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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Why it's worth reading Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey

It's fun to read Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey but it will never be mistaken for a great novel - it lives because of the association with the 2 other Bronte sisters. Why not great? It's a novel almost completely w/out nuance: the eponymous Agnes becomes a governess to, first, a household with children so evil and monstrous that, with another "turn of the screw" we'd be in James, DuMaurier, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King territory - the children seem almost possessed by evil. When Agnes is, thankfully, fired from that job she takes on another, as a governess to teenage sisters who are the most vain, crass, and selfish imaginable. Their vanity and cold-heartedness is matched by that of the local pastor, who evokes the wrath of God and has never undertaken a charitable act in his life. But the assistant pastor, a homely man, is a good man and thoughtful and kind and obviously interested in Agnes. Can you see where this is going? Of course, and that's only half-way through the novel. A great novel has to involve some kind of change or development in the major characters - think of the evolution of, say Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Weston, or, for that matter, of Rochester, keeping it in the family. This novel places characters in a fixed mode - the tension isn't about their changing, learning, or growing, it's about getting Agnes in touch w/ the right people. What makes this novel readable, then? All of the above. It's entertaining to see a novelist eviscerate these awful characters, and Anne Bronte's writing, aside from a few absurd passages of dialogue, is a good as anyone's; her wit at times does approach Austen's (humor was not the strength of her sisters). Once in a while, I think, it's good to read a novel that has survived because it is typical of its age, not because it was exceptional - we get a better understanding of what people in another era sought, expected, and accepted in popular fiction. Emily Bronte was no doubt ahead of her time; Anne was part of hers.

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