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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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Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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Eloisa James – A Duke Of Her Own

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Searching for a lady worthy of receiving the Spice Girls’ ‘Mama’ on compact disc.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62683-8
First Published: 28th July 2009
Date Reviewed: 18th December 2018
Rating: 5/5

The Duke of Villiers needs to find a wife and mother for five of his six illegitimate children. Most women are either already married or want nothing to do with the whole thing, particularly as the Duke is not the average person. There are but two women left on the list: Eleanor, who he is incredibly attracted to but doesn’t strike Villiers as the motherly sort, and Lisette, who is considered mad but loves children. He’ll have to spend time with them both… but if it’s anything to do with Eleanor, she’ll have him herself.

A Duke Of Her Own is the sixth and final story of the Desperate Duchesses series and ends the set spectacularly.

This book is no longer than any of the others, but it uses its time better than the rest; the other books aren’t lacking in story, but the sheer amount of things covered and the number of characters involved make it a more ‘complete’ story and with much more going for it than simply the romance.

The character development in the book in general is good, with Villiers and Eleanor, and Lisette, though to a lesser extent simply because she’s in-between main and secondary on the character list, understandably well-drawn. (Admittedly, Villiers has had a good few books’ worth of development but until the introduction to this book – included in the previous – he had been mostly relegated to ‘chess player’ status only. That said, he was also more intelligent in the previous books.) The chemistry is thus very good, too, with James creating a very believable romance. Villiers does sometimes get a bit too caught up in wondering whether he should instead marry the woman who he thinks would make the better mother (Lisette) but it doesn’t become overbearing.

This – the fact it doesn’t become overbearing – is due in part to James’ deft plotting. As the novel continues, Lisette’s supposed ‘madness’ is slowly shown to the reader for what it truly is, which means that Villiers’ umming and ahhing becomes more a question of ‘when is he going to see what others can see?’ rather than simple angst. The other reason it’s not overbearing is because it just doesn’t happen too much – once he starts to like Eleanor chunks of the book go by without question.

(And when James explains Lisette openly, it’s the satisfying conclusion to that subplot that you were hoping for.)

The addition of Villiers’ children in the book is fantastic. This isn’t to say that the previous books, which rarely featured children, didn’t work – it’s that the children themselves have inherited Villiers’ better traits, at least in terms of bookish interest. They are most often devious and clever, matching and generally trumping Villiers’ personality in terms of reader interest, and they help speed up his realisations of what is best for him, bringing in extra comedy and a different, lovely, feel to the book. The children are cunning thieves, strong youngsters in the face of the horrid adversity they’ve lived with, and James dedicates time to their settling into what is a completely different world for them. (All were abandoned by both parents and Villiers had previously left any upkeep to a person who effectively pocketed the money.)

There are of course moments that aren’t quite in keeping with the history – mostly due to James’ desire to bring in a bit of present-day thinking into her stories – and also a few silly moments, but these are both fleeting.

A Duke Of Her Own begins well, ends on a triumph, and manages to seem as though it’s from a completely different series whilst still adhering to the general atmosphere and mood of its companions. It is a superb finale to the set, and a fabulous book in itself.

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Eloisa James – This Duchess Of Mine

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 370
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-62682-1
First Published: 26th May 2009
Date Reviewed: 15th October 2018
Rating: 3/5

The Beaumont line needs an heir and Jemma wants her husband to be by her side. Knowing she’s not getting any younger and seeing her friends happily paired up, Jemma looks at getting close to Elijah through a few rounds of flirtation; she knows he won’t be wooed in the regular fashion and might take better to being flirted with by someone else. Meanwhile, Elijah has discovered it’s high time he made an effort to be with his wife; nine years of a long-distance marriage to the woman he loves, and a hapless cousin for an heir, mean he’s looking to change things.

This Duchess Of Mine is the fifth and penultimate book in James’ Desperate Duchesses series, and focuses on the ‘leading’ couple of the group of friends.

This book isn’t as strong as the others. The romance isn’t particularly well-written or plotted and there are a lot of conveniences and devices used. Nor is the editing as good, in fact it seems the book is suffering from the ‘author knows best’ or ‘editor won’t touch famous author’s work’ idea that goes along with further works – whereas James’ prose and use of language in general has previously been very good, This Duchess Of Mine is full of contemporary American English that doesn’t match its 1700s England setting.

The romance takes its time; when it finally does get there, it’s rather too cute and perfect. There’s a major lack of chemistry between the pair, meaning that the flirtation and subsequent sex scenes don’t really work – you would expect to feel the love between the characters but that’s difficult.

