Friday, 19 December 2014

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (1820 - 1849)

Gothic. (The original resting place of Anne Brontë)

All true histories contain instruction; though in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

So the youngest of the three famous Bronte sisters begins the first chapter of her first novel, Agnes Grey.
Published in 1847 when Anne Bronte was just 27 years of age, Agnes Grey is written in the first person and stems from her own experience as a governess. The author poignantly relates the experiences of a young woman leaving a home where she is loved and valued, to enter into a very different sphere - one that was to prove cold and isolated and where her person was overlooked and disregarded.

When her father is ruined financially, Agnes, the youngest of two sisters, decides to look for a position as a governess. The first reaction from her family is one of astonishment:

My mother uttered an exclamation of surprise, and laughed. My sister dropped her work in astonishment, exclaiming, 'You a governess, Agnes! What can you be dreaming of?'

'Well! I don't see anything so very extraordinary in it. I do not pretend to be able to instruct great girls; but surely I could teach little ones, and I should like it so much: I am so fond if children. Do let me, Mamma!'

'But my love, you have not learned to take care of yourself yet: and young children require more judgment and experience to manage than elder ones.'

'But , Mamma, I am above eighteen, and quite able to take care of myself, and others too. You do not know half the wisdom and prudence I possess, because I have never been tried.'

However, Agnes eventually gains her parents' consent and a position is found for her with the Bloomfield family.
Agnes quickly finds that her pupils are undisciplined and quite feral. Mrs Bloomfield dotes on her eldest son especially, and Agnes is expected to instruct and supervise her three students and take responsibility for their conduct whilst being denied any authority over them. She is blamed for their uncultivated manners and unruly tempers and is treated as an inferior:

I can conceive few situations more harassing than that wherein however you may long for success, however you labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at nought by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above.

Anne is dismissed by the Bloomfields, returns home and later finds another position; this time charged with the training of two willful sisters, Rosalie and Matilda.
During this time Agnes meets Mr. Weston, the new curate, and the only individual outside of her immediate family who shows her any consideration. Rosalie, meanwhile, is developing into a very attractive young lady whose main aim in life is to have young men lay their hearts at her feet. She turns her attentions to Mr. Weston when she becomes aware that Agnes is fond of him.
Anne Bronte captures the pain of this so beautifully:

Whether she intended to torment me, or merely to amuse herself, I could not tell — and did not much care; but I thought of the poor man and his one lamb, and the rich man with his thousand flocks; and I dreaded I knew not what for Mr. Weston, independently of my own blighted hopes.

The two sisters went out of their way to prevent Agnes having anything to do with Mr.Weston, even resorting to outright lies and deception. Rosalie planned benevolent visits to the poor cottagers in places Mr Weston frequented - an activity she had never previously shown any interest in. She invented trivial excuses to gain his attention and made sure Agnes was kept occupied to prevent her coming into contact with him. Agnes was powerless and in her distress she wrote:

Oh, they have robbed me of the hope
My spirit held so dear;
They will not let me hear that voice
My soul delights to hear.

They will not let me see that face
I so delight to see;
And they have taken all thy smiles,
And all thy love from me.

Well, let them seize on all they can; —
One treasure still is mine —
A heart that loves to think on thee,
And feels the worth of thine.

Mr.Weston may prove to be a man of good sense and character but Agnes has an uncertain path ahead of her and returns home to visit her ailing father.

Charlotte and Emily, the authors respectively of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, are better known in the literary world than their younger sister, Anne. Agnes Grey is a very different novel from those of her sisters,' especially when you consider the male characters in each of the books. Anne's hero is a steady, considerate man, whereas the characters of Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff in her sisters' books are dark, moody and unpredictable.
Her sisters' books are full of drama and romance while Agnes Grey is more realistic and perhaps this and the fact that she died at a young age, has caused her writing to be overshadowed by that of her sisters.'

In her story, Anne Bronte gives us an insight into the difficulties faced by single women of limited means in Victorian times. The emotional pain of a young woman who is overlooked by the opposite sex by reason of her social standing, while a morally inferior woman is elevated, is exquisitely expressed and gave me an appreciation for the quality of character Anne Bronte must have possessed.

There is an interesting biography of the author here and a website devoted to the Bronte family here.
A new plaque has been laid on Anne's grave as the original below has deteriorated and had the wrong age of Anne at her death.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Back to the Classics Challenge 2015

This challenge beckons me...

This challenge is hosted by Karen at Books & Chocolates.
I have some ideas only at the moment but I'll probably be using some of the books I listed in the Classics Book Club Challenge which I started a year ago. Here are some thoughts anyhow - subject to change. I'll come back to this post and update it as I decide on the books.

1. A 19th Century Classic -- any book published between 1800 and 1899.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

2.  A 20th Century Classic -- any book published between 1900 and 1965.  Just like last year, all books must have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify as a classic.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

3.  A Classic by a Woman Author

Bronte's, Flannery O'Connor, Jane Austen - which will be a re-read, if that's allowed.

