer appearances, at least—a ghost story: an inexperienced governess tasked with overseeing the care of an orphaned brother and sister who are all but neglected by their uncaring uncle soon sees evil in every corner, in the form of ghostly apparitions, and makes it her mission to save her young charges. But there are more questions raised than answered, and readers and critics alike can’t seem to agree on if this is actually a ghost story or if is really the story of a mentally unstable governess: Jane Eyre with Bertha in the role of governess.

In some ways, I find this a curious question—the story works, no matter how it is read. There are hints that perhaps the governess is unhinged, and the ghosts are “all in her head,” but at the same time it is not implausible, based purely on the text at hand, to assume it is indeed a ghost story. Much is left vague in the text, with things left unsaid or half-said, and characters seeming to talk to each other, but by way of omissions perhaps actually talking past each other. In the end, either there are ghosts, of a most evil variety, or the governess has entirely lost her mind and brings the evil with her. Either the children are innocents, preyed upon by evil influences, or they are cunning, wily participants in their own destruction. Perhaps it is all the above. The interpretation may say as much about the reader and the reader’s expectations as about the novella itself.

James structures his story with a framing introduction, set decades after the main events, and which functions to introduce the governess’s written manuscript which follows.  The man who has this narrative in his possession, Douglas, raises his audience’s expectations greatly, doling out tiny pieces of information, claiming to never have shared it before, that nothing touches it—for “dreadfulness!” It is a bold claim to make, and a risky one to raise expectations so high. But revisiting the frame after finishing the novella, I find it met, regardless of the interpretation of the story, especially in looking at the children: They are corrupted or they are haunted or they are exposed to madness in one who should protect them—maybe all of the above. They may or may not be innocent, but they are certainly vulnerable. The idea of their corruption, in whatever manner, is indeed, “dreadful.” 

For all the uncertainty surrounding the plot and the reliability of the narrator (and in spite of James’s at time obtuse prose), I found it a suspenseful page-turner, one that doesn’t shy away from the concept of evil. Even if there are no literal ghosts, what remains behind is the presence of evil—the ghost, as it were, of past misdeeds. Even if neither child has ever seen a ghost, they have either previously, currently (to the narrative), or in both instances, been exposed to a darkness from outside themselves. This is the horror of the story.