It’s the start of October. The air has turned crisper, leaves are changing in color or else dropping down on the muddy ground, and the days are getting increasingly shorter. What says October and autumn more than moors and storms? Yes, that’s right – it’s time to reach for those Victorian stories of large mansions, courtship, rapid societal changes, parties and life on the moors. Hosted by four ladies on Booktube (Ange, Kate, Katie, and Lucy), October is #Victober time. Victober is a month long reading challenge in which you read Victorian literature during the month of October. Truthfully, Victorian literature isn’t something I normally read much of, so I thought this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
I made a whole TBR (to-be-read) video talking about the four books I wanted to read for the challenge, two of them actual Victorian books and two contemporary works of nonfiction about the Victorian period. But today I wanted to talk about two of them specifically, which I am currently reading.
First up in my Victorian fiction is Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë, published in 1846. In many ways Anne seems to have been the forgotten sister – what with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights gaining a popularity that does not seem to be comparable to neither Agnes Grey nor her other novel, The tenant of Wildfell Hall. Although she seems to have been slightly overlooked because of her sisters, Anne Brotnë of course was an accomplished writer in her own right – after all, she is still being read and studied more than 150 years later. So what is Agnes Grey all about?
Agnes Grey follows the slightly naive and pure of heart Agnes, who after their family faces some economical problems decides to start working as a governess to help support her family financially as well as gain some form of independence. It was not a good idea. Although it’s easy enough to understand her motives for getting out of her family house to try her own wings, leave the nest, see what she can do and all that – it doesn’t quite go the way she had anticipated. The first family she works for have horrendous children, one worse than the other. Their parents are impossible, according to Agnes – demanding her have full control of the children without using force (basically any violence in making them do things) nor is she allowed to really deprive them of anything (as threats, to make them do things against their will). That is really unfair, thinks Agnes. Well, it goes to hell with her first job and the family finally decides she has done no progress with their kids and lets her go. Disappointed with her failure, Agnes decides to try again – to be able to hold her head up, and to save her pride. She finally gets a new position, which in truth isn’t that different from the first except the children are older, they end up being fewer (the sons of the house are sent off to school soon after her addition there), and while no one in this house is exactly pleasant to her or understanding in any meaningful way, they are also not as hostile as the previous family were.
That’s about as far as I have gotten into the book, so I can’t say where Agnes finally ends up. One thing that becomes obvious early on as a modern reader is that the discipline of children is seen, through Agnes, to be requiring violence, threat of violence, or threat of deprivation of some sort. The parents themselves use these methods when they have to, mostly it is expressed through our heroine since she is the one given responsibility for the children and the control of them. The idea of discipline and guidance to children through these means is also reflected in the way the characters behave towards animals, only worse. While this way of gaining authority over individuals is less obvious in childcare of the 21st century, you can definitely see remnants of it in the care for dogs and other animals still. Is it just me who sees childcare as a big part of the 19th century novels? A book I read just a few weeks ago, The Scarlet Letter, similarly had interesting constructions of childhood, childcare, and especially in relation to a ‘broken’ home/marriage; the consequences an unstable home situation has on a child. While The Scarlet Letter more indirectly deals with childcare and childhood – in the way the character, Pearl, is written; Agnes Grey clearly focuses on children, childhood, the disciplining and schooling of them as well as the ideal familial situation.Who knows what the remaining 150 pages will bring, but I don’t expect I will feel much fondness for any of the characters under 18 years old. Actually under twenty. Or any of the characters quite possibly, since I’m not sold on either Agnes herself as some pure and well bred Christian girl who only does what’s right, or the parents of the children who can’t be bothered to fix any of the less than charming characteristics in their children but still expect them to excel in society.
The other book I am currently reading is the first of my nonfiction titles about the Victorian era. It’s none other than Therese O’Neill’s Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manner. So far it has been most strongly focused on body related issues. Of all kinds truly, everything from toilets (and more!), how to hide your wrinkles or fix your saggy breast, body image, clothing of the body, etc. I suppose one of the common threads through this book is the horrifying things people did to look ‘beautiful’ or passable in the era, or the horrifyingly dirty reality of the Victorian era, and don’t get me started on the lack of understanding and knowledge of some of the common poisons of the time (and their long-term effects) either. Lead on the face, no problem. Cocaine for weight loss, sure. Actually I’m not going to go into details, it’s a bit stomach turning to read but if you’re interested – pick up the book!
This would probably be a much harder to book to read if O’Neill weren’t such a humorous writer. It’s clear she is here to entertain first and foremost, while at the same time being helpful in guiding you through some of the more significant (dirty) sides of the era. Educational and funny, who thought it could be possible? Of course it’s not the only book of its kind, but it’s one of the fewer in my experience that doesn’t lose out on its educational content for the sake of jokes. You’ll never read a Victorian novel the same way again, trust me. It’s already shaping my reading of Agnes Grey. Being almost halfway into Unmentionable I’ll say that while her humorous writing style can sometimes be a touch on the too-much, and I am never not cringing or wincing when I read this book, because of horrendous Victorian practices and habits, it’s also been a delight and enlightening in more ways than I thought I would ever need or want.
That’s all for round 1 of my #Victober reading.
Are you participating in Victober 2017? What are you reading? Do you have some favorite Victorian novels or nonfiction books about the Victorian era? Or do you perhaps have a favorite historical fiction book set in the Victorian period with a modern take? I’d love to hear all about it.
Until next time, Happy Reading!