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The 7th Function of Language—Laurent Binet

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 27, 2017 at 5:09 pm

You know, it’s possible to have a lot of fun, even in the world of today. Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, was a frightening and utterly riveting account of the attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, narrated by a neurotic post-modern writer whose observations of himself as he garnered the facts of the case were as entertaining as the story itself. Now, if you had been told that this scarily perceptive novelist’s next subject was to be French literary theorists of the 1970s, you would predictably have yawned.

But Laurent Binet is possessed of something like Superman’s X-ray vision combined with a million lasers. When he gets something in his sights, that thing is dead. And what he kills in his new novel is literary theory, in all its fake unuseful stupidity. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and the gang were working very hard to ruin the art of literature in the name of strutting masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s. With The 7th Function of Language, their number is up.

In 1980 the semiologist Barthes was struck by a van in Paris and died a month later. From this rather sad, ordinary fact Binet constructs an opera buffa of a cabalistic world of evil so wide-ranging and seemingly influential that it makes those who worry about the Illuminati or read Dan Brown books look like the pipsqueaks of paranoia that they are.

Before he was run down Barthes had lunch with Francois Mitterrand. He may have discussed with the future president a document relating to the work of Roman Jakobson, a Russian linguist who identified six functions of language—all very academic and all very debatable, as these things are. But Jakobson may have identified a seventh function, an aspect of language the use of which would cause its utterer to gain anything he wished. (Or she—but as this story is about literary theory, women don’t figure much except as swooning fodder for the critical bed.)

This seventh function becomes a state secret, like the A-bomb, and the serving president, Giscard, wants it for France. (Binet alludes to the power of semiology as something humans have but don’t understand, like fire.) As with his book about the Nazis, Binet wipes the floor with you with a great deal of improbability, and you just want more. Reputations get dissed, fingers chopped off, the French Open is watched (of course), sex is had at academic conferences (of course) and in ancient anatomy theatres, the Bulgarian and Japanese secret services begin to chase post-Structuralists and you still want more. More! Reading Binet gives you that rare pleasure of feeling that you’re losing your grip on reality. As one policeman asks another, ‘How do you know that you’re not in a novel?’

What Binet can do with a scene, a paragraph, is beyond belief. He can suddenly burst into a wide ranging scenario where everyone is talking at once, not even in the same room, and like his undoubted associates, or competitors, Wu Ming of Bologna, he can accentuate the banality of cultural evil with the most horrific violence. In the few minutes before the Red Brigades’ bombing of the railway station in Bologna in 1980, a slightly stoned policeman is looking at the abandoned piece of luggage that contains the bomb. Each time he looks at it, it seems a little bigger. That is Binet at his best – for him the world is completely plastic and at the mercy of the novelist. So few have his courage or ability.

As in HHhH, the novel is a commentary on itself and the practicalities of novel writing, as Binet says when describing the efforts of two of his policemen to discover what happened at lunch between Barthes and Mitterrand: ‘They could barely even get hold of the guest list. But I can, maybe … After all, it’s a question of method, and I know how to proceed: interrogate the witnesses, corroborate, discard any tenuous testimonies, confront these partial memories with the reality of history. And then, if need be … You know what I mean. There is more to be done with that day. 25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.’

Here is an irony: The 7th Function of Language might be the first novel that uses the tools of semiology to the advantage of fiction. And in that case it must be the last. The purpose of this novel, it’s to be hoped, is the long-overdue murder, embalming and funeral of literary theory. One suspects Binet will make, or perhaps already has made, a lot of enemies with this jaw-droppingly disrespectful, extremely witty and—yes—heart-felt book. But one thing’s for sure—he’ll know how to handle them.

 

TMcE

 

This review first appeared in the Herald on May 19th, 2017.

The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington –Joanna Moorhead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 2, 2017 at 2:28 pm

The English painter and sculptor Leonora Carrington was born one hundred years ago in Lancashire. She had not so much a life but, like Amélie in Jeunet’s surreal comedy, a fabulous destiny. Born into a wealthy textile family, she was rebellious and contrary from an early age. Her father was a tyrant, far beyond what you might expect from even the most apoplectic blustering Edwardian parvenu. Leonora constantly and enthusiastically thwarted and enraged him – at one point she was sent down from school with the admonishment: ‘This girl will collaborate with neither work nor play.’

Wrong! Carrington did play, and she did plenty of work too. She developed an intense inner life, identifying, in that unshakable adolescent way, with her horse. Horses and other animals, especially hyenas, would always feature in her artwork and in her fiction, of which she wrote a goodly amount: Down Below, just republished this month, is a frightening account of what may have happened to Carrington after she suffered a nervous breakdown in the early years of the Second World War. Her partner, the surrealist painter Max Ernst, had been arrested in France and Leonora had fled to Spain. There, through the intervention of her father, whom she always compared unfavourably to Hitler, she was incarcerated in a mental hospital. She was given drugs which induced epileptic seizures and terrible hallucinations, and did lose her mind for a time. ‘I was obedient as an ox,’ she said. She was rescued by a family friend, and was then offered a marriage of convenience by a Mexican diplomat of her acquaintance. Leonora went with him to New York and then to Mexico, where she spent most of the rest of her life.

