Thursday, February 26, 2015

Suggested reading: Jenny Diski and Oliver Sacks

The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises....I try but I can’t think of a single aspect of having cancer, start to finish, that isn’t an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed however I believe I choose to play each scene.

—Jenny Diski: "A diagnosis" (London Review of Books, 11 September 2014)

Jenny Diski is writing a series of articles in the LRB chronicling her experience of cancer, or, as she puts it in the first article in the series linked above, "another fucking cancer diary." Her articles have followed two threads: the first is about her disease—the medical system's depersonalizing and clinical (in both senses) treatment of cancer patients, together with the physical and emotional effects of her radiation therapy. The second thread is an extended reflection on her adolescence and young adulthood, when after a suicide attempt and her committal to a psychiatric hospital she was taken in by a woman she'd never met, a former classmate's mother: the writer Doris Lessing. Lessing, who died in 2013, fictionalized their relationship in two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1973).

Diski is writing "sidebars" to her LRB series on her blog, This and That Continued. The latest news is not good: she has radiation burns from her cancer treatments, and those treatments have also inflamed her pre-existing "mild pulmonary fibrosis," making breathing and movement difficult. And she fell recently and broke her wrist, which is causing her acute pain and making it difficult to type. She writes,
What started out as [a prognosis of] 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent….So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment….it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?

"A sidebar: How's it going?" This and That Continued, 19 Feb 2015

The same day that Diski posted this sidebar on her blog, another announcement was made in an even more public forum:
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

—Oliver Sacks: "My own life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer," New York Times, 19 February 2015
Sacks goes on to anatomize his feelings on learning this news: a sense of serenity, of clarity, of focussing on the essential and detaching from daily cares and worries about the future. He writes,
This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
Of course, Diski's and Sacks' disparate perspectives on their impending deaths reflect their basic dispositions. Diski is skeptical, critical (of the system in which she finds herself unwillingly embedded, and of herself), and pessimistic; Sacks is learned (the title of his piece is taken from the philosopher David Hume's brief autobiography, written when he discovered that he was dying), observant, and, if not optimistic about the ultimate outcome, at least positive in his approach (he repeatedly uses words such as "gratitude" and "privilege"). The prospect of imminent death seems to expose our truest self.

Nonetheless, I can't help noting that their circumstances are very different. Sacks is 81, an age when it seems natural to come to terms with your own mortality. Diski is in her sixties, more than two decades younger than the most common age of death for British women. Sacks reports being virtually pain-free, while Diski is experiencing unremitting pain and frightening spells where she struggles to breathe. I think in her situation I, too, would have difficulty maintaining equanimity and detachment.

This page includes links to Diski's entire series so far, some of which require a subscription to the LRB (well worth the cost, which is under $2 per issue). Sacks reports that he has completed an autobiography which will be published in the spring. Our sad knowledge is that there will come a time, all too soon, when their voices will fall silent.


For more posts on Jenny Diski, see:

The Sixties: A personal history of a time of sweeping cultural, social and economic changes.

Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis: Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas.

For another post on Oliver Sacks, see:

Music As A Drug: Musicophilia: On "the overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity of our brains to music."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"This is why people think they dislike opera": Verdi's Aida

Halfway through the Emmy-Award-winning video of the Metropolitan Opera's 1989 production of Verdi's Aida, I turned to my partner and said, "This is why people think they dislike opera."

The problem isn't the level of artistry on display. The cast is filled with stars, who are all in excellent voice: Plácido Domingo, Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, Sherrill Milnes. In 1989 James Levine, the conductor, was in his 17th year as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which is deservedly considered one of the premier orchestras in the world. So the music, which includes some of Verdi's most beloved arias and instrumental interludes, is performed at a very high level.

But opera is not just music, it is also theater; and that's where the problems come in.

The libretto. Despite its four-act length and the huge cast it requires, Aida is one of the most frequently performed operas. According to the Repertory Report, in the Metropolitan Opera's history it is second only to Puccini's La bohème in the number of performances (more than 1100; on average, one out of every 25 performances at the Met has been of Aida).

