Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë with a memoir of her sisters by Charlotte Brontë and an introduction by Angeline Goreau. Recommended.

The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters, Anne was the first to die, within only two years of the publication of Agnes Grey and one year of the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In this edition, Angeline Goreau's introduction offers valuable insights into the relationships among the Brontë siblings, Anne's personality without the distortion of Charlotte's lens, and the conditions prevalent in Victorian England that inspired the writing of Agnes Grey.

For her first novel, Brontë chose to write about the social topic she knew best—life as an underpaid, unempowered, unappreciated governess. Her story, which begins, "All true histories contain instruction," closely parallels her own experience as governess to two families of overindulged, undisciplined, disrespectful children. She "candidly lay[s] before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend."

At times, Agnes Grey is hard to read, not because of the Victorian language and conventions, but because Brontë's unadorned, dispassionate writing style coolly conveys the monstrosity and heartlessness of the children for whom she has responsibility without power and of their distantly doting parents. When the cruel, sadistic Tom Bloomfield, age 7, tries to torture and kill a nest of baby birds and Agnes intervenes, spoiling his "fun," his mother coldly tells her, "You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience . . . I think a child's amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute." Through her portrayal of Tom, Brontë makes it clear who in her opinion is the "soulless brute" and how he came to become one. Meanwhile, Tom, his sister Mary Ann, and their parents foil Agnes's every attempt to perform her duties, including the teaching of morals.

Agnes's next family, the Murrays, are somewhat tolerably by comparison, although she is expected to, in her words, "study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine." In the Murray household, Agnes is subjected to a form of social snobbery and disdain from which her background, manners, and education do not exempt her. All that matters to the wealthy and privileged Murrays is that she is the hired help, to be controlled, ignored, bullied, or snubbed at their whim.

Agnes becomes a governess against her family's wishes so that she can help them out of their financial straits. When her illusions about molding the minds, hearts, and souls of her charges are taught away in chapters titled, "First Lessons in the Art of Instruction" and "A Few More Lessons," Agnes does not continue her ignominious career out of economic necessity; in fact, her family refuses to accept her financial assistance. She continues to work from a sense of pride; she does not want to admit to her family, and perhaps to herself, the personal and emotional cost of her own "instruction."

Given Brontë's purpose in writing Agnes Grey, there are some difficulties with the novel. First, Agnes's distress is primarily emotional, yet surely the masses of underpaid governesses suffered from poverty and from the hopelessness of escaping it. As Goreau notes, there were so many single women vying for governess positions that the employers could pay these vulnerable women next to nothing in wages, even taking deductions for laundry. Charlotte Brontë herself was paid 20 pounds per year at her final post, with 4 pounds deducted for washing. This deprivation, and the lifelong sense of despair that must have come with it, is not evident in Agnes Grey.

The novel also becomes sidetracked from its purpose when Agnes develops an interest in the new curate, Edward Weston. Toward the end, Agnes Grey is transformed from a novel about governesses and Victorian family life into a weak, undramatic love story that is too drawn out. The Anne Brontë who hid her feelings from the domineering Charlotte does not reveal them even through Agnes. While Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights seethe with the drama and passion of unhealthy relationships, Agnes Grey plods through the development of an uninspired one.

The strength of Agnes Grey lies in its characterizations of Victorian country society and the people who inhabit it. Their materialism, which reaches its apex here in the unhappily married Rosalie Murray; their wanton wastefulness; their view of nature as subservient to the whims of man; and their hypocrisy and recasting of God into man's image are the easily recognized precursors to many 20th-century attitudes. Despite its faults and facile ending, Agnes Grey is a tiny but honest glimpse into the Victorian world that preceded ours. Angelina Goreau's informative introduction, with its generous helping of quotations, makes this edition especially worthwhile.

Sunday, 31 December 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dream: Dining with demons

27 December 2006

I was at a restaurant in a high-rise that seemed to be part of an amusement park. I was there with a group of people, but I don't think I knew any of them. There was a couple that stayed with me, but although I talked easily with them as though I did know them, I did not know their names. Then I noticed that the man, who was very handsome and charming, would touch me in odd ways that seemed both affectionate/sexy and creepy. At one point he passed his arm or hand around my head.

