This biographical story about Isabella Robinson broke my heart. Imagine that you are Isabella: you are a Victorian lady and have had a privileged upbr...moreThis biographical story about Isabella Robinson broke my heart. Imagine that you are Isabella: you are a Victorian lady and have had a privileged upbringing. Nevertheless, you were married off not once, but twice. Your first husband died, leaving you with a small child, and your second husband is avaricious, cruel and a philanderer.
Since you live in Victorian times, anything you own is the property of your husband's. Your father gave you £5000 as a wedding gift for your first wedding; he gave you another £5000 as a wedding gift for your second wedding. This is a good sum of money (not counting the inheritance you received after your father passed away), and with interest, you earn around £400 a year. Since these were your father's gift to you, your husband cannot touch any of your money. Except that your second husband, Henry Robinson, cajoles then insists that you sign over all your blank checks to him, so that he has access to all your money. Eventually, to keep the peace in your marriage, you relent.
You also find out that your husband has been cheating on you; he has taken on a mistress and has fathered daughters with her. Furthermore, he spends most of his time away from you; he is gone for months at a time, doing business (spending your money), building houses (from the earnings of the businesses you have essentially financed) and being with his other family (his mistress' family). You want out of the marriage, but can't leave, since English law will more than likely award your husband sole custody of your children. You have no choice but to remain with Henry.
You live an unhappy life, empty and lonely, save for the time you spend with your children and when you visit friends. Your friends are an intellectual group, and offer you an escape from the tediousness of your quotidian life. It is a refreshing escape, and makes the monotony of your life bearable. Every time your husband comes home, however, he finds fault in everything you do and say, as well as in the children's behavior.
The one thing that offers you true solace is the time you spend writing about your life in your diary. You describe all your hopes and dreams, and yes, even your attraction toward other men -- crushes, in today's parlance -- such as your children's tutor or a neighboring doctor, because you simply are not receiving the respect, love and attention you crave and desire from your husband.
You write about your husband's atrocious behavior, and you also document every time you have had a conversation or a visit with a good friend you have fallen in love with, Dr. Edward Lane. You and Dr. Lane have long conversations about poetry, literature, philosophy. In other words, he stimulates you intellectually, makes you feel like a woman by igniting all these feelings you never felt in either of your marriages, and unlike your husband, he is a devoted father and husband.
When your husband discovers your diary -- and remember, anything you own, including any of your papers, are considered his property -- he uses that as a means to take your children away from you. It is also his way of gaining a separation from you at first, then again to obtain a divorce later on, on the grounds that you had committed adultery, and that the proof was in your diary. What's worse, the contents of your diaries are laid out not only to the judges at the trial, but are provided to newspapers and magazines as well, so that everyone in England, Scotland and Wales now has access to your innermost thoughts, to the collapse of your marriage, to your fears regarding separation from your children.
It is salacious reading; so much so that some newspaper editors are reluctant to publish what occurred in court or excerpts from your diary, lest children inadvertently read the paper at the breakfast table. Nevertheless, others will publish it; your writing becomes a daily topic of conversation, and not in a good way. The boundary between truth and fiction are discussed, argued, and deliberated in the courtroom, and you have no choice but to remain silent. The man you were in love with, Dr. Lane, denies ever having had any relations with you, and in order to save him and his reputation (as well as to prevent Henry from receiving a monetary amount from Edward, if you and he are proven guilty of adultery), you must admit that everything you wrote about him in your diary was nothing but a fanciful lie. Your lawyers plead insanity -- because why else would a perfectly sound and normal woman write such things in her diary, if not because she couldn't distinguish between fact and fiction, and also because she was suffering from erotomania and/or nyphomania -- and again, you remain silent.
This was a really good work of narrative non-fiction. It showcased how powerless women were, in a time when women were actually becoming their own persons, holding down jobs, having careers and were regarded as esteemed writers, philosophers, nurses and business women. The double standard that was prevalent at the time was disheartening. The fact that for a woman to request a separation or a divorce, she had to prove unusual cruelty, abandonment or physical abuse but not adultery was ridiculous. On the other hand, the primary reason a man could file for separation or divorce was...you got it...adultery.
This book had me livid at times (in a good way). While it is still unclear whether Isabella Robinson had an affair with Edward Lane, what is sure is that in her mind, and by her own admission, and ultimately, in the minds of everyone else at the time, she committed adultery of the heart. By loving someone else, regardless of whether it was physical or not, her husband was able to take her own words and use it against her, taking her children, her money and her life away from her.
