Books Within Borders: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey
By
Anne Brontë
Alma: £5.99: 242pp. (plus introduction)
ISBN: 9781847497147

To have not read the Brontës whilst growing up in a locus relatively equidistant to Leeds and Bradford, was like never visiting those aunts who continued to buy you presents whilst you continued to avoid visiting them. I’ve read the heavyweights: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, should they even need mentioning, but now I have the opportunity to read some of the lesser-known works, sometimes lost behind the canonisation of those two colossal pieces of fiction.

Agnes Grey

I start with Agnes Grey. Anne wrote the sedate-seeming ‘Governess novel’ in the same period as Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s The Professor.When Charlotte was initially rejected she then sent the publishers Jane Eyre, which, by the time they had made a decision on Emily and Anne’s work in 1847, had already been published. It inspired them though to print the other sister’s novels and perhaps Anne’s has been condemned to sit behind the reputation of those comparatively complex and visual works. Agnes Grey is an extraordinarily good novel though. The Irish novelist and critic, George Moore, once declared Anne’s work a masterpiece, and whilst that might be an overestimation, there is a cause for its elevating.

Ultimately, it’s a novel about the sense of place in our own families and how we carry this sense, or absence of, when we leave them. If, as some have said, that Agnes Grey is too much a novel of convention for it to be raised to the stratospheric level of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, I would reply that it’s because it is such an acute portrayal of this need to conform to convention that it deserves to be raised. Is the family not the place where we learn our ‘conventions’? One could see Freud using Agnes Grey as a model for his essay ‘Family Romances’ because we forever seem to be trying to understand if Agnes will understand her place in the family to understand her potential place in the world without it.

Agnes’ desire is simple: she wants to become a governess. Getting laughed out of her home by her parents after she tells of her vision only spurs her more, and despite a failing at her initial assignment with the Murrays, she largely succeeds, or at least, stays a bit longer at the Broomfields. It’s hard to measure success in governing and parenting (Anne died before she had the opportunity to become the latter) but Agnes seems set out to investigate it. She has a rationale:

‘Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: the clear remembrance of my own thoughts and feelings in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser.’

The debate becomes whether this reveals the naivety her family believes she possesses, or a sound logic to test her hypothesis against; an experiment into whether the past has really given her the correct tools for the future. Because, wrapping around itself, her reasoning makes us wonder what were the parameters of her own childhood to suggest that it is her own thoughts and feelings that are the ‘surer guide’ over the words of the ‘mature adviser.’ How did they become such an important distinction?

At intervals then, she is tried and tested, more so in her first assignment at the Murrays that, as we’ve already mentioned, comes to a halt. Her time there is defined when Agnes, seeing the torture of infant birds by the young boy of the household, Tom, puts them out of their foreseeable misery by killing them herself (apparently an experience wrought from Anne’s own life as a governess). The opposition between the mature adviser and the surer guide noticeably inflames here: reason and instruction against thoughts and feelings. Anne is so full of restraint and self-denial as much as she is intent, to continue loading the scientific terminology (which the Brontë’s, in their father’s library, were increasingly interested in) it’s a wonder as to who, or what, she really wants to prove wrong. The question again, points to the past. In her struggle to impose order on the children, Anne writes:

‘…the children had all come up from dinner, loudly declaring that they meant to “to be naughty”; and they had all kept their resolution, though I had talked myself hoarse, and wearied every muscle in my throat, in the vain attempt to reason them out of it.’

The image suggests that the battle between the mature adviser and the surer guide has manifested psychosomatically.  What use is her reason going to be? Surely their ‘resolution’ is something that she should be able to understand if she’s dependent on her own childhood experiences? It is this battle that resumes on every page and although Agnes Grey isn’t a novel concerned with romantic love, when it does appear in the form of Mr Weston, it arrives as another test of her developing framework.

Initially, she learns that he had ‘lost his mother not many months before he came,’ but for Agnes, this strikes her as meaning that Weston had lost ‘the nearest and dearest of his early friends and he had no home.’ (Author’s italics). There’s a palpable sadness that underlies Agnes’ battle and it becomes increasingly evident here. We know place, or position rather, is important in Anne’s novel and so, if Weston’s mother and father were his ‘early friends’ does that mean that Agnes regards her parents in the same way as well? A sweet idea you might think if that’s the case, but consider her opening words to the novel:

‘I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend…’

It might seem that this is a novel about breaking free, a conventional narrative about breaking free of convention, but here we see how it morphs into exploring the sadness of not finding place in a setting that we would expect to find our rightful and comfortable position: the home. Certainly, Anne demands her rightful place alongside her sister’s effervescent regard.

Books Within Borders: Jacob Ross – Tell No-One About This, Collected Stories

Tell No-One About This
by
Jacob Ross
Peepal Tree Press: 360pp.: £14.99
9781845233525

Based in Leeds, Peepal Tree Press publish, what they call, the best international writing from the Caribbean and its diasporas in the UK. The book in question here is Jacob Ross’ collection of short stories, Tell No-One About This. Having received the Jhalak Prize in 2017 for his crime novel The Bone Readers (a departure in tone, but clearly, a successful one) perhaps now the time is due to assess what Ross has achieved in the short form.

