Reading Anne Brunty's Agnes Grey
last night, because I couldn't sleep, and a chap from Nidderdale - I'll fill in the name when I get home* - complaining about Charlotte's undervaluation of both her younger sisters' writings. Which certainly is striking, and painful. Does anyone accuse Charlotte of having destroyed the Gondal writings? I feel almost certain of it - until I speculate that Emily, sufficiently rattled by Charlotte's publication of her Gondal poems, might on her deathbed have asked Anne to get rid of the rest. But he tells us as a certainty that at any rate Charlotte did destroy the manuscripts of their published novels, so I suppose that is authoritative, though I don't know on whose authority.
[Brontë - I know, they changed the last name like u creatively re-spell a first name today, Erykah. But "Brontë" is difficult to type into Blogger when you're in a rush.]
*[Arnold Craig Bell. An enthusiast from outside the universities, he lived in Nidderdale at Folly Lodge. Between 1950 and 1992 he wrote studies of Alexandre Dumas, Handel, the songs of Schubert, as well as Anne Brontë.. -- all published by small presses, e.g. Merlin Press in this case. Also several volumes of poetry, which were published by Outposts.]
Writing about Anne Brontë is almost inavariably about REPUTATION, because of her unusual situation, for a novelist, of being always damagingly compared with two more famous sisters. Not that you find many people explicitly stating
that Anne is a lesser author than the other two. That is, as it were, a judgement that doesn't need to be spelled out. I suppose it is a judgement secretly felt - and thus made - even by those very people who are very fierce in her defence. Bell writes about reputation for pages. The Internet, as regards authors, is always boringly obsessed with this theme. I am thoroughly weary with hearing about George Moore. Subtract that theme from writing about Anne Brontë, and what else are you left with? That Agnes Grey
is a powerful statement about governesses. That The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
is a powerful statement about debauched behaviour and a wife's right to escape it. All this is true, but it's not very exciting or original. I should want to say something else, but I too feel the blankness, the - What to do with this text? What to do with this babied Anne, whom we must refer to by her first name?
Yet, after all, when we entered the lofty iron gateway, when we drove softly up the smooth, well-rolled carriage road, with the green lawn on each side, studded with young trees, and approached the new but stately mansion of Wellwood, rising above its mushroom poplar-groves, my heart failed me, and I wished it were a mile or two farther off.
This is Agnes, aged 18, arriving at the Bloomfields. "Wellwood" is one of those names that might in earlier fiction promise a Jonsonian image of abundance and moral strength. Here the symbolism is replaced by realism. Of course they would give it a nice name; they have a nice name themselves. "Lofty" and "stately" are staples of idealistic description, words later used in tourist literature. But somewhat complicating this is the daylight clarity of the estate's newness; those studded beginnings of a park, and the "mushroom poplar-groves". The adjective refers not to shape - these might well be Lombardy Poplars, widely planted after 1800 - but connotes "sprung up in a night" (poplars being all fast-growing trees).
Agnes' feelings are, naturally, aroused from the weary journey into active fear at the thought of meeting strangers and having to rely on unaided powers as never before. But this sentence also describes the dwindling of fancy into fact - not alarming fact, but specific, and different from what could have been imagined.
Her thoughts on education are about to be severely shaken up.
Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: the clear remembrance of my own thoughts in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser. I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections...
Ideas beloved of authors and romantic poets, ideas supposed adequate, still, by most parents. In a family, buttressed by instinct, affection, and the child's utter dependence, they work out all right, a lot of the time. Agnes did not go to school herself, she was taught within the family. But now she is to find that the governess's role places her in the family but emphatically not of it. She is repulsed by these children, and all thought of identifying them with her own younger self is immediately blown away.
Relativism values All literature, in a way that is supposed to be unsustainable, like an economy with roaring inflation. Every instance of destroyed literature is thus equally regrettable, whether it's Anne's 4-volume Henry Sophona sensation or Byron's diary or the business papers drafts and junk emails that we destroy every day. In principle.
But ignoring those, what we might well excuse to ourselves on the basis that their composers probably have copies, and ignoring also our own writings, which we may feel are a special case that we are allowed to destroy without compunction - perhaps even meritoriously - we do sometimes end up being the sole possessor of papers with a little more relevance to the Gondal analogy - dead and not widely-remembered creative people who sometimes wrote things that looked like poetry. Sometimes I glance at those papers (e.g. when moving house) and I think, no-one cares whether this exists or not.
Or our children's drawings, how many boxes of them will we hang on to?
Selection is everywhere, tidily scissoring and sometimes leaving a bleeding lobe.
Labels: Anne Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Relativism