There were so many jaw-dropping moments in this book, but I don't want to go into them since they're all spoilers. Suffice to say, as much as the Victorian era is one of my favorites, I don't think I could have abided the double standards as far as marriage went. It's a shame Isabella hadn't been born just sixty or seventy years later: her whole life may have been different if she had been.(less)
There were a few things I really, really loved about Agnes Grey: 1. The beauty, simplicity and flow of Brontë's writing (in epistolary form, no less!),...moreThere were a few things I really, really loved about Agnes Grey: 1. The beauty, simplicity and flow of Brontë's writing (in epistolary form, no less!), 2. The remarkably early consciousness regarding animal rights, and 3. The excitement of once again losing myself in a quaint, romantic little jaunt through Victorian England.
There were also a few things that really, really irked me about it: 1. Agnes (both the character and the work) had a tendency to be overly preachy and moralistic, 2. Despite being a coming-of-age story, Agnes herself undergoes very little growth, and 3. As beautiful as the writing was, there were some passages throughout the novel that were tedious and dry.
Okay, so positives first. The writing was beautiful. To me, there is nothing that quite approaches the beauty of works written in the late 18th through the 19th centuries. Some of my favorite authors and poets -- Austen, all three of the Brontës, Shelley, Tennyson, Frost, Eliot, Rosetti, Thackeray, Dickens, etc. -- were from that era. There are some fantastic modern writers that I would read over and over again, but nothing gives me pause or quickens my senses more than a wondrously written, perfectly worded passage, something that can whisk me away to some other place and time, something that stays with me just because it was so sublime.
To wit: my team and I were having a grousing session at work the other day, and I shared this passage from Agnes Grey with them as I thought it was quite apropos (Agnes was complaining about the thankless nature of her job as governess):
I can conceive few situations more harassing than that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfill your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at nought by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above.
I was, at first, met with silence, then all of them gushed simultaneously: Martin: "Wow...that was great. Never would I ever have thought to use 'that wherein' together!" Alison: "That is so true! But so wordy! No one uses half those words anymore!" Melissa: "Don't you ever read anything simple? Funny? Easy?"
Of course, I could've just as easily have said "Nothing we do will ever please anyone here," but I thought Brontë's passage was so much more beautiful. Wordier, sure. But the fact that someone over a hundred years ago wrote this and elicited a sense of connection and understanding within me...that was pretty amazing.
There were many other passages throughout the text that were so carefully and brilliantly crafted, and to me, that made this work something special. I was also quite taken by how Brontë was ahead of her time in crafting a novel that actually tried to make headway in the yet-unknown arena of showing decency to animals. While animal rights are commonplace in our age, a hundred fifty years ago, this was widely unknown. Some critics have posited that Brontë tried to draw parallels between animals and women and their shared vulnerabilities in a society that regarded both quite poorly. No matter the reason though, I liked this aspect of the novel a lot.
Of the three Brontë sisters, I've always liked Anne the best, as I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is significantly better than Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in tone, scope and delivery. While all three sisters wrote about very strong women, I thought that Wildfell Hall was different in that it was about a woman who chose to openly defy societal and legal strictures to escape from a horrible life/marriage and establish herself as her own woman. Agnes Grey was written before Wildfell Hall, but in a way, I think that Anne Brontë may have used parts of Agnes Grey in what later became Wildfell Hall (e.g., a woman trapped in a horrible marriage, a woman deciding to leave her family and find her own way in the world). While Wildfell Hall is far superior to Agnes Grey, I think any reader would still benefit from a reading of the latter.
Now to some of what annoyed me: Agnes was obviously devout and some may even say a bit Puritanical. However, she was also quite proud and I sometimes found myself thinking that she thought her character to be better than her charges' characters. Through a good portion of the first half of the novel, I kept thinking that for someone so religious and pious, Agnes sure didn't recognize that she was quite flawed herself. It was disappointing to me that there really wasn't much growth in Agnes' character. Yes, she left her family to make a living and not be a financial burden. Yes, she tried to instill better values in the children she was hired to watch and teach. But she wasn't very effective as a governess at either family she worked for. She wasn't well regarded by her employers and was even less so by her charges. It was a shame, because I felt that at least in this, Brontë missed the mark.