But in spite of its popularity, I've somehow managed not to see Aida until now (Elton John's version doesn't count), and I was surprised at how dramatically static much of it is. In Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto scenes of conflict alternate with scenes that do nothing to advance the action or give us a greater insight into the characters' emotional dilemmas.

In the first scene, we're introduced to the central love triangle, in which the Egyptian warrior Radamès (Domingo), who is loved by the Egyptian princess Amneris (Zajick), instead loves the captive Ethiopian princess Aida (Millo). We also learn that an Ethiopian army has invaded Egypt, and that Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and her loyalty to her country and to her father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro (Milnes). But in the scene that immediately follows these urgent revelations, Radames is slowly—very slowly—girded and armed for battle at the Temple of "Vulcan" (the Egyptian god Ptah). This scene brings everything to a screeching halt.

This same pattern is followed in the next act. After a key confrontation between Aida and Amneris, in which Amneris falsely tells Aida that Radamès has been killed in order to learn her true feelings about him, the next scene is the famous triumphal march, which features a seemingly endless parade of supernumeraries striding across the stage in a victory celebration that goes on, and on.

Aida was commissioned for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871, so perhaps that's one explanation for its emphasis on ceremony. But ceremony does not make for compelling drama. For some, this is the sort of thing that makes grand opera grand, but in my view Verdi could easily have cut an act's worth of inaction from Aida. Finally in Acts III and IV the story is moved forward: Radamès decides to flee with Aida and Amonasro, only to have their plans overheard by Amneris—but the eruption of passion and conflict takes too long to arrive.

The production. Sonja Frisell's production has been hugely popular at the Met: it has been in the repertory since 1988, and is still being used (it was most recently revived this very season). It is based on elements of the original 1871 premieres in Cairo and Italy, as well as other 19th-century productions. In its echoes of those productions, whose costumes and sets were based on then-recently discovered ancient Egyptian artifacts, ruins, and wall paintings, the Met's version is striving for some sort of authenticity (whatever that might mean in the context of opera, the most artificial of art forms). But whatever the intention, too often the result is incongruous. Domingo, a handsome and elegant man, is made to look distinctly inelegant in Dada Saligeri's costumes:

The costumes do no favors for Dolora Zajick, either; her lapis peacock headdress looks more like a turquoise turkey:

These designs were evidently based on those for early productions of Aida:

Knowing this, though, doesn't make them less distracting.

Another incongruity: note the weathered, half-buried ruins:

The opera is set at a time when the Old Kingdom at the height of its power, and so it makes no sense for the characters to be wandering among ruins. Perhaps the ruins are mean to suggest the lesson of Shelley's Ozymandias about the ultimate fate of all empires, or perhaps (like the costumes?) they are meant to provide a frame of the 19th-century archaeological fascination with Egypt. But since everything else in the production seems to be functioning on a literal rather than symbolic level, having the characters stepping around ruins on Gianni Quaranta's sets just looks anachronistic.

And the less said about Rodney Griffin's choreography for the dance interludes, the better:

But unflattering costumes, anachronistic sets and awkward choreography could be overlooked. There is something about this production can't be overlooked, though:

Millo and Milnes, Ethiopian characters portrayed by white singers, perform in brownface.

Race is an important issue in Aida: the love of Radamès and Aida crosses not only boundaries of national enmity, but of ethnicity. If this is something you want to emphasize in your production, my suggestion would be to hire African-American singers. If you want a particular singer in a role regardless of the identity of the character, then I'd suggest color-blind casting. At the Met and elsewhere the great African-American soprano Leontyne Price portrayed Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Liu in Puccini's Turandot, and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. It amazes me that a major cultural institution in the late 20th century would think that putting white singers in brownface was an acceptable practice.

As I say, if Verdian grand opera is to your taste, the musical qualities of this performance are outstanding. But I think in the future if we're ever tempted to put this Aida on again, we'll leave the picture off.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Queen (2014) won six Filmfare Awards last weekend, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress.* It's been showered with other awards and appeared on many year-end best-of lists. I found it to be a modest and likable film, especially because of the performance of Kangana Ranaut as Rani ("queen" in Hindi).

