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Sally Rooney – Conversations With Friends

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A little more conversation, a little less action please.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-33312-7
First Published: 25th May 2017
Date Reviewed: 25th September 2019
Rating: 4/5

On an evening they had performed Frances’ poetry, Frances and her ex-girlfriend-now-friend Bobbi meet Melissa, a published writer who wants to write an article about them. They go to her house; they meet her husband, Nick; they are in awe of the couple’s wealth. The marriage seems unstable. As the acquaintance deepens, Frances’ interest in the semi-famous Nick increases – he seems someone who ‘gets’ her, likes her, for all her lack of personality.

Conversations With Friends is a book about personality in the sense of identity; feminism; power and control; parental abuse and neglect; and mental illness.

Frances is an interesting choice of narrator; it’s a choice that has made the novel the success it is, whilst at the same time it’s almost baffling. It’s all quite clever. Frances is boring; she says she has no personality but really it’s more that she just doesn’t do much. She has a fair bit going for her, including what is described by those around her as a talent for writing, and overall success academically, but she tends to simply follow the directions and choices of others. And, interestingly here, it’s not that others are actively making choices for her – life just happens to her. The concept of no personality was Bobbi’s, and Frances writes as though she’s taken it to heart as simple fact. Frances is a reliable narrator, just a bit of a non-entity; this allows Rooney to put emphasis on people who have fuller lives, who are more passionate, driven, than the narrator. The lack of a personality is something that is pretty belaboured throughout. It’s more of a ‘true’ character voice rather than anything authorial.

Rooney has chosen to tell her story using subtle means, her choices for Frances only extending that. The book requires a lot of attention, more than is obvious – it’s the sort of novel that likely needs a re-read to fully understand because the ‘aha!’ moments happen so late. Conversations With Friends effectively has a layer of depression covering it, like a layer of thick fog you have to see past, get through, work through, in order to appreciate the content, and that takes time. In terms of literary style it’s incredible, this effective fog that you wouldn’t notice just by reading a page or two; so much has gone into it – the words, the content, the place Rooney is coming from – the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the feeling that there’s something between you and the words on the page, a block that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the text, and nothing in regards to anything the text lacks. The experience of reading this book felt, to me, a bit like the experience of reading The Bell Jar, only the depression wasn’t from the characters’ minds as such, and in terms of Rooney it’s only to do with stylistic choices. It’s also not as difficult to read as Plath’s book nor similar.

To him my arm was not important. He was only concerned with making his child feel bad, making her feel ashamed (p. 268).

Conversations With Friends is about depression, generally without use of the word, and not being able to make heads nor tails of life; this, especially, is where Nick comes into the story. Frances’ upbringing wasn’t good, and this has resulted in a lack of self. In fact, Frances’ parents have a lot to answer for. Emotional abuse and neglect is all over this book. Frances’ father has his own problems and her mother often criticises her and tells her what to do as though she’s younger than she is. Frances never seems as old as her peers, and the divide makes a lot more sense when her mother is in a scene.

He told me he thought helplessness was often a way of exercising power (p. 246).

As the book moves into its final pages (though this number is fairly large as the chapters are long), Rooney lifts some of the fog to let you better see what’s going on. This is where some ‘telling’ comes in and it’s unfortunate because, as excellently crafted as the fog is, if it wasn’t for the fog, Rooney’s explanations wouldn’t be so glaring. The content of this section brings into focus the idea of power and control – particularly in relationships – the power seemingly passive people can have over others.

To introduce the feminism:

Was I kind to others? It was hard to nail down an answer. I worried that if I did turn out to have a personality, it would be one of the unkind ones. Did I only worry about this question because as a woman I felt required to put the needs of others before my own? Was ‘kindness’ just another term for submission in the face of conflict? These were the kind of things I wrote about in my diary as a teenager: as a feminist I have the right not to love anyone (p. 176).

