Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë Sunday, Aug 14 2011 

Anne Brontë’s semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey is not what I expected from a novel by one of the Brontë sisters. It is a much simpler, less atmospheric novel than the other four I have read by these women, and in many instances feels more like a novel by Jane Austen, though I think it lacks Austen’s witty dialogue and clever observations.

Like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey revolves around a young woman employed as a governess, who later goes on to start a small school for girls. However, neither family that Agnes works for provides her with the same excitement that Jane finds at Thornfield with the brooding Mr. Rochester. Although Anne Brontë eventually provides a love interest for Agnes, the novel focuses primarily on the difficulties she finds in her work—obnoxious pupils, ignorant parents, the contempt with which the rich treat the lower classes, and the challenge of staying true to herself in a world where so much goes against her values.

This novel lacks the powerful gothic elements of the most famous Brontë novels, or even of the other lesser-known ones. The novel does offer some sharp, honest observations about life as a governess and especially about the selfishness and snobbery frequently found among the 19th century upper classes. Having worked as a governess herself, Anne Brontë, according to her sister Charlotte, believed that “none but those who had been in the position of governess could ever realize the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature.” She is certainly not afraid to share some of her realizations with the reader, though having read plenty of other 19th century novels that dealt with social class issues, nothing I read in Agnes Grey shocked me. I also believe that this novel does not allow as excellent an opportunity for insights into gender, religion, and other social themes as other Brontë novels do, including Anne’s second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While it would probably be useful for anyone wanting to know more about 19th century governesses, I doubt Agnes Grey would hold up well against a substantial literary criticism.

Agnes Grey is shorter than the other Brontë novels I have read, but while it is a pleasant enough read, I found it rather slow. There is little passion or drama found here, and the protagonist does not change very much over the course of the novel. Her stories about her pupils and the trouble they cause her also get rather repetitive, and there is not much variety, creativity, or humor in how Anne Brontë tells them. I did not need quite so many reminders that the Bloomfield children were cruel and deceitful or that Rosalie Murray was materialistic and vain. There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but there is not anything extraordinary about it either. As I mentioned earlier, the class conflict sometimes leads the novel to take on the feel of one of Jane Austen’s works, and it feels even more like Austen after Agnes meets and falls in love with Mr. Weston. However, Anne Brontë lacks Jane Austen’s gift for crafting witty prose and memorable characters, so it is a rather pale imitation. Funnily enough, though, Brontë also brings her novel to an uncharacteristically hasty conclusion—a habit I noticed in the three Austen novels I have read, and one that I cannot help but find a little annoying.

Agnes Grey is by no means a bad novel, and there is definitely value here for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of 19th century women. However, it is not as memorable as other works by the Brontës—even Villette, which I did not enjoy reading but found incredibly insightful and worthy of discussion. It is worthwhile for fans of the Brontës or 19th century literature in general, but do not expect to get as much out of it as you did other novels from the same era. 

The Alienist by Caleb Carr Friday, Aug 5 2011 

Are you a history geek? Do you know and love New York City? Do you always enjoy a good mystery?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above, then The Alienist is a novel you must read.

Set in 1896 New York, during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as the city’s Police Commissioner, The Alienist follows the search for a serial killer in the city’s corrupt, dangerous underworld. Joining Roosevelt in the investigation are crime reporter John Moore, ahead-of-their-time detectives Lucius and Marcus Isaacson, secretary and first female NYPD employee Sara Howard, former mental patients Stevie Taggert and Cyrus, and title character Laszlo Kreizler, a brilliant and controversial psychiatrist. As author Caleb Carr explains, psychiatrists were known as alienists before the 20th century because of the belief that the mentally ill were “alienated not only from society but from their own true natures.”

Caleb Carr does an excellent job creating a portrait of late 19th century New York City. It is fascinating to read of a New York without many of the iconic buildings and institutions that are such a huge part of our image of the city today. Carr also doesn’t shy away from the violence and depravity that characterized life for so many New Yorkers in that era; in the world he recreates, it isn’t hard to believe that the serial killer at the center of this novel could elude capture for so long. The Alienist is especially enjoyable for anyone with strong knowledge of New York and its history; you will find yourself engrossed in where the characters end up on their search, and you might even figure out a thing or two before it is revealed.

Though this particular story is fictional, it’s also interesting to read about a criminal investigation in a time when scientific evidence and criminal psychology were considered both innovative and outrageous. It offers some insights into how the investigative procedures we see today on TV shows like Law & Order and CSI came into being. Kreizler’s insights into the criminal mind are especially readable and much deeper than one would usually expect in a book that is essentially a thriller.

While this is primarily a plot-driven novel without great character depth, Laszlo Kreizler is a very compelling figure, and the novel is at its best when he’s involved. Though he could have easily been written as the typical brooding, mysterious, haunted-by-the-past male character, Carr successfully balances these qualities with intelligence and kind-heartedness. Kreizler’s scientific fascination with the case, and with the human mind in general, is equaled by a genuine concern for potential victims and the many other people he has helped in his work. He is the kind of character that leads the reader to musing who would play him in a film adaptation (personally, I think a younger Alan Rickman type would be perfect).

I only have two significant criticisms of The Alienist. One of them is the character of Sara Howard. While I admired her determination to be an independent woman and to hold her own in a field usually reserved to men at the time, I thought sometimes she was trying too hard to be defiant and to be “one of the boys,” which made her seem awkward and insecure rather than strong. Since the case involves child prostitutes and homosexuality, I found the characters’ seemingly liberal views on the latter unrealistic for the time period. While their compassion for the slain boys from the “disorderly houses” certainly makes sense, most of these characters, were this a real case, probably still would have expressed some repulsion at the prevalence of homosexuality in Manhattan’s seedier institutions.

While it’s not exactly a criticism, and it isn’t something that bothered me, it’s also worth noting that this novel can get very violent and gruesome, so I don’t recommend it for anyone who can’t handle that kind of thing.

These quibbles aside, The Alienist is a first-rate thriller that will especially intrigue anyone interested in New York City history or criminal psychology. I look forward to reading its follow-up, The Angel of Darkness, and will be sure to review that here as well.