Austen in August & Pride and Prejudice reread

My relationship with Jane Austen is, I think, a bit complicated. I read all of her works in my early teens, and mostly didn’t like them very much. I think I was too young for them, and moved onto Wuthering Heights, which (rather worryingly, when considered as a commentary on my teenage mental health) I thought was much more realistic and enjoyable. Continue reading

Agnes Grey

Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Brontë
Rating: 3/5

First Classics Club review!

 

I finished Agnes Grey a month ago, and it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to write this review. Although I took stacks of notes when I was reading, I’ve found it difficult to format them into a coherent structure. This is because it ended up becoming an unexpectedly personal read for me. It’s always harder for me to talk about the things that have made me feel rather than think (or, in this case, both at the same time). From reviews I’d glanced at beforehand, I was expecting a less well-realised Jane Eyre; this was not at all what I encountered. A quick (spoiler-free) synopsis, and then I’ll explain what I mean. The titular character, who grew up in a happy family that is now in financial difficulties, goes off to work as a governess, make her way in the world, find herself etc. She works for two different families, and midway through the novel, as ever, a man enters, stage left, and complicates things.

The problem with the novel, I think, is that the author tries to address too many topics. At the time, she did not have the maturity as a writer to do so (though she certainly developed it later: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of the most complex and beautiful novels I have ever read), and at times the narrative feels episodic rather than continuous. This is particularly the case with Agnes’ experience with the first family. A great many words are invested in describing the anecdotes and personalities related to those three children, so you rather expect that aspect of the story to have some relevance to the bulk of the novel—whether in the format of a recurrent villain, or a piece of crucial character development, or some other facet—but it never does. It just feels rather tacked on at the start. Because there is no resolution of the issues raised in that section, and no continuing thread of any kind that runs throughout the novel, it feels rather unsatisfying. Every imaginable social theme, from poverty and ill health through to education and parental disengagement, has a cameo; unfortunately, they are each picked up briefly, toyed with, and discarded, never to be seen again.  For example, the conflict Agnes faces when asked to make the first set of children behave themselves and learn, without recourse to any kind of discipline, is reminiscent of the challenge now being faced by teachers throughout the UK: essentially having to parent the children in their classes themselves, with access to none of the disciplinary measures used by parents, all the while having to force some kind of education in around the edges. Had this theme been properly addressed by Agnes’ narrative or actions, had it been dealt with throughout the novel, it would have been a compelling read. Unfortunately, although the author describes the situation in great detail, it comes across as more of a whinge than a plot point, something which could be said about a great deal of the book.

Of course, this raises the other issue. The one consistent strain that runs throughout the novel is Agnes’ character. There is no development, very limited self-insight on the occasions when she is wrong, and constant judgement of the other characters. Agnes is self-pitying, self-righteous, and blind to her own flaws. There’s nothing wrong with a heroine starting out that way, but for her to remain stuck in that rut for the entirety of the book is frustrating. Perfect people are as annoying in literature as they are in real life—and, since the narrative is first-person, there is no escaping her observations about everything and everyone. Although I’m not particularly an Austen fan, I found it hard to avoid comparisons with Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet—both of whom begin as judgemental characters and develop beyond that. Moreover, the two Austen heroines both have qualities—kind-heartedness and wit, respectively—that muddle together with their flaws and turn them into believable, well-rounded characters. Much of what Agnes says and does is from a sense of duty, rather than being derived from her own personal traits, which means that she often falls flat at the times when she should be most relatable: when she is isolated and alone, friendless and bullied, I tried to feel sorry for her—but mostly I just wanted her to stop whining.