Conversations With Friends is subtle but far from unenjoyable – in a slightly studious and highly literary way, it has a lot to recommend it.

 
Maggie O’Farrell – This Must Be The Place

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Hopefully it is.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 483
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-755-35880-9
First Published: 17th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 13th September 2019
Rating: 3.5/5

Daniel is outside; across the fields he spots a man who may have a camera. When he tells his wife she grabs a gun. Living in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, the American is generally used to his wife’s reactions, born as they are from her past. In addition to this – even though it’s a particularly compelling aspect of his life story – there is more, the children back in America and the father he doesn’t want to see.

This Must Be The Place is a novel of multiple subplots and narrators which stretches from the 1980s to the 2010s with a brief trip to the 1940s. An effective family saga in one book, it’s more about the journey of the people and their relationships than any destination.

This book is the sort that will either enthrall you or frustrate you – it’s incredibly literary, the artistry itself the mainstay rather than the content. Daniel, one of the many characters, has built his career on his love of linguistics, and to an extent O’Farrell herself has adopted the study of the subject to use in this book. A lot of the time, the writing is poetry in prose; O’Farrell uses language both for its art and for its characters, with Daniel, the only first-person narrator, the one through which most of her passion has been funneled. You know he’s American, this Daniel who’s in Donegal, Ireland, before he tells you, his dialect matching his home country, the first hint of the linguistics to come.

O’Farrell’s play with linguistics extends to her chapter headings – phrases taken from the main body of the chapter in question; the book’s title is also in the text, as a line of dialogue. It’s an interesting feature because whilst the phrases chosen tend to provide you with a hint of what’s to come, they aren’t always ‘clever’, so to speak, O’Farrell showing a range of concepts that can be used to both similar and differing results. (One chapter is but a series of photos and captions, a fictional auction catalog.) All do, however, link back to the idea of poetry, of meaning in the simplest of phrases. And, most often, you can spot the effort made in each line. It’s all rather stunning.

The characters themselves, away from the artistry, are well written and developed. Development is limited in the traditional sense due to the plethora of people involved: Daniel and the children, and Claudette, his wife, are developed both over the course of the years written about and those before the book begun; the other characters mostly in terms of what came before. None of the adults are particularly nice. The children are pretty great, especially given the variety of poor hands their lives and parents have shown them. But the adults… whilst O’Farrell has indeed created real, believable people, and whilst they have some good traits, they’re difficult to read about, which is another reason this book is about the experience rather than anything else.

To look at the possibility for frustration, then: likely, if you haven’t read the book, are reading this (and have potentially read the views of others), and have weighed up the content in terms of your own interests, you’ll probably have a good idea by this point whether you’ll like it or not. The plot is pretty well formed and, for the number of characters, very detailed, but you do have to piece it all together yourself, and as much as it’s arty is also just a literary device. And sometimes, having to piece it together lessens the impact certain aspects may have. To be sure, not all of them – some of them have a lot of impact regardless of how they’ve been woven through the pages, brief moments that take up mere lines being perhaps what you’ll remember most – but a lot will lose their impact. Chronological order would’ve been better.

On that note of impacts that do work regardless, they relate to up-to-the-minute occurrences. Agency and consent in the medical sphere; gun violence in American cities, written in a way that shows both how awful it is and how usual, now, an occurrence. Then there is the domestic sphere, the family saga aspect evident in the theme of children: conversations and concepts over having them, the effects of the past – things before they were born – on those children, and various parental issues and rights.

There are also a few extra characters that dilute the plot a bit, some familial – presumably included for more background and to show how problems can continue in families – and one in particular that seems to have no bearing on anything else, a person used to show Daniel in a different way where it might have been best to make the chapter another of his first-persons. You also end the book with questions that aren’t resolved, some whole points on their own, others minor details that would nevertheless have rounded it all off further. And for all the characters, one or two aren’t included that may have better explained those that are included.