On the day before her wedding—almost literally while the henna is drying on her hands—the shy and demure Rani is abruptly dumped by her London-returned fiancé Vijay (Rajkummar Rao). Rani decides to go on her bought-and-paid-for honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam by herself, and (amazingly) her parents agree to let her go. Adventures—some heartwarming, some cringe-worthy—ensue.

There's the couple having noisy sex in the next hotel room; the bewilderment and anxiety of ordering meals or negotiating taxi rides in languages she doesn't understand; being stopped without her passport by the police; wandering alone and watching the happy couples who seem to be everywhere; fighting off a purse-snatcher; going to a disco and getting drunk for the first time; having her first hangover.

Rani has the good fortune to get taken under the wing of the free-spirited Vijaylaxmi (Lisa Haydon), the hotel staffperson who (we discover) was the woman having sex next door. She's also a single parent, although childcare never seems to be an issue as she shows the wide-eyed Rani around Paris and takes her shopping and clubbing (which is where the first hangover comes from):

"Hungama Ho Gaya" was originally sung by Asha Bhosle in the 1973 movie Anhonee; this remix, with an interpolated section from Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" of all things, is by soundtrack composer Amit Trivedi with additional vocals by Arijit Singh.

When I first heard about the film, Ranaut did not seem like an obvious choice for the naïve Rani. A former model, Ranaut's major roles before this included a young office worker who is sleeping with her boss in Life in a…Metro (2007), a coked-out supermodel in Fashion (2008), a Golden Age Bollywood star in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), a loud, tough-talking gangster's moll in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), and a shape-shifting mutant with an endless series of glam outfits and hairstyles in Krrish 3  (2013).

But Ranaut gives a highly believable performance as an ordinary young woman tentatively beginning to discover her strength and resourcefulness. Thanks to the cinematography of the late Bobby Singh (who died while the film was nearing the end of shooting), neither the look of the film nor that of Ranaut herself has the high gloss of most of her previous films. In Queen, she is radically deglamorized:

Ranaut's performance is one of the things that makes Queen very much worth seeing. Another is that it's a woman-centered story in a medium which is mainly, not to say relentlessly, about the hero's journey. Queen is so woman-centered that Ranaut is in almost every frame, which is both a virtue and a shortcoming. The film is so focussed on Rani's story that some of the other characters (particularly her changeable fiancé Vijay) can seem a bit sketched in.

The movie avoids some major potential pitfalls (spoiler alerts for those who haven't seen the film): Rani does not fall in love with some dashing European man, although she does experience her first kiss. When she winds up with three (carefully multiethnic) male roommates at her Amsterdam hostel, they are protective and not predatory. And when Vijay learns about the new Rani and finds her to tell her that he'd like to get married after all, Rani realizes that she no longer feels governed by other people's expectations.

Despite director Vikas Bahl's attempts to establish an atmosphere of realness with street scenes, hand-held cameras, and ambient lighting, the movie doesn't avoid a certain amount of filmi contrivance. Would parents who don't let their daughter go to the bank or to a café without taking her little brother Chintu (Chinmaya Agrawal) along as a chaperone let her fly to Europe alone? In Amsterdam there are those improbably helpful hostel roommates, and an improbably supportive Italian restaurateur who impulsively puts Rani in charge of his street-food booth. And Queen's portrayal of Asians borders on caricature, as with her Japanese hostel roommate Taka (Jeffrey Ho), or a group of Asian tourists who start snapping pictures of Rani throwing up outside a restaurant (because Asian tourists photograph everything, of course).

But these are minor flaws in a very enjoyable movie. In its affirmation of the value of friendship and the need to find your own path, Queen delights; and Ranaut's performance deserves all the accolades it has received.

For another (even more positive) review of Queen, see Filmi Geek.