However – and I realise I’m going back and forth between positive and negative points here – the devices James’ uses are interesting in their historical context. There’s not a ton of focus on them of course, but the information about what appear to be the Roman Baths in Bath, and the inclusion of Dr Withering, a real person who worked on cures for heart conditions using foxgloves, are good. (The Roman Baths are, during the course of the book, provided with funding to restore/develop them further, which fits enough with the time period in which they were truly developed – the 1800s – to say it’s a plausible plot point.)

In terms of the book in general, the best parts are the chess games and the secondary plot of Villiers’ plight at finding a wife, the necessary set-up to his own book which follows.

Perhaps it’s the lack of previous characters – Jemma and Elijah have played a role in everyone else’s lives but here only Villiers walks onto the stage. And perhaps that was something the author wanted in particular – few friends this time, after all the time Jemma has spent with others – but it doesn’t feel the same, especially when so much that occurs in this book has already occurred. (Jemma and Elijah’s story has been in place for a while and by the point of this book really ought to have been quick.) Perhaps, too, it’s the sheer lack of comedy compared to the other books. There are many reasons it doesn’t work.

Read it if you’ve read the others and want to complete the series, but you could easily skip this book in favour of moving straight to #6. Or at least skip the epilogue, which moves several decades forward in time and is at odds with the here-and-now mode of the rest of the saga.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

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Working with stereotypes.

Publisher: Fourth Estate (HarperCollins)
Pages: 475
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-35634-8
First Published: 14th May 2013
Date Reviewed: 8th October 2018
Rating: 5/5

Ifemelu met Obinze at a party – everyone expected him to be interested in one of her friends. After an initial romance, Ifemelu leaves Nigeria to go to university in America, and once there she comes to discover that she is black. Working as a writer in the industry, she later starts a blog on the subject of race in America, becoming very popular. Meanwhile Obinze looks to get into Britain, but finds it hard to gain a visa despite his status in Nigeria. He doesn’t understand why Ifemelu ended contact, and sometimes, neither does she.

The above is the bare basics of this complex book. Americanah is both a commentary on the concept of race in America – African American, black, in particular – and a romance with a bit of ‘finding oneself’ included. Told in sections, moving between Ifemelu and Obinze, and moving back and forward in time, it studies its major subject to excellent effect.

The variety of conversation in this book would be difficult to list, especially without spoiling some of the plot. It is huge, encompassing a great many thoughts, general ideas, specifics, and from all manner of viewpoints; the characters’ moves from Nigeria to America, and Nigeria to London, enable Adichie to study her subject thus. There’s the Nigerian perspective that takes into account the perspective of the African continent in general through the use of other characters, and how ‘black’ isn’t a thing there. There’s the concept of there being no such thing as race, from various perspectives, and the breaking down into pieces of all of them as commentary. Adichie uses Ifemelu’s experiences her, with the character experiencing racism as a new ‘black’ person, the conversations black Americans have amongst themselves and with others of different races, conversations where Ifemelu is the only non-white person, and so on. The character tends to question everything. And then there are her own thoughts, that are used for her blog, her commentary drawn from her boyfriends, and various privileges.

What’s interesting here – beyond all of the above, of course – is that Ifemelu isn’t a particularly likeable person; the author has commentary happen through the use of the character but not only develops her into her own person away from that but makes it so that you’ve a mix of stunning inner thoughts and actions that aren’t always nice, are, in fact, often selfish. It’s a bold move on Adichie’s part that rounds off the whole novel with aplomb. Ifemelu is nice enough for you to keep reading, and then there’s Obinze to take over when she becomes too much, his character representation an entirely different world to the one Ifemelu moves in and objectively being a much better character in terms of reader enjoyment. His life in Britain offers the perspective of immigrants in the current political climate – that which would soon aid the lead to a Brexit vote – poverty, and the working class in general. (The book was written before Brexit; there is more of a focus on the reason for immigration on those who travel, rather than the thoughts of those already in the country.) Obinze’s life is more of an extra when it comes to commentary; Adichie uses him more for general narrative purposes and the novel is all the stronger for it, having therefore both a good plot and good commentary.

The romance is very much a secondary, almost tertiary part of the novel. Due to Ifemelu’s personality and choices it is obviously not developed as much as it might have been otherwise but is still written well in accordance with the rest – it’s a romance that’s not great because it’s been planned to be so.

There is a general look at Nigeria on its own terms, both at the beginning before Ifemelu’s move and some increases in time spent on it as Ifemelu inevitably compares her life before and after.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Americanah minors in books – it’s a book about books. The main characters share a love of literature, particularly classics and famous contemporary books, and there are a good few discussions. Literature and literary education is one of the main factors of their chemistry, and Adichie, somewhat understandably for an author, doesn’t scrimp on details.

Americanah is a feat of writing. The sheer amount of commentary included, the number of angles and takes on each subject and the dedication to covering it in detail is incredible. There’s a reason this book is so long. To read it is to take on a study, but also a tome full of enjoyment. It is quite an undertaking but it’s worth it.

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