Agnes Grey: Nothing Short Of Genius

December is a time when people buy turkeys, wrap presents, and hang up mistletoe, but there’s another reason for celebration in December – it marks the anniversary of the publication of two of the greatest books ever written.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, and Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë, were published side by side by the publisher Thomas Cautley Newby in December 1847. They formed a three volume set, with Wuthering Heights occupying two volumes to Agnes Grey’s one. This was known as a triple decker and was particularly popular in the mid nineteenth century, especially among publishers who got to charge the circulating libraries who were among their main customers three times as much.

Whilst Wuthering Heights is rightly lauded the world over, Agnes Grey doesn’t get nearly as much as it deserves. Whilst very different to Anne’s other novel, the bold and dramatic The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey is, in my eyes, just as brilliant. In fact, I know I’m not alone in thinking that Agnes Grey is the most underrated book of them all, so just why do I love it so much?

Agnes Grey film picture

One reason I love Agnes Grey the novel is the same reason that I rate Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley as her best work: it’s highly autobiographical, containing people and events that Anne knew.

The second paragraph of the book starts: ‘My father was a clergyman of the north of England’, just as Anne’s father was a clergyman of (i.e. working in) the north of England. It is the first of many clues that Agnes is in fact Anne, or Acton as the author was calling herself at the time.

When writing my biography of Anne I found sixty instances from the book that could be directly related to incidents in Anne’s own life. Of course, is a work of fiction, and a great one at that, but as every fiction writer knows there is not a single book that doesn’t have a piece of the writer in it, and to deny that is to misunderstand the art of writing fiction itself.

It seems to me that there is a lot more of Anne in Agnes than there is in most protagonists, and so by reading Agnes Grey we feel closer to Anne Brontë herself. Even without this to recommend, it’s still a wonderful and quick read.

Agnes Grey is the story of a governess and her dealings with two very different families, the Bloomfields and the Murrays (who seem closely modelled on the Inghams and the Robinsons who Anne herself had served as a governess). The Bloomfield children are cruel to animals, capturing and torturing birds, and cruel to their governess, fighting with her and spitting in her bag. This matches what we know of the Ingham children, who Charlotte memorably described as ‘desperate little dunces’.

The Murray girls that Agnes teaches next are brighter and kinder, but Agnes is shocked by their attitude to marriage, and by the way their mother tries to force them into loveless matches. Again, this matches what we know of the Robinson girls – one of whom eloped with a theatre owner’s son, and two of whom continued to write to Anne for advice long after she had ceased being their governess.

At the heart of the story, increasingly, is Agnes herself and her love for the assistant curate Weston. In this we can read of Anne’s love for her father’s assistant curate Weightman, just as we can in much of the yearning mourning poetry that Anne wrote after William Weightman’s untimely death (he caught cholera from one of the many parishioners he visited who were sick, a task that Weston carries out in Agnes Grey).

I won’t give the ending away, except to say that it is incredibly romantic, incredibly moving – is this Anne, as her alter ego Agnes, giving herself the life in writing that real life had snatched away from her? The end of the book is very simple, very understated:

‘And now I think I have said sufficient.’

Few novels end on such a simple sentence, and yet in its simplicity is the power to move a reader deeply. Agnes Grey is a wonderfully well written novel, it’s short but precise with not a word out of place. In my opinion it is the Brontë novel above all others that is perfectly formed, showing that Anne had already mastered the art of novel writing. It’s like little else in English literature, and to my mind it resembles the novels of the brilliant Japanese Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, novels where not much seems to be happening and then suddenly you realise they’ve gotten hold of your heart.

George Moore by Edouard Manet
George Moore by Edouard Manet

George Moore, himself an important writer of the early twentieth century, praised the book thus:

‘Agnes Grey is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature… a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress… We know that we are reading a masterpiece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint.’

I have to agree, and so if you haven’t already done so, give yourself a Christmas treat – read Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. It’s not as long as some other books, not as dramatic, not as loud or brash, but it is a work of brilliance that whispers its genius from the first page to the last.

Anne Brontë’s Enduring Love Of The Sea

As the moors were to Emily Brontë, the coast was to Anne Brontë. A thing of beauty, a force of nature that spoke of eternity and hope, a showcase of nature’s unfeeling power.

The sea haunted Anne’s imagination even before she had seen it in person, as shown by this drawing she completed in November, 1839.

This is a picture that represents a confident Anne, full of hope for the life that lies ahead of her. Although she’d had a relatively short stint as governess to the Ingham family of Mirfield at this time, it was a new post with the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, near York, that was finally to give Anne a glimpse of the sea that she was dreaming about.

Every year the Robinsons spent an extended period in Scarborough, in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Scarborough’s glory may have faded a little today, but at its time it was a very fashionable resort visited by the well to do and the aristocracy. The town is built upon two bays, and it’s also rather hilly, with a steep climb from the beachfront to Wood’s Lodgings where the Robinsons and their governess Anne stayed.