* Where were these Filmfare voters two years ago when the similarly low-key but charming English Vinglish, which is also about a woman discovering inner resources on a foreign trip, lost out for Best Film to Barfi!? Just asking.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Clothes, music, boys: Viv Albertine

The Slits, 1977: Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, Palmolive

The full title of Viv Albertine's memoir is Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys—"that's all you think about," she says her mother used to tell her (p. ix). Albertine was the guitarist for The Slits, an all-women (at least in their first incarnation) punk band in 1970s London. When I picked up her book I assumed the title was ironic; unfortunately, it's descriptive, although a more accurate title would be Boys Boys Boys Clothes Clothes Clothes Music, since Albertine spends more time talking about her boyfriends and her look and than about performing with her band or the creation of their songs.

Side 1

The Slits—in addition to Albertine the original lineup included vocalist Ari Up (Arianna Forster), bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero)—started out playing thrashy two- and three-minute songs about shoplifting and housing estates. Their first gigs were shambolic. Here's Albertine describing their first night opening for The Clash on the White Riot tour in 1977; at this point she didn't yet know how to tune her guitar, and she counts off "one two three four" at the start of a song like Dee Dee Ramone, but doesn't yet realize that her count is supposed to set the tempo:
We all play at different speeds. Ari screams as loud as she can, I thrash at my guitar, Palmolive smashes the drums—the stage is so big and Tessa's so far away, I can't hear what she's doing. I can't differentiate between the instruments....We all play the song separately, we know we should play together, but we can't. I hope that if I remember my part and the others remember theirs, with a bit of luck we'll all end at the same time. That doesn't happen. (p. 173)
But because they don't know how they're "supposed" to play their instruments, their music at this stage is strangely compelling: here's "Newtown" from their 1977 Peel sessions EP:

As they went on they absorbed influences from ska and reggae (their first album, Cut, was produced by Dennis Bovell, whose band backed the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson). My favorite Slits song from this era is "Typical Girls":

Some of the lyrics:
[Typical girls]
Can't decide
What clothes to wear
Are sensitive
Typical girls
Are emotional
Typical girls
Are cruel and bewitching
'She's a femme fatale' [1]
Typical girls
Stand by their man [2]
Typical girls
Are really swell
Typical girls
Learn how to act shocked
Typical girls
Don't rebel

Who invented the typical girl?
Who's bringing out the new improved model?
And there's another marketing ploy
Typical girl gets the typical boy
It's odd that the woman who wrote these lyrics, which describe how women are influenced to obsess about clothes and boys, has written a memoir largely about what clothes she wore and what boys she flirted with, hung out with, and slept with (sometimes chastely). Of course, Albertine didn't wear typical clothes and wasn't interested in typical boys, but the concern with wearing the right outfits and having the right boyfriends doesn't feel very subversive of mainstream values.

And while Albertine gets points for frankness—we hear about her first (and second) case of crabs, her first time shooting heroin, her first attempt at oral sex (with Johnny Rotten—it didn't go well), and her attraction to bad boys (including Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious, Heartbreakers' guitarist Johnny Thunders, and, later in life, the actor Vincent Gallo)—the book has some odd elisions, too.

One of these comes when Albertine forces the other Slits to choose between her and Palmolive, who co-founded the group with Ari Up and was one of its main songwriters. Albertine writes that Palmolive had missed rehearsals and seemed interested in pursuing other possibilities (she later joined The Raincoats). But in Albertine's telling the decision to kick her out of the band was made in Palmolive's absence, and it feels like some of the story—even from Albertine's side—must be missing.

Also missing are mentions of many of the other women musicians in the punk scene: in the first part of the book ("Side 1"), which covers events up to the Slits' breakup in 1982, there's exactly one reference to The Raincoats, and none to Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), The Adverts, The Mo-dettes (formed by The Slits' first guitarist, Kate Korus, whom Albertine replaced), Delta 5, Au Pairs, or Kleenex/Liliput. Since Gina Birch of The Raincoats, for one, has mentioned how much she was inspired by The Slits, the absence of these bands from Albertine's recounting of this period feels like deliberate disregard.

There are mentions, though, of the places Albertine bought her clothes. One photo caption actually names the source of the polka-dot hair ribbon she's wearing. Style has long been crucially important to self-definition in British youth culture—Dick Hebdige's 1979 book Subculture is subtitled The Meaning of Style—and Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren's clothing shop Sex was both a sartorial and cultural center for punk. But in Albertine's memoir clothes and boys receive so much attention that other significant aspects of the cultural moment feel like they're given short shrift.