So, no, not really escapist. Not your usual idea of reading for escape, for fun – the fun is under that more studious, literary, definition.

    Anyway, the older, longer, sluggish Marithe had looked up at the stars [decorative, on the ceiling] and asked her mother, who was sitting in the char opposite, whether it would come back, this sense of being inside your life, not outside it?
    Claudette had put down her book and thought for a moment. And then she said: probably not, my darling girl, because what you’re describing comes of growing up but you get something else instead. You get wisdom, you get experience. Which could be seen as a compensation, could it not?
Marithe felt those tears prickling at her eyelids now. To never feel that again, that idea of yourself as one unified being, not two or three splintered selves who observed and commented on each other. To never be that person again.
    For Calvin, she feels a simultaneous jealousy and pity. He sill has it, that wholeness, that verve. There he is, on the trampoline, completely on the trampoline, not worrying about anything, not thinking, but now what? Or: what if? Pity, because she knows now he’ll g through it. He’ll have to lose several skins; he’ll wake up one day wearing new, invisible glasses (p.456).

This Must Be The Place is a time investment – a long novel, one needing your attention. In terms of its genre, over all the payoff is worth it (certainly I enjoyed it a lot) but it’s not without its problems.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Death Of Baseball

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‘Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring’ — Marilyn Monroe.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 452
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-999-58735-2
First Published: 21st May 2019 (ebook); 21st June 2019
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2019
Rating: 4.5/5

Japanese American Clyde lives with his caring mother and highly abuse father; when his father causes him to kill his cat, the effect of continued causes Clyde to change. At the same time, Clyde comes to discover the films of Marilyn Monroe, who died the night he was born – this, he believes, is no coincidence. Not far away, Jewish Raphael fights with himself and over the rules of others; he’s a passionate believer in his faith but a problem for his family. He’s been told he’s special, chosen.

The Death Of Baseball is an epic novel about the psyches of two young men in 1970s America, one who believes he is the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe, and the other, a kleptomaniac with what appears to be an anti-social disorder, both accidentally and on purpose destroying what he holds dear. The story chronicles their early years and eventual meeting, ending in a fast-paced and fitting conclusion.

Ortega-Medina has a particular handle on storytelling that’s a dream to experience; as we saw in his debut, Jerusalem Ablaze – a collection of stunning short stories in which on one the defining stylistic features was that short stories need not end with a moral – his take on writing draws you in and keeps you reading. And, whilst you of course want to be tempted by the story, you don’t actually need to actively like it to enjoy the book. In short, this author could write a story about paint drying and it’d be one of the most engrossing and compelling things you’d ever read.

So this has carried over into his first novel. The story is well executed, and suitably stretched out over a number of years and locations that aid your continued interest when the characters’ ethics go downhill (more on them in a bit). Provided the genre of psychological thriller, the things to get you thinking are varied and clever. The first of these you encounter is Clyde’s reaction to the death of his cat, an accident caused by his terror of his father’s violence; Clyde’s mother suggests a method to put the cat out of his mind and the written ‘version’ of this that Ortega-Medina adopts brings to the fore the devastation of abuse on a child and shows the difficulties present in trying to deal with such a thing at such a young age. If you love animals and/or have recently experienced the death of a pet you may find it hard to read, but the perseverance pays off; read it slowly, you get through it, and the pain you may feel only goes to display further what the author is communicating.

Ortega-Medina includes a lot of abuse – this book shows how abuse can lead to abuse, or to mental issues that often get seen solely as part of the individual rather than also in the context of the cycle. The writer looks at both child and adult; focusing on the effects on the child he nevertheless spends a moment here and there on the abuser, not to explain away problems but to show the beginnings in terms of facts. It affects Clyde’s maturity and sense of person but the writer is careful not to explain away the thriller element of the story, suggesting also places that aren’t impacted by childhood. Raphael’s treatment is a lot more subtle, his own awful deeds blurring the neglect from his family.