Anne found that the coast was all she had hoped for and more, and her journeys to the resort from 1840 to 1844 were among the happiest moments of her life. Such an impression did the resort, and the crashing, spraying sea make upon her that she also included it in both Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (although it is never named explicitly in either novel).

It was also to Scarborough, and the sea, that Anne’s thoughts turned in the last weeks of her life. Anne was diagnosed with terminal consumption, what we call tuberculosis, on January 5th 1849, and there was one place above all others that she wished to visit: Scarborough. It may have been because she loved the place so much that she wanted to see it one final time, or that she wanted to spare her father the pain of having to bury her so soon after he had buried Branwell and Emily Brontë.
It may also have been that Anne wanted to ‘take the cure’, which is why many people travelled to the resort. Scarborough, like nearby Bridlington, is a spa town, and it was said that the waters had curative properties. Certainly we know that Anne bathed in the spa during her final days, and whilst there was no hope of a complete cure she may have hoped it would rejuvenate her and prolong her life.

The Grand Hotel now stands on the same spot as Wood’s Lodgings, and has a blue plaque in memory of Anne Brontë on its wall.

Grand Hotel plaque
Anne Bronte’s Grand Hotel plaque

Ellen Nussey, who was in Scarborough with Anne and Charlotte gave a moving account of the final night of her life:

“It closed with the most glorious sunset ever witnessed. The castle on the cliff stood in proud glory gilded by the rays of the declining sun. The distant ships glittered like burnished gold; the little boats near the beach heaved on the ebbing tide, inviting occupants. The view was grand beyond description. Anne was drawn in her easy chair to the window to enjoy the scene with us. Her face became illuminated almost as much as the glorious sun she gazed upon. Little was said, for it was plain that her thoughts were driven by the imposing view before her to penetrate forwards to the region of unfading glory.”

Let’s take a look at Anne’s picture again, painted ten years earlier. Anne in the middle gazing upon a glorious sun, a boat bobbing near the beach. This picture of a glorious sunrise at the start of a woman’s life, has now becoming a picture of a glorious sunset at the end of her life.

Some people have said that the picture may be a copy that Anne made of an earlier picture, an artistic exercise. I once discussed this with Ann Dinsdale, head curator at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth. In her opinion this is an original work, as there are no other pictures known that are like it, and women at that time were encourage to paint and copy still life rather than figurative work.

What is certainly true is that it represents Anne Brontë’s love of the sea. If we visit Scarborough today, and gaze down at the sea, we see the same crashing waves she saw, hear the same sounds she saw, and we can become just as in awe of nature’s majesty as Anne Brontë was.

An Entire Mistake: The Suppression Of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was an entire mistake. It should never have been written, and it would be better for everyone if it never saw the light of day again. These aren’t my views of course, in my eyes Anne Brontë’s second and final novel is a soaring work of genius. Nor are they the harsh words of a critic, although many contemporary critics were in agreement that this was a rough, brutal, ungodly book. No, these words are the judgement of Anne’s elder sister Charlotte Brontë, and they would have a huge impact upon Anne’s reputation.

After the deaths of Emily and Anne Brontë within a few cruel months of each other in 1848 and 1849, the novel writing career of the two sisters, that had seemed so full of promise, was ended. Charlotte’s publisher, Smith, Elder & Co., approached her and asked if she would prepare new editions of her sisters’ novels to be published by them as a lasting tribute (the original editions published by Thomas Cautley Newby being put together in a decidedly sub-par manner). Charlotte was happy to do this for Wuthering Heights (although she changed much of Joseph’s dialogue to make it a bit more intelligible to readers outside of Yorkshire) and Agnes Grey, but she would not consent to do so for The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall. This was her verdict in the letter to the publishers:

‘”Wildfell Hall” it hardly appears desirable to preserve. The choice of subject in that work is a mistake.’

This verdict was unfortunately to be a lasting one. In effect Charlotte prevented the re-publication of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall at a time when it was still in the public eye, and when it had in fact been a huge success – the first edition selling even quicker than Jane Eyre had. The novel was buried along with its writer, and would in fact not be published again until another ten years had passed.

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Kitty Grimm
The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall by Kate O’ Keefe

This removal of Anne’s great novel from the Brontë canon caused great damage to her place in literary history. By the time the book reappeared it had been almost completely forgotten, and people thought of Anne as merely a footnote in the story of the brilliant Charlotte and Emily Brontë. Unfortunately, this attitude endured for a century and more, and only now is the book and its author getting the recognition they deserve.