This is not always the case, however. The thing that sticks with me most vividly is the novel’s brutal and unrelenting depiction of unrequited love—or, at least, unrealised love. Specifically, it’s the type of unrequited love that happens when you fall in love with someone who definitely doesn’t love you back, except that you’re not quite positive, and you’re certainly far too shy to actually ask. It is that very particular type of anguish that comes from being simultaneously unable to hope and unable to stop hoping—even though the hope only aggravates the pain of the hopelessness. In Agnes’ narration, this is almost more of an internal dialogue than an internal monologue—which is a familiar feeling for me, as, I imagine, for many people. That tension was so effectively created that I had to pause halfway through the novel and read the spoilers for the end, just so that I knew what to expect either way. Really, I rooted for that relationship more than I’ve rooted for a fictional romance since I was about sixteen—not only because I liked the participants, but because the atmosphere of uncertainty was so painfully relatable. She writes melodramatic poetry, which she shares with the reader; she finds herself, to her own great irritation, staring into the mirror and cataloguing her aesthetic quirks and faults; her mood swings from high to low to high with pendulous reliability, sometimes within the same sentence. She refers to her inability to stop thinking about Edward Weston as ‘painful, troubled pleasure, too near akin to anguish’, and it’s impossible for me not to feel sympathy for her when she pleads within herself for permission to think about him:

 

“Yes, at least, they could not deprive me of that: I could think of him day and night; and I could feel that he was worthy to be thought of. Nobody knew him as I did; nobody could appreciate him as I did; nobody could love him as I—could, if I might: but there was the evil. What business had I to think so much of one that never thought of me? Was it not foolish? Was it not wrong? Yet, if I found such deep delight in thinking of him, and if I kept those thoughts to myself, and troubled no-one else with them, where was the harm of it? I would ask myself. And such reasoning prevented me from making any sufficient effort to shake off my fetters.” –Ch 17 (Confessions).

 

There are other aspects of the book that struck a chord. Although Agnes’ character certainly left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed the way that her relationship with God was portrayed. Her friendship with Mr Weston was formed as he read passages from the Bible to an elderly woman with poor health, and reassured her of God’s love whilst she was in a dark place. I know a lot of people have criticised Agnes’ and Edward’s interactions with Nancy Brown as ‘sermonising’, but I felt that those passages reflected better on Agnes than anything else in the book—it’s the only time when she actually tries to empathise with someone else, really genuinely tries to improve someone’s life out of love rather than duty—and it’s that empathy on which the connection between Edward Weston and Agnes is founded. Perhaps that is why, for others, the romance in the book felt lacklustre, while for me it was definitely lustrous.

In short—Agnes Grey is a good book with plenty of problems. If it didn’t have the name ‘Brontë’ on the front cover, maybe we’d all be a bit more forgiving, myself included. As it is, I do wish that Anne had let Agnes grow, just a little bit—but I’m still glad she wrote it.

Madame Bovary

Title: Madame Bovary
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Translator: Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Rating:
1/5

Madame Bovary. I probably should have read this before; it’s one of the great classics, after all. I’m glad I didn’t. It was such hard work to get through.

It’s almost impossible for me to review this without spoilers. Normally, a great deal of what I do and don’t like about a book is tied up in the language and character development, which makes it relatively easy to discuss my thoughts without spoiling major plot points. In this case, the development of the central character is expressed through major plot points, meaning that I don’t know how to talk about the book without mentioning them. In short, SPOILER ALERT.

The problem with basing an entire book around one character—in this case, the eponymous Mme Bovary (henceforth Emma)—is that, if that character is fundamentally unlikeable, it’s more-or-less a given that the book will be as well. As far as I could tell, Emma’s reasons for cheating on her (loving, if a bit dim) husband are that… he doesn’t have perfect table manners and can’t afford to buy her a pony? Perhaps, if she had been tricked or trapped into the marriage, I would have had a little more sympathy. She wasn’t: in a revolutionary move for 19th century literature about unhappy marriages, her father refuses to consent to the marriage unless she does as well, and even removes himself from the situation so that her decision is her own. She wanted to get married to Monsieur Bovary. The fact that she changed her mind a month later is neither here nor there—it was entirely her choice. I wanted to slap her—or at least sit her down with a cup of tea and demand that she justify her life choices.