Then I found some small dogs and for some reason this made me realize that the couple and maybe others were demons and that I had to protect the dogs from them. Someone, or a voice, told me that of course they were demons and that the touch of the man had taken away my head. I struggled to remember if he had touched me there.

Confused about my head, which I thought I still had but which no one else could see, and determined to save the dogs, I took the man by surprise and pushed him over the edge. When I looked down, I could see his clothes in a pile but not him. Now I was no longer sure that he was a demon, and I wondered if I had just committed a murder. I was also not certain that the dogs, which I had locked into the women's room, were truly safe.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Shrinkage

A few years ago, perhaps many, professional curmudgeon Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes did a piece on shrinking product sizes. The most obvious example is, of course, the pound of coffee, which Rooney noted had been reduced to 13 ounces—enough to generate more profits, but not enough for the average consumer to notice. Naturally, the price was not lowered to reflect the lesser amount. Recently, I noticed that my coffee now comes in a 12-ounce can. At some point, I expect the pound of coffee will become a half pound, and no one under, say, 60 years of age will know the difference.

I've become used to these games when it comes to packaged foods. I may think it's a questionable tactic, particularly since the manufacturers and distributors don't announce the reduction in quantity or size the way they announce "new and improved flavor" or new packaging, but there is nothing I can do about it. The practice has become too widespread and too widely accepted (or ignored); there's no motivation for companies to change the way in which they operate or market.

This practice is not limited to foods, of course. Shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics—all come in smaller sizes than the standard sizes I grew up with.

I am aware of this, yet I still managed to be surprised by my recent purchase of notebook filler paper. The shrinkage is not in the number of sheets, which has always been variable—100, 150, 175, 200, 250, 300, 400, 500. No, the shrinkage is in the size of the sheet itself. In the U.S., a standard letter-sized sheet is 8.5" x 11", whether it's plain copier/printer paper or notebook paper. I have filler paper from about 10 years ago—it's 8.5" x 11". But the new filler paper, from a leading manufacturer of school supplies, is 8" x 10.5".

They cut one-half inch from both the length and width to keep the proportion.

Now I will have to find some other brands to see if this size is the new standard for filler paper. Imagine. 8.5" x 11" paper that's 8" x 10.5". Along with a pound of coffee that's 12 ounces.

I can't wait to find yardsticks that are 30" and foot-long rulers that are 9".

Postscript: Staple carries 8.5" x 11" and 8" x 10.5" paper. I forgot to see if there is a difference in pricing.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dream: Padua

There was a drawing for members of my high school band to go on a journey to a city in Italy. My name wasn't drawn, but I was asked to take care of someone's cat. When I was asked where they were, I could not remember. "It wasn't Rome . . . nor Milan . . . nor Venice . . . nor Florence . . ." Suddenly I remembered that it was Padua.

Then I was near a stream where an attack was taking place. There was a line of bodies, men in swim trunks, face down in the water along the bank, and the attackers were using short, curved blades at the end of poles to deface their backs. One was solidly bloody. I thought I recognized one of the attackers and wondered at what was happening and why.

Monday, December 11, 2006

eHarmony reject

If you're like me, you don't know anything about eHarmony.com other than what you've seen in their advertising—that the company claims its matchmaking system, based on 29 areas of compatibility, is more likely to get you your dream match than those of their competitors, and that eHarmony's founder likes to appear on camera. This strikes me as odd because Neil Clark Warren doesn't quite have the trademarked offbeat image or the eccentric charisma of a Colonel Sanders or even an Orville Redenbacher. He's plain, ordinary, and painfully earnest.

Not even his Ph.D. from my alma mater can make him or his message compelling, at least to me.

At about the same time I started seeing a plethora of eHarmony commercials, a friend mentioned that she had completed the eHarmony personality profile, so my curiosity was piqued. The advertising features people who don't appear to be models; they do look real enough. Some are even older people, perhaps over 50 or 60. They seem normal, but there is something a little disturbing to me in their smiles and their cloying happiness that they have found someone with whom they instantly and magically clicked.