Albertine was somewhat older than many of the other participants in the punk scene: when she joined The Slits in 1977 she was 22—Ari Up was 15—and when they broke up she was 27. Perhaps because of this her sense of failure and the closing off of possibilities was especially devastating: "This feels like the death of a huge part of myself…I've got nowhere to go and nothing to do…I'm burnt out and my heart is broken." (p. 250)

Side 2

The second part of the book ("Side 2") recounts the long and painful process of reinventing herself and finding renewed purpose in the band's (and punk's) aftermath. It clearly wasn't an easy process: we hear about bad dates, mean bosses, life-threatening health crises, and her increasingly rocky marriage (surprisingly traditional, in that as in other ways). But again there's the sense that, despite all the self-revelation, key pieces of information are missing.

As an example, Albertine says that the decision to renovate their house in 2007 put a strain on her relationship with her husband from which it could never recover. But much earlier there are signs that all is not well between them. In 1999, after the birth of their daughter and her treatment for cervical cancer, Albertine is weak, exhausted and depressed, and experiences flashes of anger towards her husband:
Hubby does all her feeds and changes her nappies. She's started looking to him eagerly for cuddles, she feels safer with him because he's the the provider of comfort.

I watch as the intense bond I had with my daughter slips away. I'm losing the child I fought so hard to have in my life…

The next morning I say to Hubby, 'From now on I do all Baby's feeds and changes. No matter how tired I am.'

I don't have the energy to do it but it's that or lose my daughter… (p. 298)
That Albertine sees the care of their daughter as a zero-sum game—that every time her husband feeds their child or changes her diaper it means less affection for herself—suggests very strongly to this reader that their marriage already has some serious problems. (According to a Google Books search, the phrase "our daughter" occurs four times in the book; "my daughter" occurs 24 times.)

As her marriage disintegrates, Albertine returns to writing and performing music for the first time in 25 years. (After the end of The Slits, she writes, "I can't bear to listen to music. Every time I hear a song I feel physical pain, just to hear instruments is unbearable, it reminds me of what I've lost." (p. 250)) She begins to play open mics and small gigs, and with the support of friends like Mick Jones (The Clash), Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited, John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band), Glenn Matlock (the Sex Pistols' first bass player), and Gina Birch (The Raincoats), records The Vermilion Border album, which was released in 2012. Here is "Confessions of a MILF," about the confinements and disillusionments of her marriage—sort of a "Typical Girls Part 2":

But confessions are not enough. In her memoir Albertine recounts plenty of appalling and/or mortifying incidents, but (as in the "losing my daughter" moment) her book is at times oddly tone-deaf. It reads a bit like worked-over diary entries, with occasional commentary by her present self added in italics. The present-tense approach gives a sense of immediacy, but at the cost of reflection and insight. To put it bluntly, if you weren't already a huge fan of The Slits or punk rock (and even if you were), why should you care where Albertine was buying her leggings and hair ribbons? Ultimately, C3M3B3 doesn't provide enough of an answer—or enough stories like this one:
...In a week's time the Slits are going on the White Riot tour with the Clash. I've got to learn all our songs, I can't even play guitar standing up yet. We haven't played a gig together either, so we go down to the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Islington to see if we can have a quick go on their stage. When we arrive we see that a bunch of boys are churning out some old rock music; we've got our guitars with us but we hold them behind our backs so no one suspects anything. In between songs I go up to the guitarist in the rock band and ask him if we can play a song. He says no, so I pull him off the stage and Ari, Tessa and Palmolive pull the other guys off, there's an uproar, a couple of cymbals get kicked over but Palmolive doesn't care, she doesn't use them anyway. We bash through "Let's Do the Split" before the manager and barmen pull us off. That's our warm-up gig done. (p. 172)

1. A reference to The Velvet Underground, "Femme Fatale," from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve, 1967
2. A reference to Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man," Legacy, 1968 (released in the UK in 1975). The Clash's "Train in Vain" from the album London Calling (1979), with its refrain of "You didn't stand by me," was written by Mick Jones about his and Albertine's on-again, off-again relationship.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The other Brontë sister: Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and the Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Brontë, like her sisters Charlotte and Emily, was a poet and novelist; like them, too, she died of consumption at a tragically young age. But while Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are now among the most widely read novels in English, Anne's two novels, Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), remain relatively neglected.