The characters are incredibly well written. Clyde is somewhere just left of the middle in terms of ‘goodness’, a person who is either misguided (and delusional) or real (Marilyn gets a word in at the start). Raphael is towards the anti-hero end of the scale, a troublemaker of a particular persuasion who often says he is sorry but isn’t, a person fairly akin to Alex of A Clockwork Orange, who you go back and forth between hoping it’s just a phenomenally bad case of understanding, and a true, intentional, lack of care. A lot of the book deals with the question of redemption, whether Raphael will ask for it and act appropriately, and how many times he might be afforded a chance.

This book has a strong LGBT thread running through it – the characters are gay. The book includes a lot about religion in it – Judaism – however sexuality isn’t discussed in this light; they are two separate themes of equal importance. It’s worth noting, particularly given the label, that the acronym does not extend to transgender issues – Clyde is not trans; his thought as to an operation, which is in place for a short while, is due to his belief that he is Monroe – he wants to look like her rather than become a woman for the gender itself. (I think this important to note in case you’re wanting to read the book due to what may appear to be the inclusion of trans issues – this book isn’t it.)

In looking at Judaism from the perspective of a person who deems themselves devout we read about the faith, and in travelling to Israel learn a bit about the situation there (the perspective is mostly that of Raphael’s family who are heavily involved in the military). Mostly the stay in Israel is about the place itself, the way it is regarded by various peoples (Raphael meets a born-again Christian who seems completely indifferent to the troubles), and the journey to different areas within the country draws out the epic feel of the book.

The ending, whilst quick, is nevertheless a little drawn-out – partly because by this time you have completely given up hope over certain things. The conclusion isn’t rewarding in the ‘usual’ way, perhaps in deference to the fact that by that point, it would be difficult to make it such. The Death Of Baseball, then, is a book in which the reading experience is everything – it’s hard to relate to the characters, the story itself is often difficult. Whilst the ending is a metaphorical race to the finish line, an exhilarating ride to a shocking conclusion, it is the act of reading the book itself that you will miss, Ortega-Medina’s style of storytelling irresistible, compelling. The book is akin to a road trip, where the time spent travelling, the progression of the trip, is what you take away with you, and the easiness of the reading alongside a complexity that is hard to define means you’ll miss this book for quite a while after finishing it.

(On the subject of baseball, if you don’t know about Monroe’s marriages, have a quick read before you start this book. It’s not necessary to know, per se, but it’ll add just that bit more to your reading.)

I received this book for review.

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Sofie Laguna – The Choke

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You don’t know what you don’t know.

Publisher: Gallic Books (Belgravia)
Pages: 255
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-70957-3
First Published: 2017
Date Reviewed: 18th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

It’s the 1970s, and Justine Lee lives with her grandfather, ‘Pop’, by the Murray river in Australia. Pop was in the war and as a result doesn’t say much and rarely leaves home – most of what Justine knows of her family history has been learned through listening to Pops talk to his chickens. Justine’s mother left her and her father because, Pop told her, Justine was born breech. Dad rarely comes to visit, and when he does Pops tends to be angry; Dad, it seems, is not a nice person. Justine’s half-brothers don’t like her; her mother’s presence means their mother is no longer with Dad. The Lee and Worlley families are no longer friendly with each other. And Justine’s friends tell her she smells and should wash her clothes.

The Choke is a stunning look at the life of a neglected child who is trying to live whilst only semi-aware of the odds stacked against her. Looking at four years of Justine’s life – the formative time just before the teens and two years into them – it shows how devastating a lack of nurture can be, particularly in the context of the decade Laguna has chosen.

