Book Review: Agnes Grey

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

After a belated book club this week, followed by a fantastic birthday weekend, I can finally share my thoughts on Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.

I haven’t read so-called “literature” in a while, so I felt rusty, but the book club babes and I agreed that it was great to be challenged intellectually. One friend even commented that she enjoyed needing to consult a dictionary a few times!

Agnes Grey is the perfect novel if you haven’t kept up with the classics since college. It’s a short read with a simple plot: Agnes is a 19-year-old living in rural England who decides to become a governess to help her family who’s struggling financially.

A pious young woman with a strict sense of morality and integrity, Agnes must learn how to raise the spoiled children of the English elite. Her patience is tested, first with the Bloomfield brats and then with the Murray girls. Time and again, she is insulted for her shabby clothes, plain looks, and other indications of her lower socioeconomic class.

Unlike the gothic romances of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontë’s debut novel is not tragic. Despite her meekness, she attracts the interest of Edward Weston, the town’s parson, who spends his time assisting the poor villagers. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Agnes and Edward find their happy ending, since the stakes of this story are so low. Other than terrible demon-children abusing animals for their own amusement, you never get the sense of real danger.

When it comes to literary merit, Agnes Grey is not even remotely in the realm of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The plot is too straightforward, the style too expositional, and none of the characters ever develop, for better or worse. In fact, as I was reading, I kept giving Brontë a pass given how difficult it was for a woman to write in the 19th century, all the while knowing that she’d never be published today.

That said, for what this book is—an autobiographical narrative of one woman trying to remain true to herself in a world of vanity—I appreciated the reading experience. At times it even felt like a Victorian version of “Mean Girls,” with Agnes playing a Cady Heron who never flipped to the dark side. Those of us who were victimized by the richer, more attractive and popular Rosalie Murrays and Regina Georges will feel vindicated when the nice girl wins in the end.

Although all the Brontës are creatively successful in their own rights, there’s definitely a reason why Anne lives in the shadow of her sisters and Agnes Grey rarely makes it on required reading lists in school.

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Masterpiece Monday: A Tale of Two Cities (My 100th Post!!!)

Cover of "A Tale of Two Cities (Oxford Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

I blogged about Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday last week, and today I’m celebrating another milestone: my 100th post!!! I’ve been blogging since July, and even though in my mind my blog is teeny-tiny, I’m so proud that I’ve almost reached 4,500 views since I started! Yesterday I even broke a record with an all-time high of 69 views in a single day! Yes, still teeny-tiny, but you’ve got to start somewhere!

Before I unleash my review, I wanted to write a mini-update. My life’s been SUPER busy lately: I’m in the midst of writing my comprehensive paper that’s due in less than three weeks, my hours are steadily filling up at work, and I have my hands full promoting Fresno State’s CineCulture program and working as a student grader for the MCJ 1 class.

But I’ve also jam-packed my schedule with vacations!!! Not only am I going to Tokyo this summer, I’ll probably be going to Vegas THREE times this year–for a graduation trip with my classmates, for a girls’ getaway with a BFF, and for a bachelorette party. 2012 is going to be a kick-ass year, that’s for sure!!!

Ok, now on with business. If you haven’t read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities…well, your high school may be crazy, because if “literary classic” was in the dictionary, it would be one of the first entries. I mean, the beloved children’s show “Wishbone” even had an episode on it!

The novel was published in 1859, and it narrates the events of the French Revolution through various characters in London and Paris. Teenager Lucie Manette is told that her father is not dead like she thought, but was imprisoned in the Bastille and now spends his days making shoes.

Two men are in love with Lucie, Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. She marries Charles and raises their family in London. However, Charles had been accused of treason and when he returns to France to help a former servant, he is arrested and sentenced to death.

However, because Sydney is devoted to Lucie’s happiness–and because he looks eerily similar to Charles, Sydney courageously takes Charles’ place at the guillotine. His last words are, in my opinion, the absolute best in literature: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

As I’ve said before, Dickens can be pretty long-winded. There are many other characters in this novel, including the one you love-to-hate Madame Defarge, and most of the book runs low on energy. However, the last chapters explode off the page, making this read so worth the wait.

Not to mention, Dickens is not just an expert at realism, he also creates beautiful symbolism, such as the golden thread and the guillotine. Even the characters Carton and Darnay are allegedly two sides of Dickens’ psyche, given that they shared his own initials (Who said Wikipedia can’t teach you anything?).

I love this novel and recommend to the dedicated reader. Many high schoolers will hate Dickens’ verbosity, and if you also loathed this book when you were young, I encourage you to give it a second chance. Or at least watch the “Wishbone” version, because that show was simply awesome.

Favorite Quote:  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” (What can I say? I heart Sydney Carton!)

Happy 200th Birthday Charles Dickens!

Even Google honored Dickens’ b-day!

Today is the bicentennial of Charles Dickens’ birth (lived 1812-1870), so I thought I’d offer my opinion of the man synonymous with Victorian literature. But first, some random facts I learned about him via his Wikipedia page:

  • He was the second of eight children, and then had ten children with his wife Catherine.
  • He had a near photographic memory.
  • He was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, in which the first seven train carriages fell off a broken bridge. Dickens was in the last first-class carriage, and his experiences helping the wounded left him traumatized.
  • Five years to the day of that accident, Dickens died. His last words were allegedly, “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”
  • He stated in his will to not erect any monuments for him, but a life-size bronze statue can be found in Philadelphia.

Now I have a love/hate relationship with Dickens’ work. I think that A Christmas Carol is so overrated that I refuse to read it. I also loathe Great Expectations with a bloody passion after my freshman “English teacher”/debate coach completely ruined the novel with ridiculous assignments. However, I read Hard Times, and although it was pretty dull, I appreciate it as a honest look into the Industrial Revolution.

And, of course, my favorite novel of his will always be A Tale of Two Cities. It probably has one of the best first lines in literature:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

I’ll write a full review of A Tale of Two Cities for the next Masterpiece Monday, but it’s an exquisite story of love and turmoil during the French Revolution. Yes, due to serially writing his installments, Dickens is known for rambling about very little for a very, very long time, but I would say that the last five chapters of A Tale of Two Cities was one of the most rewarding reading experiences–so worth the struggle to get that far.

The Washington Post put it aptly: “We live in the age of TLDR — “Too long, didn’t read [but] When Victorian readers slummed it and put down their Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and whatever else it was they were expected to be reading, they picked up Charles Dickens in the grocery-store checkout aisle. If only we were so lucky.”

So while I may not love Dickens enough to attend UCSC’s week-long summer event “The Dickens Universe” (which I’ve heard is positively delightful, so click here for more info if it tickles your fancy), I do respect the author for shining a spotlight on the working class and giving us some of literature’s most memorable characters, such as Oliver Twist and Miss Havisham.

As for my own reading update, I just finished Book One of Tender is the Night, and because the book’s taking longer than normal to finish, I’ll probably post a mini-review sometime this week. Stay tuned!