Neither of Anne's novels appear, for example, on any of the four lists of 100 recommended novels I discuss in the post "100 novels"; both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights appear on three out of the four. As of this writing the free e-book versions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights on the Project Gutenberg website have been downloaded as single titles 8474 and 6925 times, respectively; meanwhile, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has been downloaded only 674 times, while Agnes Grey has been downloaded a mere 360 times.

Why this comparative neglect? It's true that Anne is not as polished a writer as either Charlotte or Emily. Anne's heroines are trapped in painful situations which they find difficult to escape; large sections of her novels are litanies of torment. Her heroines are also intensely pious in a way that may make readers in our more secular age uncomfortable. But her novels deserve to be read for the light they shed on the plight of women in Victorian society; and their autobiographical elements provide another perspective on the troubled situation of the Brontë family.

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey is based on Anne's unhappy experiences as a governess in the homes of two families, the Inghams and the Robinsons. As the narrator states in the novel's first paragraph, "shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I…will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend." It's not necessary to take this assertion completely at face value to recognize that Agnes Grey must indeed draw significantly on autobiographical sources.

When her father is suddenly impoverished by a speculation gone wrong, Agnes decides to seek a position as a governess despite her youth (she's 19, the same age that Anne was when she took her first position with the Inghams). She is hired by Mrs. Bloomfield to supervise her unruly children Tom, age 7, and Mary, age 5. It soon becomes clear that one of Tom's chief pleasures—encouraged by his harsh father—is torturing small animals. Mary obstinately refuses to cooperate with Agnes, and the situation quickly becomes a physical power struggle:
Sometimes, exasperated to the utmost pitch, I would shake her violently by the shoulder, or pull her long hair, or put her in the corner; for which she punished me with loud, shrill, piercing screams, that went through my head like a knife. She knew I hated this, and when she had shrieked her utmost, would look into my face with an air of vindictive satisfaction, exclaiming,—

'Now, then! that's for you!'

And then shriek again and again, till I was forced to stop my ears. Often these dreadful cries would bring Mrs. Bloomfield up to inquire what was the matter?

'Mary Ann is a naughty girl, ma'am.'

'But what are these shocking screams?'

'She is screaming in a passion.'

'I never heard such a dreadful noise! You might be killing her. Why is she not out with her brother?'

'I cannot get her to finish her lessons.'

'But Mary Ann must be a good girl, and finish her lessons.' This was blandly spoken to the child. 'And I hope I shall never hear such terrible cries again!'

And fixing her cold, stony eyes upon me with a look that could not be mistaken, she would shut the door, and walk away. [Ch. III]
Of course it was an era in which corporal punishment of children was routine, but it's nonetheless dismaying when Agnes fervently expresses a desire for a "good birch rod" or to deliver "a few sound boxes in the ear." Still, it's clear that she is in an untenable position: she has responsibility for the children's behavior and educational progress, but is given no authority (she is continually being undermined by both parents). The parents also squabble openly in her presence, making her the unwilling witness of their bitter arguments. It's hard to know whether it's a greater relief to Agnes or to the reader when she is dismissed by the nightmarish Bloomfields and sent back to her family.