The author sets her story in an area a fair journey – at least on foot – away from the rest of society. This amplifies Justine’s familial issues, creating a physical gap that serves well to introduce the fact of the emotional and educational gap between Justine and her peers. Told from Justine’s perspective, you are required to read through the lines constantly, but this itself is no hardship – as soon as you’ve a few pages behind you and have a fair grounding in the situation, there is no need for Laguna to convince you further – Justine’s story is such that you’re rooting for her very early on. Laguna’s focus is on Justine’s development, the young girl’s slow collation of the bits and pieces of information she receives.

A lot of what Justine doesn’t know is down to the simple fact of her age – adults won’t explain to her what she’s too young to understand; inevitably she hears parts of conversations. But much of Justine’s complete innocence is due to her grandfather. Laguna doesn’t diagnose with labels, instead she provides everything you need as an adult to work it out – Pops has PTSD from the war – he speaks of the ‘Japs’ – and as the book continues, the affect his experiences have had on him are shown in increasing detail. Pops seems to have been saved by a friend, the only person he willing goes out to visit. He drinks, smokes, and watches John Wayne films which are such a big part of his day-to-day life that John Wayne’s characters become teachers to Justine. He speaks openly only to his chickens. As much as he loves Justine, he is ill-equipped to care for her, neglecting to teach her basic life skills and not watchful enough in terms of her health.

Laguna gives Justine a learning disability that no one in the book recognises. It is easily recognisable here, just as the PTSD is, and its introduction leads into the book’s biggest example of the difference between our society today and back in the 1970s: Justine struggles with school work but not one person notices. Well, not one adult person – the sole person who understands Justine’s problem and helps her is her friend, Michael, another person Laguna does not label.

In Michael, Laguna has written an incredibly good example of physical disability, in this case Cerebral Palsy, and it is in Michael that Laguna’s refusal to label shows itself for the excellent choice it is. By describing characteristics of disability, and dyslexia, and PTSD, without going into diagnoses, Laguna is able to develop her characters as real personalities without any of the stigma or easy stereotyping that another might have fallen into. Laguna shows the diversity of disability and mental illness, putting the person first. Inevitably she also provides information on how to go about treating others – as regular people. Whilst The Choke is not primarily about difference – with what Justine’s life consists of, it wouldn’t be right if it was – it is an active, excellent, commentary. And that’s true both in the context of its period – we get to see the issues people had back then, which is how Justine’s inability to read falls through the cracks – as well as examples of life that are of course just as relevant today. It is incredibly, hugely, refreshing.

(I am aware of the irony in my own use of labels.)

So the novel isn’t primarily about difference and can’t be: Justine’s life with her Pop is down to the situation of her parents which pervades the entirety of the 250-odd pages. Justine’s mother did not leave the home due to her daughter’s breech birth – of course. And her father isn’t away at work – as it’s important to know, he’s a violent criminal. Justine doesn’t know much about her father except that Pops dislikes him, and her brothers’ mother refuses to speak or look at her because of her mother’s involvement; she has seen her aunt only once because her aunt does not put up with the abuse she receives for living a happy life away from everyone and because she has a girlfriend. And due to the choices and lives of those older than Justine, Justine is herself a target, though she does not always know it. When she does know, she doesn’t know exactly why. This violence and hatred, together with the neglect, culminate to form the ending of the book.

The Choke is an excellent look at abuse, and the cycle through the generations, an example of why things continue and how important it is to look for signs in children beyond the obvious. It’s a super look at neuro and physical difference. And it’s written in a lovely, easy, language that is quick to read through. Laguna’s work has been described as highly original and emphatic. I can’t but repeat this.

I received this book for review. It’s out in the UK on 28th March, published by Gallic Books.

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Anne Brontë – Agnes Grey

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Against the odds.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: December 1847
Date Reviewed: 4th March 2019
Rating: 5/5

Heading towards poverty, and with a need to help her family, nineteen-year-old Agnes sets out to become a governess for the wealthy – people who had been her mother’s peers. In doing this she finds many awful moral codes, but she soldiers on, her desire to help and her hope in the good in people continuing.

