This book is about a young woman who decides to become a governess and finds the job a lot tougher than she had anticipated. The children refuse to listen to her, their parents blame her for their offspring’s terrible behaviour, and she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the thanklessness of her work.
I’m the same age now as Anne Brontë was when she wrote this book and as an English teacher, a lot of Agnes’s troubles hit home for me. Some struggles are timeless, it seems.
Michael Caine in A Muppets Christmas Carol (1992).
I should probably come right out and say that I did not grow up with A Christmas Carol. In my defense, I am neither British nor American; the story is not as culturally significant in the Netherlands as it is in other parts of the world. Until very recently, my only exposure to the story had been through snippets of the Muppets, Blackadder, and Scrooged. I had some vague idea of the plot and its characters, but I had never seen a full movie adaptation, let alone read the book. Every year I told myself that I would finally pick it up and read it for myself, and every year I either forgot or decided to read other holiday books instead (last year’s pick: Hogfather).
I think I knew that this book would be almost impossible to review. It is the quintessential Christmas read, has been adapted a billion times into other media, and has an iron-clad place in Anglo-American culture. It’s like trying to come up with a fresh perspective on Hamlet; everything has already been said – and probably much better by people much cleverer than you.
So… No pressure.
Carey Mulligan in the 2015 movie adaptation.
Far From The Madding Crowd has everything I have come to expect from a Thomas Hardy novel: farming, dead babies, tragic love affairs that come to a bloody end… Everything on the Thomas Hardy bingo card, really. After Tess of the d’Urbervilles (review here), Under The Greenwood Tree, and a number of short stories, I felt more than adequately prepared for the task. I let myself get sucked into the drama, but the whole time, I was on my guard. After all, the mortality rate is high in Wessex. Bathsheba Everdene had all the makings of a tragic heroine and I was waiting for her to meet her horrible fate. However, not only does she live to tell the tale, but she ends up married to the man we knew was right for her all along.
Was Hardy more optimistic here than in his later years? Or is this not such a happy ending after all?
Reuben Sachs is the second Persephone Books work to be featured on this website and I was very excited to get my hands on it. Social satire written by a young Victorian woman? Yes please! Oscar Wilde himself had nothing but praise for the book:
Its directness, its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic. Like all [Levy's] best work it is sad, but the sadness is by no means morbid. The strong undertone of moral earnestness, never preached, gives a stability and force to the vivid portraiture, and prevents the satiric touches from degenerating into mere malice. Truly, the book is an achievement.
I am not quite as impressed. To me, Reuben Sachs is absolutely fascinating in theory, but lacks a certain something in its execution.
Jane Eyre (2011).
If you were an unmarried young woman in the Victorian age and you didn’t have a fortune of your own, working as a governess would be one of the few ways you could earn your living. They would be hired by a wealthy family to live in a house that wasn’t theirs and look after other people’s children, with no leisure time and few possessions to call their own. It was hard and often thankless work – and many of these women found themselves wishing for a way out, for something more.
[Cue Belle singing about the "great wide somewhere."]
A still from the 1996 mini series.
When we think of the name “Brontë”, Anne is never the first sister to come to mind. Many of us will have read either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre at some point in our lives, maybe even both, but who among you could name one of Anne’s books (before reading the title of this post)? It seems that that history has delegated her to the position of “the other one,” even though her first novel, Agnes Grey, was well-received and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had been an instant success; it quickly outsold Emily’s Wuthering Heights and was sold out altogether in only six weeks. Charlotte Brontë, for one, thought Tenant was an immature work. In a letter to W.S. Williams, she wrote:
That it had faults of execution, faults of art, was obvious, but faults of intention of feeling could be suspected by none who knew the writer. For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully.
After Anne’s death, she prevented the book’s republication, because it seemed to her “hardly … desirable to preserve.” So is this why The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is not read by highschool students all over the world today? Because it’s just not very good? I think not. There are some pacing issues and a few nitpicks here and there, but I would argue that there is a far more influential factor: romanticisation, or, the lack thereof. Read more
Brontë in a portrait painted circa 1840.
Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell first met in August 1850, after Gaskell had already been intrigued by Jane Eyre and its mysterious author for some time. Gaskell writes: “She and I quarrelled & differed about almost everything , – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but… I hope we shall ripen into friends.” And they did: despite their frequent disagreements, they would exchange letters and ideas and pay each other visits until Brontë passed away in 1855, Gaskell, who had not heard anything from her for four months, did not even know that she had been ill. A few months later, she started working on the story of Brontë’s life; Gaskell spoke to many of Brontë’s friends and collected as much written material as she could get her hands on, including a great number of letters. The resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was the first successful biography of a woman and written by a woman.
“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.
Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?
In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.
TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).