When they are telling me this after 30 years, surrounded by children and grandchildren, I'll be impressed with the success of the relationship, at least the public aspects of it. But not when they are in a commercial talking about how well the first date went.

I don't think this will ever be me, perfectly dressed and coiffed, smiling with 32 flawless pearly whites, and clinging like a Stepford wife to my newfound soul mate.

Still, I decided to find out what eHarmony would tell me about me and my ideal match. Admittedly, the concept of the latter would be new to me, since Mr. Stepford wife has yet to make an appearance. So I spent a half hour filling out the profile in a brutally honest way. I'm no beauty, I'm not in top physical condition, and I'm not vivacious and outgoing. I don't make a good Stepford wife, actually. Hmmm. The more questions I completed, the less l could picture myself being invited to appear in an eHarmony commercial.

Frankly, eHarmony is a lot like Myers-Brigg, only not as accurate. The personality profile I ended up with is not exactly spot on, as Myers-Brigg was. Despite the consistency of my introverted answers, eHarmony seems to think I'm on the line between introversion and extroversion, comfortable on my own or in most social situations.

No, that's me at the party, reading a book in a cozy, hidden corner (ideally), or looking desperately for someone familiar who's chatty to make up for my lack of garrulousness so I can appear outgoing.

There were a few other areas in which eHarmony made me more middle-of-the-road, more "normal," than I actually am.

But apparently I'm not normal enough to deserve love, or even a nice first date, because after another half hour of my life that I can't get back, hunched over my iBook and aiming at what seemed to be hundreds of radio buttons, I learned the horrible news:
eHarmony is based upon a complex matching system developed through extensive research with married couples. One of the requirements for successful matching is that participants fall within certain defined profiles. If we find that we will not be able to match a user using these profiles, we feel it is only fair to inform them early in the process.

We are so convinced of the importance of creating compatible matches to help people establish happy, lasting relationships that we sometimes choose not to provide service rather than risk an uncertain match.

Unfortunately, we are not able to make our profiles work for you. Our matching model could not accurately predict with whom you would be best matched. This occurs for about 20% of potential users, so 1 in 5 people simply will not benefit from our service. We hope that you understand, and we regret our inability to provide service for you at this time.

You can still receive your free Personality Profile by clicking here.
No wonder I'm single! After 30 seconds of dissecting my heart, soul, and intellect, eHarmony determined that there's no way to match someone as unique as I am—me and that 20% who are just not predictably matchable, or at least not through a "system." That's twenty percent who may not work out as Stepford wives.

This intrigued me, along with something I'd noticed—there were neither of the usual "man seeking men" or "woman seeking women" options.

I found a Salon.com article by Rebecca Traister about eHarmony and its founder, Neil Clark Warren (I reserve the "Dr." title for medical/veterinary professionals, not Ph.D.s), who turns out to be a conservative Christian. According to Traister, eHarmony ". . . won't match gays or depressed people or anyone who's been married more than twice."

Traister goes on to say:
When I asked Warren about his refusal to serve same-sex couples, he listed several reasons for his policy. "First, we're into marriage," he said, pointing out that gay unions remain illegal in almost every state. He also doesn't feel there is adequate research on how men can be matched up with other men, or women with women.

"It's just not an easy point! We've got thousands of years of history of the human race in which this was never treated as a marriage and there are a lot of people who think it's just not going to have the same kind of stability over time."
This strikes me as a weak defense. First, this rationale presumes that "marriage" is merely a legal contract between two parties—parties of the opposite sex. This diminishes the sacred aspect of marriage, which should be before God, not men. Is a long-term or lifetime loving commitment to one partner any less sacred without the legal blessing of man's secular government?

Then, while Warren's goal for his heterosexual members may be marriage, who is to say that that is the goal of any given member? Some people, of either sexuality, date with the objective of finding their soul mate. Others just like to date. It could also be said that some people, of either sexuality, remain faithful to their partners; others simply cannot. eHarmony cannot control, or predict, the actions of its members. After all, does everyone answer the questions, all of the questions, brutally honestly?