Agnes Grey was Anne’s début, and is the more easy-going of her two novels. The book is an interesting mix of routine, mundane, content and highly satisfying theme work. It’s well-written and even during the low moments sports a hard-to-put-down quality. Anne takes a far shorter time to tell her tales than her more famous sisters, Charlotte in particular, and at least in the context of our present day it pays off. For this, Agnes Grey is also a lot calmer.

Anne covers a number of topics simultaneously, the most notable being the lifestyle and general attitudes of the wealthy seen from the position of a servant, and animal abuse; the book is largely based on Anne’s time as a governess, and the animal abuse included is unfortunately in context1. These aspects are very difficult to read at times; Anne details Agnes’ inability to discipline her charges due to rulings laid out by their parents, with the appalling result this has on their personal development. There are only two governess jobs in the book; Anne uses the second to show how all the wealth in the world doesn’t necessarily mean happiness, as she shows the affect of rose-tinted glasses on dreams that were ripe for the taking.

Agnes herself is an interesting character, being both winsome and somewhat unaware of herself. Her personality reflects the general purpose of the book, calm and informative, thoughtful, but there are occasions wherein she seems to misunderstand that people’s thoughts about her are in tandem with the way she comes across – she has a tendency to suggest people are, for example, snubbing her, without reflecting on what she did before that quite likely gave them to believe she wanted distance.

Religion is ever present, Anne’s devote faith in full force. However the use is temperate – it’s natural and devoid of any preaching, a simple aspect of Agnes’ character and understandably spoken of given Anne’s background. There is also a budding romance, nestled among the rest of the text in a way that means it’s important enough without crossing the genre line.

Lastly, it’s worth noting the value in the more philosophical aspects of the book. It is in Anne’s general thoughts, presented as Agnes’ musings, that the book is at its best, often transending time:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual evidence?

Likewise:

If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and visa versa with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

Agnes Grey is a stunning novel, in the sense of the words, what is said. It’s not difficult to see why it’s not as famous as the works of Charlotte and Emily – it’s far too calm and quite frankly far too considerate, though in a good way – but it’s worth its weight in gold.

Footnotes

1 In her biography of Charlotte, Gaskell recounts: ‘I was once speaking to her about “Agnes Grey” – the novel in which her sister Anne pretty literally describes her own experience as a governess – and alluding more particularly to the account of the stoning of the little nestlings in the presence of the parent birds. She said that none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realise the dark side of “respectable” human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and ill-temper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter. We can only trust in such cases that the employers err rather from a density of perception and an absence of sympathy, than from any natural cruelty of disposition. Among several things of the same kind, which I well remember, she told me what had once occurred to herself. She had been entrusted with the care of a little boy, three or four years old, during the absence of his parents on a day’s excursion, and particularly enjoined to keep him out of the stable-yard. His elder brother, a lad of eight or nine, and not a pupil of Miss Brontë’s, tempted the little fellow into the forbidden place. She followed, and tried to induce him to come away; but, instigated by his brother, he began throwing stones at her, and one of them hit her so severe a blow on the temple that the lads were alarmed into obedience. The next day, in full family conclave, the mother asked Miss Brontë what occasioned the mark on her forehead. She simply replied, “An accident, ma’am,” and no further inquiry was made; but the children (both brothers and sisters) had been present, and honoured her for not “telling tales.” From that time, she began to obtain influence over all, more or less, according to their different characters; and as she insensibly gained their affection, her own interest in them was increasing. But one day, at the children’s dinner, the small truant of the stable-yard, in a little demonstrative gush, said, putting his hand in hers, “I love ‘ou, Miss Bront&euml.” Whereupon, the mother exclaimed, before all the children, “Love the governess, my dear!”‘ (Gaskell, 1857, pp. 189-190)

References

Gaskell, Elizabeth (1857) The Life Of Charlotte Brontë, Vol 1, 2nd ed, Smith, Elder & Co, London

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