Last month I planned to read Samantha Ellis’s new bibliomemoir, Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, and to reread Anne’s two novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. What could be more fun? While waiting for Ellis’s book to arrive from the UK, I binge-read the Annes and my favorite Charlottes. Well, I was thrilled when Ellis’s book finally arrived, but it has proved to be yet another overrated new book. It is a desperate mix of biography, trivial memoir, and pedestrian attempts at criticism.
The bibliomemoir is a strange genre. Who has succeeded? Who has not? I loved Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev, but then Dessaix is an award-winning Australian writer, scholar, Russian professor, and novelist. Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch is earnest and touching–she knows her Middlemarch and loves it–but the prose is clumsily journalistic. Then there’s Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence, which is a mainly the writer’s comic musings on why he can’t face rereading the novels to write his book on Lawrence and prefers the letters.
Did I expect Take Courage to be in this class? It was enthusiastically reviewed in The Guardian and elsewhere. The first hint I got of its possible flaws was when Margaret Drabble in the TLS called it a “selfie memoir.” This was the death knell–though Drabble was otherwise very positive.
Ellis is all about voice, and if you like her voice you may like the book. You certainly don’t read it for her critical judgment. Her prose is spiky, slangy, and spare. When she writes about herself, she is in control. And she is probably an excellent playwright: she has a talent for sketching a vivid autobiographical scene in a few short sentences.
No, the problem is with her criticism. She does not write in a meaningful way for intelligent readers, though she desperately tries to prove herself. This book might be appropriate in a high school classroom.
In Chapter 1, “Maria, or how to know who you come from,” which I call the origin myth (Maria, their mother, died when the children were young), Ellis writes, “Charlotte’s novels are haunted by perfect mothers.” I was taken aback: I would say they are haunted by perfect spinsters. She tries to force the theme of the perfect mother into Anne’s novel, Agnes Grey, a story of a governess which is based on Anne’s own adventures.
…when Agnes is trying to keep her pupils in line, she thinks the worst she can do is to threaten not to kiss them goodnight. She’s astonished that they don’t care. The passage just aches with Anne’s longing for a mother to kiss her goodnight.
But it isn’t all sweetness and light. Agnes has to muster all her courage to fight her mother for independence. She wants to go away and earn her own living. Her parents think she’s too young.
A very odd reading: Agnes is not looking for independence but to contribute to the impoverished household. She has not only to persuade her mother, but her older sister and their father. All want to protect her: and her governess jobs are as bad as they had imagined.
Ellis also eccentrically interprets Charlotte’ Bronte’s Jane Eyre. She wonders if Jane shouldn’t have stuck with Rochester after the wedding was interrupted by the fact of the mad first wife in the attic.
She fancies him. She’s got no family to be ashamed of her living in sin, she’s already decided she doesn’t want to be a martyr like her (dead and perfect) friend Helen Burns, and she hates the hypocritical faith she was taught at school. Maybe it’s time to throw off the shackles of religion and move into Rochester’s love nest on the shores of the Mediterranean.
She blames Jane’s decision to leave Rochester not on the force of her character, passion, morals, and commonsense, but on the appearance of her “mother,” i.e., the moon. Jane loves Rochester, longs for him, but has a strong ethical base and is horrified by the secret of the first wife . And, oddly, Ellis does not consider the case of the mad wife. Nowadays, the mad wife is often key. (As in Wide Sargasso Sea in the ’60s!
I trusted the reviews too much. The blurb on the front cover says it all.
“I was wowed and moved.”–Tracy Chevalier
Alas! I was not.
Whew! I almost bought that book but was put off by a review that made me suspect what you have just stated most clearly and cogently. Good thing, too. I hate wasting my money, and if I’d read that bushwah about how Jane Eyre should have gone with Rochester despite inconvenient mad wife, I would have had to rip the book up and throw it at the wall and THEN burn it, and then I would not have got my money back! This writer should stick to fan fic, except she probably doesn’t write well enough.
Diana, I usually like everything about the Brontes! Yes, throwing it against the wall would be good. I was prepared to like it and then so perturbed by everything, especially that this woman is trying to pass herself off as an insightful biographer and critics. It was simply too ambitious for her.
Well, somebody must like it, huh?
Oh dear…… Based on those quotes I would be in the chucking the book at the wall in disgust camp. Why does nobody check these things before they’re published? Why are people who don’t know a subject allowed to write about it? I give up – talk about dumbing down….
Yes, it is dumbing down! Bronte fans will be disappointed.
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Did you read Ellis’s How To Be a Heroine? I generally enjoyed it, although I strongly disagreed with some of her interpretations — sounds like along the same lines of some of those here. I think the fact that she was talking about many different books and authors helped to mitigate the flaws. When she gets on one wrong track and pursues it through a whole book, it must be deadly.
The bibliomemoir is a perilous genre indeed. I really like reading about how life and literature can illuminate each other, but the writer needs to have a certain amount of humility and self-knowledge. Otherwise the “selfie” impression is unbearable. I can’t stand those: A Jane Austen Education comes to mind, which was all about the author and his self-image rather than actual lessons from Austen. On the other hand, I found My Life in Middlemarch relatively successful, though I know what you mean about the journalistic style.
This is a caution that I need to apply to myself, as it’s what I try to do on my blog. At least I’m not getting paid for it, though.
I missed A Jane Austen Education! Whew, I’m surprised I didn’t read that one. Yes, bibliomemoiirs can be dangerous. The Middlemarch book is solid My feeling is that Ellis is desperately trying to be a scholar–this is ambitious–but she just doesn’t have it.
I’d look it over before buying it. Of course it’s not available in the U.S.
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Hmm.. I was thinking of buying this but you have rather put me off. I really enjoyed How to be a Heroine I liked her mix of light criticism and memoir of her own life. That perhaps wouldn’t work so well with a biography of Anne Bronte. Those quotes don’t fill me with confidence so I might serve it for now.
I would look it over before you buy it. She is ambitious in this book but seems to struggle and try to force themes that just don’t fit. I’m still reeling from the image of Jane and Rochester going off to the Caribbean together!
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The excerpts you’ve included from Take Courage are certainly odd. Her writing is not appealing. The Jane Eyre quote has me spinning, too. This book won’t be one I’ll add to my list. I read Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and enjoyed it in a middling kind of way. I do like the phrase “selfie memoir.” So descriptive.
Yes, it is a bad book. I love the idea of bibliomemoirs, but I think they are very hard to write and really appreciate Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love in retrospect.
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