4.  A Classic in Translation.

Probably something by a Russian author; Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn but nothing too long because I need to get through No. 5...

5.  A Very Long Classic Novel -- a single work of 500 pages or longer.

? The Old Curiosity Shop

6.  A Classic Novella -- any work shorter than 250 pages.

H.G. Wells or Flannery O'Connor unless I use one of her books for No 3

7.  A Classic with a Person's Name in the Title.  First name, last name, or both, it doesn't matter, but it must have the name of a character.  David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Don Quixote -- something like that. It's amazing how many books are named after people!

Need to think about this one. Would Mr. Standfast qualify?

8.  A Humorous or Satirical Classic.

Have no idea. Any suggestions??

9.  A Forgotten Classic.  This could be a lesser-known work by a famous author, or a classic that nobody reads any more.

A Philosophy of Education or another by Charlotte Mason

10.  A Nonfiction Classic.  A memoir, biography, essays, travel, this can be any nonfiction work that's considered a classic, or a nonfiction work by a classic author.

WW1 or 2 or related to a war.

11.  A Classic Children's Book.

Undecided but won't have any trouble finding one in this category.

12.  A Classic Play.

Definitely Shakespeare - Hamlet, Richard III 

Thanks to Nancy and Cleo for pointing me in the direction of the Challenge.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Keeping Christmas Update

This post follows on from two I did previously: 1 & 2. We're continuing to listen to Handel's Messiah. I found an easier way to follow along if you don't have the CD - check the number of each section and google Handel's Messiah No. 38 (or whatever number you are up to) There are heaps of YouTube videos covering various sections. It's more time consuming than a CD but it's free.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens - loving this. We've just finished reading Stave 4 - The Last of the Spirits. There's a good Kindle version of the book here - illustrated by Arthur Rackham. I was so pleased to have Nancy from the Netherlands, on other side of the world, join us in listening to Handel's Messiah over December as well as reading through A Christmas Carol. She has shared her very insightful thoughts on both Handel's music and Dickens' book at her blog, ipsofactodotme.


Woodburning practice while listening to me read aloud the book above:

I've added a couple of Carols this year but we're still listening to our favourites from other years.

Also known as the Carol of the Drum:

If you're interested in how much the 12 Days of Christmas items actually cost...

 My wonderful sister-in-law is coming over next week to do some Christmas cooking with the youngest two and I'll be making my specialties - fruitcake, carob balls and fruit logs. My arm's being twisted to also make some Scottish tablet but it's lethal stuff. I'll annoy everyone and come up with a healthy version, which of course won't taste anything like the real thing.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Thunderbolt the Falcon by C.K.Thompson (1904-1980)


This is the story of two boys and an old man who capture and train a peregrine falcon. The story is set in Australia but by skilfully weaving history and the sport of falconry into his tale, the author has made his story interesting to readers outside of Australia also - especially so because the peregrine falcon is found in many places throughout the world.

The story begins with Joe, a young larrikin and an avid reader of adventure books. As a result of his being unable to find the latest Buffalo Bill novel on his last trip to town and his reluctance to complete the list of jobs left by his mother when she went out for the day, his attention was drawn to an old book lying on the floor. 'Flower of Knighthood' had been commissioned as a doorstop as well as other sundry uses in the past and for want of a better occupation Joe took the book outside, sat under a tree and began to read it.
Presently he found himself awash in English history and consequently when his friend David, who was born in England came along some time later, he quizzed him about the Black Prince, Edward the Third and the sport of falconry. In the course of their conversation Joe discovered that David's Grandfather, Mr. Mannering, had been a gamekeeper in England and knew a great deal about falcons and hawks.
The boys eventually convinced Grandfather Mannering to teach them the art of falconry and they subsequently set out to capture a juvenile falcon and begin its training as a hunting hawk. The author goes into some detail about the method used for training falcons and also describes numerous other creatures such as cicadas:

"The locusts make the row by rubbing their hind legs across the drums," remarked Joe knowingly.
"That's just where you are wrong, and in any case they are not locusts," said Grandfather. "They don't rub their legs across the drums at all. It is all done by vibration. Underneath the drums on each side of the cicada's body is a hole covered with skin and full of muscles. The insect, using these muscles, causes the skin to vibrate in and out and the drum acts as a sort of amplifier or loud-speaker. The faster the cicada vibrates his muscles, the louder and harsher is the row he kicks up."

C.K. Thompson wrote numerous books about Australian wildlife (eg. the dingo) which sadly are out of print, but if you can get hold of any they are wonderful sources of information on Australian Natural history intertwined in stories that contain both action and interest. Many of his children's books were written in the 1950's so they reflect that generation's outlook and use of language and the writing sometimes feels a little dated but his stories still have a strong appeal to children around the ages of about 8 years and up.