Firstly, let’s diagnose this phenomenon. I first encountered Brontëism—definable as a slavish devotion to every word the sisters put to parchment—at university. I encountered the syndrome in American students who had spent their teens reading comedies of manners and upmarket romance novels and found in the Brontës a vicarious way to eke out their own desires for windswept romances in huge drawing rooms. Then I met British students whose puppy love for Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre made me upchuck several weeks’ worth of pasta. So I cynically diagnosed the Brontë books as über-romance novels female readers held up as examples of the best sort of love possible in life—the love they would have if they could engineer their environment, to which all romantic relationships should aspire. Or versions of those moral-dilemma novels so popular at bookclubs and airports. It frustrated me. It was like having a particular area of literary history cordoned off to me. That I did not like.
Only problem was, I wouldn’t read the books. Now, however, I am reading the books. So this series of reviews is my attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Brontës so I can legitimately express discontent at their contemporary omnipresence, or proclaim my undying love too.
This novel is the first one by “the quiet one” Anne Brontë and describes her experiences as a governess in the homes of several brats. The first preconception smashed is that all Brontë novels are concerned with aristocratic characters: in this novel Agnes is from a lower middle-class family and volunteers to teach rich brats to help pay off her father’s debts. The chapters read like a handbook for being a patient and docile governess who has God on her side, with occasional turns of mannered humour and moments of affecting melodrama. The short chapters make the frequently dreary moments of micro-attention-to-detail regarding modes of deportment and social graces (that bog down so many novels of this period), more bearable. All in all, mildly entertaining. A lesser work from the lesser sister necessary for my experiment. More soon.
Gray is constantly surprising me—whenever I consign him to the dustbin of mediocrity, he returns with a superb collection of short fiction. After a seven-year absence (where he worked as a writing professor in Glasgow), he returned refreshed with thirteen tales about senility, creativity and politics. ‘No Bluebeard’ is the longest: an account of the narrator’s three marriages based on Gray’s shaky relationship history and his marriage to a steely Scandinavian who shared her name with Olympic Danish swimmer Inge Sorensen. Boasts the most awkward use of the C word in a piece of fiction (outside Updike). Also notable is ‘Aiblins’ about a deranged poet who tries blackmailing his old tutor into getting his work published through braggart posing. ‘Job’s Skin Game’ is the best story about recurring eczema you’re likely to read (outside Updike) and brims with scabby mischief. The other pieces here are brief, memorable, bittersweet and perfect. Gray is little grey deity.