Governing

July 3, 2009 at 1:22 pm Leave a comment

I tried to impress upon her how wrong [swearing] was, and how distressing to the ears of decent people; but all in vain, I was only answered by a careless laugh, and — ‘Oh, Miss Grey, how shocked you are! I’m so glad!’

Anne Bronte was certainly the most didactic of the Bronte sisters. Charlotte had her moments when Jane would insist on sticking to her morals, but those focused on issues such as not trying to marry already married men and not abandoning one’s precious reputation (understandable, right?). Emily seems to have been the free spirit, rarely getting didactic at all in Wuthering Heights and even mocking the stick-in-the-mud Joseph, though her work does seem to rest on a moral foundation.

Agnes Grey, however, is not so morally ambiguous. As it is about a governess attempting to raise four to six rambunctious children, a certain amount of ‘thou shalt not’s are to be expected. Of course Miss Matilda must be scolded for swearing, and Miss Murray must be discouraged from teasing all young men in the tri-county area.

This would all be fine if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that didacticism is why Anne Bronte wrote this novel. I know that at the time, novels that told women how to conduct themselves were not only expected but encouraged.

However, in this day and age, generally readers frown upon those authors who feel the need to broadcast their moral inclinations for the edification of their readers. Philip Pullman has been accused of marring His Dark Materials by letting his message get in the way of the story, and I think that’s what happened here.

Of course, there’s not much in the way of story here either. A father dies; a sister goes to earn her living since her family is in distressed circumstances; poor young girls are treated badly by haughty mistresses; a good and moral young lady marries a clergyman while a vain young lady gets stuck in a loveless marriage to a cruel brute. All of it is just so standard and predictable.

There is one brief, shining moment on page 189:  ‘I always lacked common sense when surprised.’ And another on page 224, when Agnes rails against herself in a very Jane Eyre-manner (clearly Charlotte was an influence).

But all in all, the rest is boring and I don’t need a 250-page book to tell me how to live my life, thank you. This is maybe a book worth borrowing — maybe. If you have an afternoon to kill.

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