Her romance with Mr. Weston was sweetly done; there was nothing out of the ordinary about it. What gave me pause, however, was not that the romance only blossomed in the last third of the book but that as Mr. Weston grew more familiar with Agnes, he -- and the readers -- didn't really see any growth in her. She was the same person at the start and end of her story and what is there in that, that would make someone fall hopelessly in love with that person? She didn't grow emotionally or psychologically; she didn't have any great discoveries about herself; she didn't have any "A-ha!" moments that made her realize that she had to be someone better. She just was. And that was kind of a letdown.
Nevertheless, despite those two things, this was a good, solid read. It wasn't perfect (for that, read Wildfell Hall!), but it was passable and enjoyable. A nice easy read, for someone who just wants something different and who wouldn't mind being whisked away to a quieter, calmer, simpler time.(less)
I've missed reading the classics, especially British Lit. When I first started reading The Moonstone, it all came rushing back to me: the beautiful de...moreI've missed reading the classics, especially British Lit. When I first started reading The Moonstone, it all came rushing back to me: the beautiful descriptions of the English landscape, the wonderful use of words (some of which barely get used these days), the witticisms...but mostly, I didn't realize how much I missed catching a glimpse of quotidian life and living in that time period, temporarily (in this case, life in mid-19th century York).
The Moonstone is largely known as the first real mystery novel, with all the literary tropes attributed to modern day mysteries located all in one novel (interestingly enough, Edgar Allan Poe's works are considered novellas and so can't claim the "first real mystery novel" title). But it was more than that: it was an epistolary (I love those!), it provided a view into the "upstairs-downstairs" relationships within an upper class household, it was funny, it was a love story, it was a peek into race relations, class relations, and it even provided a skewed perspective on class and sex, as seen by various classes and sexes (forgive me if that sounds confusing, but it did give an interesting take on how the upper/lower classes saw men/women).
I would have given it a higher rating. For a good portion of the book, I was holding out at a steady 3. Somewhere along the way, though, everything became too convoluted, too sexist, too contrived. While I enjoyed many parts of the novel, there were many parts that made me cringe as well. Unfortunately, the more cringe-worthy aspects of the work overtook my sentiments, eventually.
I think this is still an important work to read, if only for this reason: for the time period it was written in, it was ahead of its time. For a modern reader, some of the characters' viewpoints (I can't speak to authorial intent as I didn't read up on Collins himself) are definitely dated and may not sit so well with a more enlightened audience. If one can get past some of the things being said towards the middle part of the book, specifically as Betteridge was narrating, the reader may be surprised to find the work actually quite funny and entertaining. The denouement is a tad contrived, but again, keep in mind when this was written.(less)
I was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me real...moreI was very torn with this book. There were parts where the characterization of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji were so real, that it made me really love the writing, the author, the narrative as a whole. The corollary to that, of course, is that there were other parts that Barnes brought forward -- whether fictionalized or true to life -- that made me question why anyone would've even cared about either of these men. It's always a slippery slope with historical fiction, where authenticity -- be it of character, of place, or even of motive -- eventually comes into question. And it certainly came through in this work.
Doyle, obviously the more popular of the titular characters, was well-drawn and much of what Barnes wrote about him could be substantiated through numerous literary and historical sources. Of Edalji, there's significantly less out there, and a majority of what is available centers around the case that brought Arthur and George together. There isn't that much about the man himself, which is a shame.
Still, I found that there was something so abstruse with both men that really made me not care for either character in the end. I thought the novel was fabulous in the beginning, going back and forth between child Arthur and child George, comparing and contrasting, in binary fashion, the similarities between the two boys in spite of the differences in attitude, in bearing, in race and class. But as they grew older, Barnes' characterization brought out the Jeckyll and Hyde in both men, where the gentleman was neither as courteous nor as honorable as could be expected in those times, and the monster took different forms other than the horrific. For Barnes as an author, whose thesis at the end came down to a verdict of "on the one hand vs. an on the other hand", his handling of the dichotomy between (and through) Arthur and George was not as successful, in my opinion.
Maybe in today's society, George would've been characterized as a very high functioning autistic or maybe someone with Asperger's syndrome instead of the aloof, distant and excessively logical man that was portrayed in the book. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle really was as egotistical, as pretentious or as autocratic as he was characterized. Either way, as the men -- and the characters grew older -- I sympathized less and less with each one.
While the mystery, the court case, and the eventual verdict was captivating enough and kept me reading, Barnes' (and Doyle's) dry and relentless forays into spiritism and George's lack of connection with the world ultimately put me off. It was a really good story, but I felt that the execution fell a bit flat.(less)