In 1850, a year after Anne’s death, Charlotte Brontë finally revealed her sisters’ true identities to the world in her ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell.’ It is a short and strange biography, painting the sisters in a different light to how we know them to have been – emphasising their lack of education, and apologising for perceived failures in their writings. Once again, Charlotte acknowledged how wrong Anne had been to write The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall:

‘The choice of subject was an entire mistake… She [Anne] had in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail as a warning to others.’

This is a clue to one reason why Charlotte hated the book so much – she blamed it for Anne’s death. The intensity of the book, and Anne’s refusal to stray away from the truth brought a mental and physical strain that was greater than her frail, youngest sister could bear.

There is another clue in Charlotte’s paragraph above: Anne had for too long had to witness talents misused and faculties abused, and rather than ignoring this dread spectacle she had put it on paper as a warning to others. Read between the lines, and it’s clear to see that Charlotte believed the book was about their own brother Branwell. During his final and fatal decline into drink and opium addiction, Charlotte had turned her back on the brother who had once meant more to her than anything in the world – with one contemporary chronicler saying that she didn’t speak to him for two years. Anne, however, took a different course, and in Charlotte’s eyes a very wrong course.

Anne Brontë believed above all things in the power of redemption. However great a sinner you were, however many your faults and mistakes, you would eventually be redeemed and find peace in Heaven. This is at the hear of Anne’s poem The Penitent and especially at the heart of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall.

We see Arthur treating his wife Helen appallingly, drinking to excess, having wild drink and drug fuelled parties, disappearing for months at a time, verbally beating her into submission, stealing her possessions, destroying her work. And yet, after Helen’s escape to Wildfell Hall she returns to him to nurse him in his final illness. Why? Because it is the right thing to do, whatever the cost to herself, and because she believes that she can still save his soul.

Huntingdon Rupert Graves
Rupert Graves as Huntingdon in the BBC’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall

Charlotte was undoubtedly shocked at some of Branwell’s failings being exposed to the world in the shape of Huntingdon, although he is also present in the character of Lowborough, who deep down has a good heart and tries, and fails, to beat his addictions. Even more terrible to Charlotte was that it brought home to her her failings in Branwell’s last months and weeks. She had not stood by Branwell in the way that Anne and Emily had, and now it was too late. The book was too painful for her to read, and the thought of others reading it and passing judgement, unwittingly, on both Branwell and her was also too painful to contemplate. It was for this reason above all others that Charlotte had The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall suppressed.

Charlotte’s judgement on the book and upon Anne Brontë was all wrong. Writing the book did not do Anne Brontë harm, she was not the frail thing her sister always pictured. She was a strong woman with a burning desire to tell the truth by holding a mirror up to society’s failings. That is why The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall is more relevant today than it has ever been, and as loved today as it has ever been. It is a book that has overcome misunderstanding, contempt, suppression. Its time is now.

The Baking Skills Of The Brontë Sisters!

As you may know, in the last few weeks this Anne Brontë website changed to a new hosting company, meaning that I’m having to upload the hundred plus previous posts one at a time – don’t worry, it will be fully stocked again soon! For this reason, some of the events mentioned in the posts may be out of date – as in this post. I’m afraid you’ve missed Gregg Wallace and John Torode rushing around Haworth, but as Masterchef has now returned to our screens I thought it a fine time to put this post in the public domain again. I hope you enjoy it!

If you didn’t already know, Celebrity Masterchef has reached the semi-final stage, and tonight it’s coming from Brontë country!

The show sees eight celebrities battle towards a place in the final. Stars as diverse as Sid Owen, Louise Minchin, Tommy Cannon and Reverend Richard Coles will be battling it out, and tonight they’re going to be cooking up a storm in Haworth.

It’s very appropriate that they should be in Haworth this year, of course, as it’s the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë‘s birth and the beginning of a four year ‘Brontë 200’ period that will also witness the bicentenaries of Emily and Anne Brontë.

It’s already one of my favourite television shows, and from what I’ve seen tonight’s show should be particularly exciting for Brontë fans. The celebrities will be walking up Haworth’s steep, cobbled Main Street before heading out onto the moors to cook up a feast for guests dressed in 1840s attire.

Sid Owen and Tommy Cannon in the Bronte Old School Rooms
Sid Owen and Tommy Cannon in the Bronte Old School Rooms

I’m sure the results will be Celebrity Masterchef’s usual mix of the incredible and the inedible, but what do we know about the cooking and dining habits of the Brontës themselves?

Mrs. Gaskell, in her biography of Charlotte, said that they ate little meat, but this erroneous tale came from a servant who had been dismissed by Patrick Brontë and so had a grudge to bear against him. Potatoes were a staple of the diet in the Parsonage, and as this was sheep farming country mutton was a regular addition.