This is the barest outline of her tumultuous times, however, as there were many intrigues and affairs and toings and froings of all involved with those inside the Surrealist circle and outside it. Ernst had escaped numerous times from detention to look for Leonora – in the process he got temporarily snapped up by Peggy Guggenheim and they all went unhappily off to America together. As Joanna Moorhead says, Surrealism was relocating to New York. And she is well aware of what Carrington was up against with this crowd: ‘avant-garde the movement may have liked to think it was, but when it came to women the Surrealists’ views were depressingly narrow and conventional.’ Just what Leonora was always trying to escape. By the time she got to New York, she realised she could never be happy with Max, as in his neediness he would overpower her.

Leonora’s career begs the question of whether the Surrealists were really any good: Surrealism often seems adolescent, a collection of schemes dreamt up by people who couldn’t paint or write very well. Leonora’s pictures at times resemble Max’s. In hers there is a feeling of enclosure, of being inside some strange building, rather than in the alien landscapes Ernst frottaged into being. Her paintings are semi-mediaeval, like paintings in books of hours, with some elements strikingly to the fore, while other strange and important things are happening far away. There are an awful lot of wimples. And often a haze, or scrim, settles between us and the action. She shares certain qualities with Dalí, including a kind of sepulchral humour. But she never considered herself a Surrealist, and said she had never tried to be one.

In Mexico, Carrington made a new life for herself. She married a Mexican photographer, and they raised two sons. She developed a deep friendship with the Spanish Surrealist painter Remedios Varo (their work is strikingly similar). In the 1960s and 1970s Leonora became quite politically active. She designed a famous poster for the feminist movement known as Mujeres Conciencia – Women of Conscience. Moorhead, however, provides almost no information on what Leonora got up to for most of her time in Mexico. According to her, there is only one extant correspondence between Leonora and anyone else (she always destroyed her mail), so parts of this book feel deranged and undocumented.

The author turns out to have been a cousin of Carrington’s. She heard about Leonora vaguely through family folk history but no one else in her branch of the family seemed interested in her. Moorhead, a journalist, made it her business to track down this surreal black sheep, and began visiting Leonora twice a year in Mexico City. Carrington seems to have tolerated these visits, even though she didn’t much care for journalists. As she grew older she wasn’t always quite sure who anybody was. The two women talked over Mexican politics and American power more than anything else, though one can think of many, many artistic questions Moorhead should have asked. At the very least, she should have got help in describing Carrington’s work, and should have been prevented from trying to explain it. After all, Carrington always said that painting can’t be explained.

One day after a long discussion of the Surrealist manifestos of André Breton, Carrington asked Moorhead for her notebook, and wrote something in it. Later Moorhead realised that Carrington had written it in mirror handwriting, a habit Leonora developed at a nightmarish convent school as a child. When Moorhead held the page up to a mirror, the message read: ‘I never read the Surrealist Manifesto.’

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, April 29, 2017.

Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes–Michael Sims

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features some models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and some bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.

MY DEDUCTIONS.

  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  1. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  1. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  1. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  1. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  1. The beef and bone marrow pie is off. (It says so on the blackboard.)

::

In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing.

He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).’

Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck.’ But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should have his arse kicked with a new tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere:

Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented some ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’

::

But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject.

Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion hanging around the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven already, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were:

Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are.

But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why the hell would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ “Only?”

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were?

Sims thinks everyone in the 19th century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.

TMcE

This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, March 4, 2017

Michael Rosen–The Disappearance of Émile Zola

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:24 am

In July 1898, embroiled in the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ (the persecution of a Jewish army officer) and facing serious charges of libelling the French government in his article ‘J’Accuse’, the novelist Émile Zola vanished. Almost immediately there were wild speculations in the press: was he hiding in a suburb? Or worse, gone to Norway?

What Zola had done was to stop by his house, confer with his wife, and wrap up a nightshirt in some brown paper. As you do. He then took the train to Calais and a boat to England. Arriving at Victoria, he demanded to be taken to the Grosvenor Hotel (‘Grosvenor’ being one of a couple of English words he had managed to commit to memory). The nonplussed taximan drove him there. It was around the corner.

So began a weird year of self-imposed exile for one of Europe’s greatest writers, in a series of bafflingly mundane suburban villas and commercial travellers’ hotels. Five years before, Zola had been feted in London. Now he hardly dared to go out, afraid of papers being served on him if he was identified in public. Although, rather comically, he was spotted by a French lady on his second day in London: ‘Why! There’s M. Zola!’

Michael Rosen’s account of this adventure is a little shallow at times (it’s the re-hash of a radio programme). But it is interesting both politically and culturally in terms of today’s shrinking civil liberties, especially in the U.S., where not a finger is going to be lifted to protect individual freedoms, and when England has cut its ties with Europe in order to repudiate a whole lot of important, cherished, hard-won political ideals.

Though distressed at times, Zola seems to have been content with his suburban milieu. He took to cycling around places like Norwood and Weybridge. A serious amateur photographer, not surprising in a writer celebrated for his ‘scientific’ attention to detail, he began taking pictures of everyday English things. He particularly liked shop fronts and pubs, and was quite taken with the scores of young English ladies on bicycles he encountered.

