Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
I was prepared for Agnes to be lonely. I was prepared for her to be shocked at the upper classes’ moral vacancy. What I wasn’t prepared for was Agnes’ lack of compassion for her young charges, horrible as they are.
Of course, the governess’ position is impossible, respected by neither her pupils, who have been brought up to consider themselves superior to anyone required to earn her living, nor their parents, who expect her to perform miracles, without giving her the authority she needs. But Agnes blames her charges’ unruliness on her being denied permission to thrash them rather than her own lack of teaching experience or skill. She assigns the children ‘lessons’ – never completely defined but probably some form of rote learning from a book – and doesn’t give much thought to why they’d rather play.
Much as I longed to introduce her to Readilearn, Agnes’ (and I suspect her creator’s) lack of humility in this regard didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. But it isn’t a patch on The Tennant of Wildfell Hall which I consider the best of all the Brontë books. My copy, published last year, came courtesy of Alma Books. Interestingly, when I went to Goodreads to record my reading, it told me I’d read it before (albeit not since I began reviewing). I have no memory of this!
The Governesses by Anne Serre translated
by Mark Hutchinson
Reading this book is like trying to capture someone else’s dream. The elements are familiar but the parameters keep changing: how to make them cohere into something that translates into the real world?
The speed bumps outside the gates suggest a contemporary setting, but the little boys play around with hoops. We’re told the governesses had adult lives before they came here, but they gambol about like adolescents, dancing naked, acting on impulse and waiting at the gates to seduce strangers for sex. We start with preparations for a party, but never see the event take place. Laura has a baby but she soon returns to her flighty self and the infant merges with the band of little boys.
I can see the novel raises questions, but those I found aren’t particularly deep. Is the house a cage or a sanctuary? Are the governesses performing or doing as they please? Is this pure whimsy or, as the blurb suggests, a midsummer night’s dream, albeit one that lasts for years? Is it a game of snakes and ladders as the beautiful cover suggests?
First published in French in 1992, and highly praised by critics, my copy of this English translation came courtesy of LesFugitives, a British publisher dedicated to bringing francophone authors, mostly female, to the UK. Perhaps I’m too literal in my tastes.
Although I’m critical of my own schooling, it was a thousand times better than what passes for education in either of these books. If you’re interested, or want to compare notes, you can read about it on Norah Colvin’s blog.