Wednesday 31 October 2018

Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë

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Anne Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey, is in part autobiographical. Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman in the north of England and, in wishing to aid the family’s finances takes a job as a governess with two families not entirely dissimilar to those Anne found herself with. The Bloomfield children are vile, spoilt children whose behaviour Agnes is unable to improve. There is a horrifying scene with her young charge Tom whereby he is planning how to torture some young birds. Agnes drops a stone on them to save them the horrors he had planned. His guardians do not understand her reasoning, promising him more innocent victims, and claiming they are put on Earth for our amusement. This distressing scene seems to show their opinion of those they consider inferior and does not bode well for their relations with young Agnes. It also goes to show how impossible her task is when faced with a family that positively encourages such behaviour. The unreasonable demands put on a governess are clear and you feel the frustration of being held entirely accountable in a hopeless situation.

Her second post, with the Murrays, is a slight improvement. Matilda and Rosalie are older and less physically ill behaved but they nonetheless seem to find making life difficult for Agnes something of a sport. She is expected to be on call at all times and must submit to the whims of the young Murrays. They have a strong sense of entitlement and feel little empathy for those less fortunate than themselves. This is evidenced not only in their treatment of Agnes but also in the delight they take in visiting poorer neighbours and mocking them. Rosalie also shows a great disregard for others in her cruel treatment of potential suitors, giving them attention only as long as it amuses her, with no intention of marrying them.

It is clear that Anne wanted to express the hardships endured by a governess and the contempt bred by privilege. In Rosalie’s unhappy marriage we see the result of such spoiling in childhood. They may have more money but in the end are not genuinely happy. The moral message seems to be that those who work hard, are honest and respectful, are given their quiet  contentment eventually.

A short, uneventful read with what was at the time a revolutionary message. Originally published as part of a three volume set alongside Wuthering Heights, it is not hard to see why it was overshadowed.

Pick up a copy:

Tuesday 23 October 2018


Less than twenty miles from the centre of Paris sits Auvers-sur-Oise, a picturesque town that has attracted artists for many years. Perhaps most famous for the death of Vincent Van Gogh, it also played host to Paul Cézanne, Charles-François Daubigny and Camille Pissaro. The tourist office supplies a map detailing two walking routes that take in places of note and those that appear in the artwork of its famous inhabitants. Taking advantage of the one direct train there and back which runs from the Gare du Nord at weekends you’ll get a whole day there but struggle to visit everything.

Inside the Church
Armed with our map we first stopped at the Église Notre-Dame de l’Assomption d’Auvers-sur-Oise, immortalized in Van Gogh’s The Church of Auvers. A church has stood on the site since the twelfth century and what remains is an example of early Gothic design. After a brief tour of the interior it was on to the fields beyond, familiar also from Van Gogh’s works. His grave sits in the crematorium here, his brother Theo now rests beside him, having been moved in 1914.

The chateau
A walk across the fields and along quiet streets lead to the Maison-Atelier de Daubigny, a tempting stop that on this occasion we had to pass up. Continuing through historic streets you come to the Chateau d’Auvers, dating from the seventeenth century, a peaceful spot to enjoy the gardens and views over the town. The main building is not open to the public but there is a restaurant on site and a paid exhibition of Impressionist work. Being on a budget we had to pass up on this too (there are so many places to visit it’s best to decide before you arrive where you’re going to prioritise).

Exterior of Auberge Ravoux
For us the main draw was Van Gogh and so we made our way to L’Auberge Ravoux where he lodged for the last seventy days of his life. The staircase leading to the top floor is now poorly lit and in slight disrepair, the walls no longer the shade he would have known. His room is small and plain but all he needed as he spent the majority of his time outside painting from life. We were lucky as the only two English speakers on the tour we were able to spend more time in the room as the presentation was kindly repeated, free from the crowds. I’m told at weekend there are often long queues but we seem to have chanced upon a quieter day. The adjacent room has been dressed to give an idea of how it would have looked, Van Gogh’s having been left unchanged but for the removal of furniture.

After giving ourselves time to reflect after seeing where one of the world’s favourite artists lived during his most prolific period we turned our steps to the Absinthe museum. A small, unassuming building hosts an array of objects using in the preparation of the drink, information of what goes into it, and many examples of the way it permeated popular culture. The contrast is stark between posters hailing the spirit as the height of culture, laughing figures having the time of their life, and the later images of emaciated bodies, families plunged into poverty after suffering abuse at the hands of those inebriated by the potent substance.

The garden at Doctor Gachet's house
Unfortunately, there was not time to complete the longer walk detailed on the map of the town but there was just enough to visit the house of Doctor Gachet, to which entry is free. A tall house overlooking a lovely garden and many rooftops besides, it is a beautiful spot. Gachet welcomed many artists into his home where he offered treatment as well as friendship. A keen painter himself, he amassed a significant art collection which was later donated to French museums by his offspring. Visiting his home gives a great sense of the appeal to artists, but also the chance to learn about the fascinating man himself.