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Ross’ stories have been longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize

Assembled from a fourty-two year period between 1975 and 2017, Ross’ collection is collated into four elemental sounding sections: ‘Dark’, ‘Dust’, ‘Ocean’, and ‘Flight’. There’s no indication though as to when these stories were written and perhaps it’s because of the often youthful protagonists, or subjects of the stories, that makes us question what are the works from a more juvenile period. Youth offers something to Ross narratively and one of the prime instances of why this might be is exemplified by Agatha, in ‘Girlchile’.

Estimating her to be a teenager, the story opens with Agatha walking through her neighbourhood. Here, she sees a ‘stranger’ amidst the chorus of the regular crowd of puerile men, greeting her with their usual parade of ‘nasty things’ orchestrated by their ‘hands and mouths.’ The presence of the stranger nevertheless causes them to stop and they ‘no longer loud-whispered dutty words’ at her. Why is this? The question of her age is made complicated because, clearly, Agatha is not naive enough to not know what these ‘nasty things’ mean, yet she keeps them away from her mother.

The reader can only be left to assume why she has done this. Transpiring however that the stranger is her biological father, the man, named Gideon, approaches Agatha asking that she tells her mother he is in town. When Agatha returns home she says:

‘Who’s Gideon, Mammy?’

Her mother stiffened, dropped back the lid on the steaming pot and swung round to face her. ‘Where you get that name from? Who gave it to you? Eh?’ Her mother made a step towards her ‘Where you been to get it? Yuh bizness is school, not to shit-talk. Go change your clothes. I don’ have the strength…’

The girl retreated to her room, sat on the bed and examined her feet.

The fact that Agatha has framed it as a question, and her mother has then rebutted her with more questions, shows how the dynamics of their relationship are unsettled and threatened by what Gideon knows and represents. Her mother though appears riled at the fact that her daughter doesn’t just want to know something her mother is hiding from her, but also knows that whatever is hidden is structural to their relationship as it is now. Adults here, as much as givers of knowledge, are gatekeepers of it as well.

With this emphasis on the lessons to be learnt, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel indebted to the fable. ‘Five Leaves and a Stranger’ is perhaps more of a conscious arrangement of a parable as an unnamed stranger arrives in a village to slowly tell the history of his own land. He’s treated with suspicion by the rest of the villagers but one mother, Minerva, is captivated by his stories and his history, and it is her ill child he eventually helps to revive. Once his work is deemed done the stranger leaves, but the story doesn’t deny itself the scepticism that we’ve seen in the rest of the collection when this question of what lessons, and knowledge, really constitutes is queried again. The final line feels coarsened with a tone of dubiety:

We looked back just once when she among us who had a view on everything and said we must, from this onward, greet the stranger by his name.

Assumedly, the moral, if there is one, can be generalised as something like ‘accepting this stranger from another land.’ It is though, only she who ‘has a view on everything’ that is reportedly able to say we must ‘greet the stranger by his name’: who, after all, has such a panoptic view on the world the story seems to ask. It’s not then, so much an innocence that’s preserved by the the village, and the likes of Agatha, but instead a way of preserving and protecting relationships people have with one another.

One of the most powerful renditions of this idea is from ‘Rum an Coke’. Norma, a mother (as you can probably tell by now, a frequent focus of Ross’), who is subjected to violence by her drug-addicted son, visits her son’s drug dealer so that she can buy him some of the substance he’s addicted to. To do so, Norma withdraws the last of her money and although the premise might be slightly chimerical, the story’s construction gives us an incredibly intricate exploration of this mother and son relationship. This notion of withdrawal for instance, overhangs the story: Norma withdraws money for son, who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms that, by the end, appears as a way for Norma to prevent, or cope, with the withdrawal as herself as a mother to him. Ross writes:

He would have gone over to Teestone’s house next door, or to some friend of his, and pumped his veins with a needleful of that milky stuff that did such dreadful things to him. The milky stuff, she did not understand…

Ross has captured here what other writers would take three-hundred pages to explain: the whole dreadful experience for Norma. It’s not just a world that Ross has created here, but a world in which Norma’s thoughts have also helped create. ‘Milky stuff’ could only be a word Norma has invented to describe the drug to herself (like Agatha’s ‘nasty things’), that at once represents that which is distant and astral, whilst also being something intimately and maternally connected to her role as a mother now. And so it’s the withdrawing of one to understand the other that makes these decisions, and the choices of what the characters learn about themselves and others, often so difficult in Ross’ collection.

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Gallery

Dyeworks

Naylor Jenning’s Dyeworks (as it was last known) was originally built in 1868. Back then it was owned by Thomas Pratt, a clothier from Little London. In 2010 it ceased production, after which it remained as a brownfield site until 2016 before development to convert the land into houses and apartments initiated. This still continues today.

Being in the North, these old mills are part of the landscape. By the time I’ve come into consciousness some of these mills have still been in operation, or already undergone the process of being converted into chic apartments or offices. As I loaded up some of the photos I took of the mill, I found a video of when it was still functioning, from 2010, on YouTube.

All of my photos were taken on film: here’s a selection of them.

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