Books Within Borders: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey
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.

Jacob Ross – Tell No-One About This, Collected Stories

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

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.



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.


Benjamin Myers – The Gallows Pole

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books: 374 pp. (with postscript): £9.99 rrp.

As you read the opening pages of Benjamin Myers’ novel you might be forgiven for recognising the North of England that was then as the North of England that is now: “Gulch and gully. Mulch and algae. England.” England in 1767 apparently, but ten miles outside of the city of Leeds today you can be back on that terrain. I always find it remarkable how, for such a developed nation encapsulated in a small island, it remains brown and green with its moors, Pennines, Peaks, and Dales – and this is just the North. But although declamatory novels might try and tell us this is England, with Myers’ work you get a sense that this land really is England.

PHOTO: Bluemoose Books

Set shortly after the end of the Seven Years War when the weaving industry that the North relied on was severely depleted, Myers tells the story of ‘King’ David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of counterfeiters who began producing fake gold coins. These were real people and as Steven Hartley explains on his website (, he is the great, great, great, great, great grandson of the eponymous David Hartley and is still able to trace a lineage of Hartleys to the Cragg Vale area. It is this sense of identity in the land of the moors and the Pennines that Myers crafts into his own work:

“The earth was in his father’s scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale.”

Often, the body seems inexplicable with the land in the novel like here, but it’s also as if the body of the text is aligned with this idea of what the land is, as though a propelling mechanism that underpins it. We’re frequently witnessing moments of production and movement. Look for instance how the accumulation of details and actions builds in the following excerpt until there is movement in various modes. This reliance on the present participle can create a jarring and repetitive effect, yet stylistically or not, it adds to this overarching idea:

“With a scoop Robert Thomas poured more grain onto the floor and then picked up a flail and joined him.The men swung their sticks with determination, with violence. First Robert Thomas then Matthew Normanton. They found a rhythm. An alternating pattern. The Coiners’ messenger Thomas Spencer watched. He counted twenty alternate cracks before the man straightened together, breathing deeply.”

To know this land though is to seemingly know the limit of their world. As a result there’s a sense of how do the characters know and assimilate their knowledge from outside influences in a place like the Cragg Vale. It’s interesting to watch as Hartley and his clan have a hardened realism to their environment, but then also ‘believe’ in it beyond a realistic capacity to estimate their actions. Unlike Macbeth – who wasn’t a particularly intelligent man either and often upon a moor-like heath – he had to rely on his wife and three witches’ prophecies to try and foresee his future. Hartley doesn’t have this. He has his own convictions. Animals are often in his accounts though and as he sits in jail he recounts a very Macbethian image: “an malkins an all I seen malkins stows of times up not moors” with the moors being “A secret place where things do occuer beyond any explanayshun things you must never medull with No No.” It’s as if without question he sees what he sees, and as with the Thane of Cawdor, has an inability to discern what is a vision and what is vision:

“A duzzen of them if not more and all their tayles were tangulled and like notted together and they must have drownit that way and I swear it was the most horribullest thing a man ever did see so horribul it did give me the fear but I cuddent show that to the lads becors sum of them silly sods wership the ground the kind warks on.”

This appears to be the mystical notion of a ‘Rat-King’. In literal terms it’s when a rest of rats get their tales knotted and tied, but although gruesome sounding, it’s a rare phenomenon bound in folk lore. Hartley’s response is visceral and whether or not he believes in its totemistic capacity he is scared by it non-the-less. Is it a case of belief if it invokes fear? Or should the question be who does the believed believe in? In Macbeth one of the first witch’s declarations is, “Like a rat without a tail, I’ll do, I’ll do and I’ll do” and one might find, not just the most contemporary aspect of the novel with this brutal land and its self-perpetuating male mythology, but also a fulfilling of one of the witches’ most cryptic auguries in this idea. As Hartley says “he cuddent show that [fear] to the lads”: plenty of rats but none without tails.

As much as this may be England as we know it, it also feels like it’s England, or a part of England, as Myers knows it. He is interested as much with the land as he is the novel which he has ‘chosen’ to set there. And similar to Ted Hughes, who also heralded from the region, you begin to wonder if there really is something in the land fecund for writing. Hughes was a man though who similarly recognised the symbolic capacity of animals. His macabre creation, Crow, remarks at one point “Man could not be man nor God God” and as Hartley and his men battle against conspirators, capitalists, the Crown, in a time where those ‘dark Satanic mills’ were beginning to pop up across the land, like Crow, he appears in a world where the skepticism of our conventional, disavowing narratives is not see England without faith, but England without faith in us