In the diary paper of 24th November 1834, the earliest we have, Emily and Anne Brontë paint a picture of domestic life in the Parsonage on that day. Emily writes (with the haphazard spelling typical of her then): ‘we are going to have for Dinner Boiled Beef Turnips, potato’s and applepudding the kitchin is in a very untidy state’. She also says that she is peeling apples, and that family servant Tabby Aykroyd later makes her peel potatoes, as Charlotte is making an apple pudding: ‘Charlotte said that she made puddings perfectly and was of a quick but limted intellect.’

We can guess that Charlotte was talking about Tabby here, rather than making such a judgement about herself.

Charlotte was not particularly skilled at cooking or baking. In August 1846 she was lodging temporarily in Manchester with her father, as he recovered from cataract surgery. On 21st August she wrote to Ellen explaining that one of her greatest difficulties was that she ‘was somewhat puzzled in managing about provisions.’

Emily, on the other hand, turned out to be something of a domestic goddess. As Tabby became older and less mobile, as the result of a slip on the icy Haworth street that broke her leg and left her with a permanent limp, Emily took over many of the cooking and baking duties. She became famed for the quality of the bread that she made, and people said that it was the best in the village. Haworth stationer John Greenwood, who knew the family well, said that Emily could often be found: ‘in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand.’

We’ll see at 8pm on BBC One whether the celebrities have as much of a dainty hand. I just hope that we don’t see a windswept Cathy coming over the moors and shouting ‘Rickaay’ instead of Heathcliff! Talking of television, I myself am appearing on BBC Two at 8.30 on Monday as a contestant on the quiz show Only Connect. Alas, there were no Brontë questions!

The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall on DVD – Review

Anne Brontë’s masterpiece ‘The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall’ is perfectly suited to the little or big screen, with its dramatic scenes, characters you can’t help but care for, romantic intrigue, and a classic villain on the fast road to self-destruction. And as I found out when I watched a 1996 version over the last week, the BBC have really done it proud.

The first thing to say is that it is an immaculate production: the cinematography and lighting are superb, and the theme music is really haunting as well. Thankfully, unlike some modern shows we can all think, there is also a complete absence of the mumbling that has blighted many recent dramas. It’s a very fresh looking production, and it’s hard to think that it is actually now twenty years old.

The casting is perfect too. In the title role of Helen is Tara Fitzgerald, probably known to many viewers now for her recent runs in Game Of Thrones and Silent Witness, but an actress I’ve loved ever since her early film appearances in Hear My Song and the great Brassed Off. She has the perfect combination of frailty and hardness, naivety and experience, and it’s easy to see why both Huntingdon and Markham fall in love with her.

Markham and Helen
Toby and Tara as Gilbert and Helen

Toby Stephens plays Gilbert Markham, which can make Brontë fans do a double take as he was later to be a superb Rochester in an excellent BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre. I was particularly impressed by his Yorkshire accent, although it was noticeable that this television adaptation played down the bumbling fool aspect of his character that was emphasised by Anne.

The villain of the piece is of course Arthur Huntingdon, played by Rupert Graves. Once again, I think he is an excellent choice. He oozes menace and selfishness throughout, and this adaptation doesn’t shy away from showing his violent, abusive nature.

All in all, this is pleasingly faithful to Anne Brontë’s wonderful storyline, with one major difference. Towards the end of the novel, Markham comes to the misunderstanding that Helen is marrying someone else, and he rushes to see her but finding her at a wedding feels that he has arrived too late. In this adaptation, however, the roles are reversed. Helen returns to Wildfell and sees Markham at a wedding, becoming distraught at the thought that she has missed out on a chance of true love. The ending is the same, however, as the misunderstanding is revealed.

Huntingdon and young Arthur
Huntingdon and young Arthur

It also misses two of my favourite scenes from a novel that is full of them: Helen’s admission that ‘It is not enough to say that I no longer love my husband – I HATE him! I hate him – I hate him! But God have mercy on his miserable soul.’ Also absent is the beautifully tender scene near the end when Markham and Helen finally declare their love for one another. She reaches out of the window and plucks a snow covered rose: ‘This rose is not so fragrant as a summer flower, but it has stood through hardships none of them could bear: the cold rain of winter has sufficed to nourish it, and its faint sun to warm it; the bleak winds have not blanched it, or broken its stem, and the keen frost has not blighted it. Look, Gilbert, it is still fresh and blooming as a flower can be, with the cold snow even now on its petals – will you have it?’

I will certainly have this BBC adaptation as an annual viewing treat from now on, it was a thoroughly enjoyable serial that I think Anne Brontë would have approved of and been proud of. It even transposes a scene from Agnes Grey into the story, with young Arthur maltreating a bird. I bought it at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, but you can also pick up a copy on Amazon. I do wish the BBC would also make an Agnes Grey adaptation, but I am looking forward to seeing their new Brontë drama coming later this year. They’re building a complete replica of the Brontë Parsonage and the parish church on the moors beyond Haworth. Here’s a picture of how it’s coming along, and I await its progress with interest.