Agnes then finds a position with the Murrays. The Murray children are older but only slightly better behaved than the Bloomfields'. Charles Murray, 10, is "a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods, not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others"; she calls him her "little tormentor." John, 11, is "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable."  The two older sisters aren't much better: Mathilda, 14, is "a veritable hoyden" who has learned "to swear like a trooper," while Rosalie, 16, is "testy and capricious" and "shallow." [Ch. VII]

As in her previous situation as a governess, Agnes finds herself in a strange in-between position. She is not considered the social equal of her employers or their children; but as a clergyman's daughter, fraternizing with the servants is beneath her. She is socially and emotionally isolated, and unable to form true friendships with either Mrs. Murray or her daughters. And in any case, she feels no affinity with the Murrays, parents or children: Mrs. Murray is superficial, far more concerned with her daughters' social position than their happiness; and the Miss Murrays are selfish (Rosalie), coarse (Mathilde) and willful (both).

Over time Agnes does, though, develop an attachment to the evangelical curate of the local parish, Edward Weston. When the beautiful, coquettish Rosalie Murray comes to suspect Agnes' regard for Weston, she determines to win his admiration for herself. "Whether she intended to torment me, or merely to amuse herself, I could not tell." [Ch XV] Even as Rosalie turns the full power of her charm on Weston, though, she is already engaged to a rich local landowner, Sir Thomas Ashby. Rosalie's marriage to Ashby will make her miserably unhappy and leave her a virtual prisoner on his estate—so desperate that she reaches out to her former governess Agnes for friendship and support. Rosalie's essential nature is unchanged, though, and her gesture comes too late.

If the Bloomfields, the Murrays and the Ashbys are cautionary tales of marriage in which love has died or never existed, Anne Brontë's next novel offers an even more alarming portrait of marital incompatibility.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

A mysterious woman, Helen Graham, and her young son come to live on a long-abandoned estate in the wilds of Yorkshire. Gilbert Markham, a young man in the neighborhood, becomes intrigued by the woman and eventually declares his love. She tells him that love is impossible between them, but asks him to remain her friend. Markham becomes increasingly jealous of Helen's intimacy with another man, Frederick Lawrence, who he thinks is his romantic rival.

When Markham finally confronts her with his suspicions, Helen gives him her diary. It reveals that Helen is not a widow, but rather is still the wife of Arthur Huntingdon. She has fled her husband to protect her son from his influence: her husband frequently drinks to excess with his dissolute friends, and is amused by encouraging his son to drink and swear in their company. Huntingdon is also openly having an affair with Lady Annabella Lowborough, the wife of one of his drinking companions.

Huntingdon's drinking and extramarital affairs are modelled in part on Branwell Brontë, Anne's brother (Huntingdon also shares Branwell's red hair). Anne had recommended Branwell for a position as a tutor to the son of the Robinsons, the family where Anne was employed as a governess. Branwell soon embarked on an affair with Lydia Robinson, the wife of his employer. Anne probably learned of the affair, and resigned her position in June 1845. When the affair was discovered by the husband a month later, Branwell was summarily fired. According to Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë, Lydia Robinson kept up a clandestine correspondence with Branwell, but on the death of her husband she distanced herself from him and eventually married another man. [1]

Over the next few years the rejected Branwell turned increasingly to drink and opium, dying of alcoholism and consumption (most probably) in September 1848. In The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Arthur Huntingdon, too, becomes seriously ill from drink and a resulting injury, and Helen returns to him in order to try to nurse him through his crisis.

This return to her emotionally abusive spouse out of a sense of wifely duty is one of the reasons this novel may present difficulties to the modern reader. Another is presented by the man Helen has come to love, the volatile and violent Gilbert Markham. At one point Markham assaults Frederick Lawrence without provocation, smashing him in the head with the heavy metal handle of his riding whip and leaving him stunned and bleeding by the side of the road.

Helen's choice to leave an abusive marriage, live alone and support herself is truly radical. This reader, at any rate, was not eager to see her either patch up her marriage with her deliberately cruel husband or unite herself with the mercurial Markham. But these unsatisfactory alternatives are stark illustrations of the difficulties of independence for 19th-century women.

After resigning her position with the Robinsons Anne never worked as a governess again. In conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë suggested why such a position had become abhorrent to Anne:
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. [2]
In May 1849, nearly a year after the first publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, it became clear that Anne was dying. On May 24 she set out with her sister on a journey to the seaside town of Scarborough; she died there on May 28th at the age of 29.


1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII
1. Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, Ch. VIII