Cheating is never justified, but I have read plenty of novels where I could at least empathise with the adulterous character. Not the case here. Monsieur Bovary is not a crook, a cheat, a bully, an alcoholic or a gambler. He isn’t even emotionally absent—he’s always doing little things for Emma to demonstrate that he loves her. Emma’s fundamental inability to deal with the consequences of her choices, like grown-ups do, makes her unbearable to read. She keeps talking about how oppressed she is—oh, how hard it’s been, since she got married. She’s not oppressed, just selfish. Her narcissism and immaturity blind her to the fact that she is, in fact, an extremely blessed and comfortably-off woman Often, I felt like the narrator was asking me to sympathise with her least sympathetic actions—the occasions when she has inadequate funds to buy a present for her lover, for example, because she’s spent all her husband’s money on presents for her lovers.

I have read, of Madame Bovary, that it’s a tragic depiction of how women were pigeonholed by their parentage and marriages at the time. I feel that it’s rather a depiction of people shirking their responsibilities. This afflicts the secondary characters as well, though less dramatically than it does Emma. Monsieur Bovary is an attentive husband, but he fails to pay any attention to the family finances, even though he also has a daughter to provide for. (In fact, the daughter is treated as so irrelevant that I had to double-check her name when writing the review—it’s Berthe). M Homais completely disregards the duty of care that he has towards his patients, particularly when he talks M Bovary into a botched operation on a disabled youth, knowing that it will go wrong and merely wanting to bully the Bovarys out of town. Duty of care is not a new concept—Hippocrates, anyone? Rodolphe and Leon both embark on affairs with Emma without thinking it through properly, and then seem surprised when it doesn’t go so well. Justin is so besotted with Emma that he ignores the responsibility he has to his employer, and ends up being partially responsible for her death—though, unlike the other characters, he does appear to show remorse for his actions. The characters in this book are really not very clever, nor very easy to like.

Another factor that made me uncomfortable was the implicit message that women’s flighty little hearts and heads can’t handle education, or perhaps that the working classes should know their station. Emma’s brattish behaviour is often linked to her education, with the subtext that, had she remained an ignorant peasant girl, she would have been more satisfied with her lot in life. Of course, I can make allowances for the fact that it was the 19th century in France—Victor Hugo’s Cosette, Fantine and Esmeralda are hardly feminist icons either—but the point was laboured so heavily that it left a sour taste in my mouth. Flaubert’s contemporary Thackaray manages to write the thoroughly unlikable Becky in Vanity Fair without ever suggesting that the root cause is her education, or even her gender. He chalks it up to (lack of) parenting, which is a much more realistic take.

I did like the way that the structures and artifices Madame Bovary builds up around herself throughout the novel, the complex mess of masks and fantasies, are all comprehensively destroyed during her death throes. There is no lingering beauty about her death; she dies slowly and unromantically, in agony. Perhaps she imagined she would look like Ophelia or Juliet. Instead, she gets a thoroughly unglamorous scene, drenched not in blood but in vomit. The scene that sticks with me most vividly is that which occurs shortly after her death: her husband decides that he wants a lock of her hair. It’s a sentimental gesture, appropriate for the era; a sign of devotion which Madame Bovary herself would surely have approved. However, the person responsible for collecting the locks doesn’t snip neatly but instead hacks away at her, leaving the corpse with shiny bald patches among the hair that has been so lauded in previous chapters. It gives a sense of completeness to her ending, a devastation that would not have worked if her perfect corpse had been allowed to lie gloriously in state, inspiring emotion and heartbreak in all who saw it.

Of course, the novel itself is beautifully written. The one star I have given it is in recognition of the fact that it is perfectly executed, with flawless descriptions of people and places. Madame Bovary is a classic for a reason: it has certainly stayed with me since I’ve read it; there are pictures and thoughts in my mind, things I am turning over in my head, which would not have been there if I hadn’t read it. I just wish the experience of doing so had been at least partly enjoyable.