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)
Oh, Sidney Carton. How I think you got the short end of the stick in this story.
Fie on you, Dickens! Fie!
When I first read A Tale of Two Cities back w...moreOh, Sidney Carton. How I think you got the short end of the stick in this story.
Fie on you, Dickens! Fie!
When I first read A Tale of Two Cities back when I was a teenager, I was not necessarily a fan. I understood its historical import. I understood what Dickens was trying to do. I got the metaphors, I got the motifs and the symbolism, I got the themes (i.e., resurrection, revolution, societal and class oppression). In short, on an intellectual level, I appreciated it. But did I like it like it? No. I thought the characters were bland and were too predictable. The usual Dickensian humor wasn’t there. And the historical aspect of it wasn’t so much weak, but that Dickens’ discomfort with it shown through bright and clear. And if the author isn’t necessarily comfortable with what he’s writing, how can I, as a young, impressionable reader, be comfortable with it?
Also, I thought that the novel, as a whole, was kinda boring. Until Part III. Then it became interesting.
Of all the characters in the story, the one who really jumped out at me was Sidney Carton. He was an anti-hero. He was a drunkard, a good-for-nothing louse…or so it seemed. But he was also set up to be the hero from the very beginning. But Dickens pitted him against the oh-so-vanilla Charles Darnay, that bastion of propriety and goodness, that Carton seemed positively reckless and BAD, with a capital B. And if he’s oh-so-bad, how can he possibly be the hero of the story? So I say it again, fie on you, Dickens! Fie! Playing with my young teenage heart like that. Hmph!
To be perfectly honest, I was drawn to read A Tale of Two Cities again after reading Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series. (Yes, yes, mock all you want. Clare writes fluff. YA fluff. But highly addictive, utterly engrossing fluff. I am proud to say I ate it all up.) Dickens’ novel plays a huge part in all three of Clare’s books, and I wanted to see if I still felt the same way about it. Was Carton still as bad (and good) as I once thought of him? Would I still find it boring? Would I care for Charles Darnay and Lucie Manette a smidgeon more?
So lo and behold, over two decades later, I find the following:
• Sidney Carton is still as tragic as I initially thought he was. • Sidney Carton is still the only reason to read this book. • The revolutionary sections were harder to read this time around. • Still can’t stand Darnay. He’s just way too bland. How in the world could Lucie have fallen for him, I wondered over and over again. • Lucie is probably the worst heroine out there. Like, seriously? Girls are supposed to identify with her? For what? What has she done? She’s either a comforter or needs comforting. No spine whatsoever. As romantic heroines go, I’d give her a rating of 0.5. • How could I have missed that whole knitting peoples' names into stuff? The one prevailing thought that came to me each time Mde Defarge showed up? How many socks, shawls or scarves has she knitted in over a decade? And all these articles have names knitted into them? And that these names are the names of the people they intend to send to the guillotine? I hope whoever ends up with these knitted articles know what they’re getting. Oh, and these days, if she’s really able to knit names into articles of clothing, she’d make a killing big-time on Etsy.com. • Jerry Cruncher is a horrible husband. That poor wife of his. What a role model for little Jerry Cruncher!
None of the characters were really well-developed. The love triangle---if you could even call it that---was really weak, practically non-existent. I don’t know what Carton or Darnay saw in Lucie…maybe other than the fact that she was one of four female characters in the novel, and standing beside The Vengeance, Miss Pross and Madame Defarge, yeah, I would’ve gone with Lucie too.
So, say what you will, but I am utterly let down. I am not a fan.
And so now, in addition to saying “Fie on you, Dickens! Fie!” I will add in “Fie on you, Clare! Fie!” You led me astray with your love of A Tale of Two Cities, but know this: you can’t convince me to read it a third time, if it ever comes up again!
Because the Carton-Lucie-Darnay triangle was nowhere near the Will-Tessa-Gem love story. Will was more developed than Carton, and Gem was leap years beyond Darnay. And let’s face it. Tessa and Lucie? Not even in the same league. (less)