Before catching our train back to Paris there was just time to walk down to the river Oise and enjoy the glow of golden hour. Auvers-sur-Oise is a peaceful and beautiful town that takes no great leap of imagination to understand why it is so popular with artists. Today there are many working studios to enjoy as well as soaking in the history of the place. Even the postboxes and station subway are enhanced with illustration. A perfect day trip that could easily be extended into several days.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Look Me in the Eye, Silvia Soler, translated by Richard Thomson

Blanca is working on a translation of a novel by Matteo Spadaro when she finds herself so deeply affected by the story that she begins to question the security of her own world. Translating the disintegration of a fictional relationship leads to doubts chipping away at her own happy marriage. She decides that she needs to visit Sicily, the location of Spadaro’s novel, where she meets the author and discovers that fiction is often not as far removed from reality as one might imagine.

An interesting concept exploring the power of art over reality and the damage paranoia can do. Unfortunately, the potential is not fully realised in this perplexing book. Bruna, the fictional character, has something of a breakdown caused by worry that her husband Massimo is having an affair. Rather than taking this as a cautionary tale, Blanca goes even further in her irrational behaviour. Her actions are far-fetched at best as she allows her obsession to blind her to reality. She behaves deplorably but seems to have no awareness of how contradictory she is being, nor how badly she is treating her partner, Raimon.

The writing style felt unsophisticated, whether the fault of the original author or translator I don’t know. There are moments where you almost care about the characters but the opportunities are passed up. It could, possibly, be redeemed with a more significant, consequential ending but instead the reader is left feeling cold.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Notes on a Nervous Planet, Matt Haig

Following on from the monumental success of Reasons to Stay Alive, Haig turns his attention to non-fiction once more with Notes on a Nervous Planet. Using his own experiences as the base for his advice he talks us through the negative impact of modern life on our collective mental health and how we can try to alleviate some of the pressure.

Our obsession with and reliance on our smartphones is a recurring theme. The advice? Turn off all notifications, set aside time to go online but don’t keep checking it every five minutes. In this world that demands us to be available at all times it is OK to carve out some time for yourself. It may seem obvious that we spend too much time online, but it is nonetheless a needed reminder. 

This is not to say that Haig is against technology, but that the world we now live in has developed beyond one where humans can cope with all the choice and demands on our time. He recommends spending actual physical time with those we care about, stepping outside and looking at the sky, and generally going back to what makes us human.

He does not dole out advice as some flawless power, admitting to struggling to step away from Twitter and not falling into negativity following people who disagree with his world view. Yet his reminder to not compare your worst moments to the best of somebody else’s is one we would all do well to heed next time we find ourselves scrolling through the curated lives of others.

He writes also of how consumerism makes us feel constantly that we are lacking. If we could just achieve the next promotion, buy the latest phone, that we will be happy. Of course, the benefits these give are only transitory. We cannot spend our lives hoping for the next step that will surely make us happy only to find when we get there that we desire our next hit of gratification.

A conversational, bite-sized book designed to be consumed in short snaps for the Google generation. Wise and timely, this is the wake up call the world needs.

Monday 1 October 2018

Sovereign, C. J. Sansom

Sovereign is the third outing for lawyer turned detective Matthew Shardlake. The year is 1541 and the King’s Progress has reached York, a hostile city that does not welcome the arrival of so many southerners. The king hopes his visit will help quell resistance in the north but bad weather and an absent king of Scotland delays the Progress and puts huge strain on a city that hasn’t forgiven Henry for the split from Rome.

In his characteristic style Sansom does not sugarcoat life in the Tudor period. He describes the rotting corpses hung over the gates to the city, the hardships endured by the citizens and the uncertainty of the age. The story revolves around those who believe the king is not the rightful heir to the throne and Shardlake himself is in danger when it seems he’s seen incriminating documents. The claustrophobic atmosphere of fear and suspicion is expertly crafted.

Shardlake is under orders to ensure Broderick, a rebel prisoner, is kept alive ready to be tortured in the Tower once returned to London. This causes a conflict of morals for him, knowing the horrors of the torture chamber. There are also hints that Shardlake could be swayed by the conspirators’ point of view, though he has enough experience and diplomacy not to allow himself to become incriminated.

He nonetheless finds himself in an increasingly difficult situation as he discovers secrets of the Queen alongside his assistant Barak and love interest Tamasin. This knowledge sees Shardlake interrogated under false accusations and the sheer horror of torture is shown through the descent into madness and suicide of a number of characters awaiting interrogation.

An atmospheric novel that balances a number of interlinked mysteries, the climax of which is a real page turner. The sights, smells, and struggles of life in the sixteenth century are realistically evoked and the historic note at the end explains any variance from reality.