There is also the matter of the science. Why presume that the 29 areas of compatibility could be significantly different for homosexuals? Gays are not a different species; they're subject to the same human psychology, whatever it is, as the rest of us. Why not at least try the same formula to see how effective it is?

If bringing together heterosexuals in successful marriages is satisfying (and eHarmony has decades to go before it can be determined if it has accomplished this), then how is uniting non-heterosexuals in equally committed relationships any less so? Even Warren seems uncomfortable with the Old Testament's judgments and punishments.

But I digress, because I'm not gay, and I've not been married more than twice, yet eHarmony can't help me. That's probably because my answers indicated I'm in that other outcast category, "depressed." In a way, this seems fair enough. A relationship with a person prone to depression is probably fraught with additional difficulties. Yet it doesn't make sense to single out depression among the many emotional and physical disabilities that could complicate a relationship. For example, the questionnaire didn't ask if I have visions of myself as a 13-year-old boy with Christ, like Naomi Wolf, but I imagine I'm a lot easier to get along with.

Then, too, there is the matter of misrepresentation. What if I were to go back and answer the questions in a less brutally honest way, if I were to represent myself as cheerful and optimistic? Would eHarmony find a perfect match for my altered persona, a happy, well-adjusted man who would find himself on a memorable first (and last) date with a brooding melancholic who is nothing like the smiling Stepford wife his profile called for?

Of course, there is always the concept that anyone who uses eHarmony should be an adult with eyes wide open. Take me, match me to someone who seems to be tolerant of a tendency to sadness. Let us, as adults, determine for ourselves if that is really true. If it is, wonderful. If it is not, then, like many others before us, single and married, we will end up parting, perhaps to try again with another. Surely there are depressed or sad people out there who have managed to have successful relationships—with or without eHarmony's permission.

I suppose this means that eHarmony is not the perfect match for me after all.

Now if only I could have that half hour of my life, that "first date," back.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Dream: Obstacles

I think I was leaving a party and was across the back lawn when someone threw me a pistol and told me to shoot at a target that appeared to be on a wagon. The person who threw the gun, who may have been someone I knew and admired, didn't move and was too close to the target, and I didn't say anything. I accidentally shot his eye out. I could not bear what I had done and could not look at him, at the accusations in the missing eye. Then I saw everything as though I were a third person, and I heard someone say, "They [the man I had shot and I] have always been passionate about one another." I thought I saw us embracing.

I was driving an odd kind of vehicle up a stairway of rocks, and the more I tried to surmount the obstacles, the more fluid flowed from the wheels. I did not remember this happening when my father drove. Suddenly he was there to tell me I had taken the wrong route and was doing all the wrong things.

To get to my room, I had to climb what appeared to be an icy rock, or, as an alternative, rocks that were sheer and underneath which someone I know from college lay, possibly drunk and stoned. I did not know what to do, and then I tried to help him out from underneath so I wouldn't hurt him. He laughed at me because he did not need my help and thought he would be fine where he was. There may have been someone else there. I struggled and struggled to climb up, but couldn't. It felt like climbing a sheer chest of drawers. I could not face doing that every day. Maybe I cried.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Oscar Wilde on women

". . . women are meant to be loved, not to be understood." —from "The Sphinx Without a Secret"

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Dream: Incensed hair

When I woke up, I found that each of the ends of my hair was lit, not flaming, just lit like a stick of incense. I started trying to put them out with my fingers so that I wouldn't start a fire, but the more I tried the worse the situation became. A spark landed on the carpet, which caught fire. I stepped on it and put it out; it did not leave even a scorch mark.

I went out into the living room, where I found a chaos of mess spread everywhere. Two tiny Christmas trees had been knocked over. I tried to right them, but their bases were so tiny in proportion that they could not support the trees. My mother would be very unhappy when she saw the condition of the room.

I suddenly realized that I must have left the cat (not Hodge) loose, but she was nowhere to be found. I went outside, which turned out to be an incredible garden with built-up earthen ledges everywhere. I found an eraser and a pen with cartoon characters on it and stole them. Somehow I knew they belonged to a mysterious, wonderful man whom I had to find. I went to look for him.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Anne Bronte on work

"I can conceive few situations more harassing than that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at naught by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above." —from Agnes Grey