I bet you were wondering when I was going to get around to part two of my official Brontepalooza, weren’t you? Well, I assure you that I did not forget about the work of Anne Bronte, but I was kinda distracted with this language thing, you understand. Anyway, I am back with the reading things by people who have been dead awhile, so down to business we go. Jamelah Reads The Classics: Brontepalooza Part 2: Agnes Grey.
Agnes Grey tells the story of its eponymous heroine who becomes a governess for — how do I put this gently? — a family full of complete asshats. The kids she has to teach are horrible and the parents aren’t better. Seriously? The little boy? Sociopath. Observe:
“I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.
‘Traps for birds.’
‘Why do you catch them?’
‘Papa says they do harm.’
‘And what do you do with them, when you catch them?’
‘Different things. Sometimes I give them to our cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.’
‘And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?’
‘For two reasons; first, to see how long it will live — and then, to see what it will taste like.’
‘But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?’
‘Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.’
‘But you will have to feel it sometime, Tom — you have heard where wicked people go to when they die; and if you don’t leave off torturing innocent birds, remember, you will have to go there, and suffer just what you have made them suffer.’
‘Oh, pooh! I shan’t. Papa knows how I treat them, and he never blames me for it; he says it’s just what he used to do when he was a boy. Last Summer he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything, except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers; and uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed, and said I was a fine boy.'”
Yeah, serial killer in training, that one.
Unlike the other two Bronte novels I’ve read, Agnes Grey is a completely different kind of book than either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. In Agnes Grey realism is where it’s at, and it’s a wonderful little book (my copy, not counting end notes, clocks in at 195 pages — yes!). Anne Bronte has an engaging, clean style, which is refreshing (especially after Emily Bronte — that was So Very Dramatic), and it’s really a shame that her work isn’t as well-known as that of Charlotte and Emily, because she was very good. There’s a lot I could say about the book, and I debated with myself about whether or not I was going to write something much longer and more involved, but in the end I decided to keep it simple so as not to ruin it for anyone who may want to read it. (Go for it!) In short, Bronte’s handling of the issue of the stratification of social classes in Victorian England is straightforward (she drew on her own experience as a governess) and she manages to pack a lot of hope, longing, disappointment and optimism in her narrative without ever veering into the territory of melodrama, which I think is a sign of a writer who has a lot of control over her prose. It really is a beautiful book with one of the most honestly human characters I’ve encountered in awhile. In fact, this may be the Bronte book I like best, so it’s a good way to wind up this round of Jamelah Reads The Classics.
I’ll be back with my list for the next round soon. (This time, it’ll be 20th century classics I have managed to avoid up until now — I seem to be stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries.) Stay tuned.