He didn’t, however, adapt so well that he could tolerate turn-of-the-century English fare. He wrote to his wife: ‘The food continues to be revolting, their vegetables are always cooked without salt, and they wash their meat after they’ve cooked it. I am so sick of it, I would give you a hundred francs for a steak cooked by Mathilde.’ He wondered why English houses were all so small, he didn’t like Hyde Park and he thought the National Gallery ‘wretched’.

Zola’s domestic life was already complex. He and his wife Alexandrine did not have children, but he had fathered two with Jeanne Rozerot, originally hired by Alexandrine as a maid. The arrangement that developed over time, possibly without being expressly discussed with Alexandrine, was that wherever the Zolas went, at home in Paris or in their country house at Médan, Jeanne and the children were always installed nearby. Zola would see them regularly, always without Alexandrine. But Madame Zola developed a fondness for them and visited them with some regularity; later she developed a closeness with Jeanne too.

Many anguished letters detail the uncertainty between Zola and Alexandrine—Jeanne’s to Zola have disappeared. Rosen seems to have Alexandrine figured for some kind of emotional incompetent, but this doesn’t seem right, from what she wrote. Zola had inflicted a real emotional wound on her. She was in pain.

The Zolas began their married life as poor bohemians, but his hard work and success brought them into a certain amount of money. Now, though, Émile’s involvement with the Dreyfus Case had cost them almost everything they had. During his stay in England they had to have a sale of their effects, partly to pay for many clandestine trips back and forth across the Channel by Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children to visit Zola in his various Wimbledonish establishments. Most charges against him were eventually dropped and in 1899 he returned to the land of delicious vegetables and steak.

The awful epilogue to all this is well known: a little over two years later, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning (Mme Zola survived this horror). An anti-Dreyfusard builder later claimed to have stopped up the chimney, another point not pursued by Rosen. In 1908, in a show of remorse, Zola’s remains were taken to the Panthéon. As his body was placed in the crypt, alongside Hugo and Dumas, bigots fired shots. It never ends.

TMcE

This review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017

Samantha Ellis–Take Courage

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:13 am

“A lone cur howled across the sleet-drenched moors as I, in semi-transparent skeletal form, struggled to the door of Miss Samantha Ellis’s temporary dwelling in Haworth. Having discovered she was writing a book about me, I had come to plead with her to stop forthwith, for I did not wish my life to be arbitrarily exploited, however fast the bicentenary of my birth might be approaching.

“It was not my aim to argue with Miss Ellis’s inaccuracies, inelegancies, or irrelevancies when we met, nor rebuke her curious attempt to prove that my treasured pebbles were the droppings of dinosaurs. Nor would I deign to refer to those dreams she related, in which she had supposedly found me sitting at the end of her bed, begging to be written about. Everyone must deal with their unfortunate proclivities according to their own moral fibre, however malnourished it may be.

“I did intend though to question her having the audacity to wonder at my taking nine days to write my sprightly preface to the second edition of Wildfell Hall – a very long time, Miss Ellis propounds, to write a mere thousand words. Are we athletes? Is writing a race? Does she approach every wayward paragraph of her own, armed with an egg-timer?

“But what I objected to most strongly was Miss Ellis’s incessant projection of her own subjectivity on to mine. O how passionately did I wish she would stop entwining my life story so cloyingly with her own! I did not want my Irish-Cornish-Yorkshire parentage hollowly compared to her Iraqi-British roots, nor my hair colour deemed lighter than hers, and therefore ‘depressing’. Nor need she eat porridge on my account! I felt no desire, either, for empty blandishments on my badly flawed novels. I had by this time recognized that (rather like Miss Ellis herself) I needed better editors than I ever got – despite all of our prancing round and round the drop-leaf dining table, my vexed sisters and I, reading our manuscripts aloud to each other after poor Papa and his outlandish cravat had retired to bed.

“Moreover, I wished that Miss Ellis would not subtly taunt and triumph over me with references to her love life, evidently in contrast to my own lack of one. For, indeed, though I am not ashamed of having died in ‘single blessedness’ (a putrid phrase I myself overused), it is aggravating when Miss Ellis sports her acquaintance with a ‘man’ on page 77, who becomes a ‘boyfriend’ by page 106, and later a ‘partner’, notwithstanding her unbecoming complaint that he is only ‘five foot ten on a good day’. By the end, reader, she marries him.

“Would that I could avenge these subtle slights! But I knew full well by now Miss Ellis’s unshakeable determination to turn biography into an impertinent form of autobiography. She litters her Brontëiana throughout with solipsistic soliloquies vaguely arising from whatever titbit of information seems to come to mind. On this basis, she announces that Emily favoured mutton sleeves, Branwell had a large forehead, there are fifty locks of Brontë hair scattered across the world, the poet Southey forced his daughters to bind 1400 books, Muriel Spark is ‘ungenerous’ to fellow novelists, and Thomas Bewick’s engravings were cruel (quite wrong). More bafflingly, she wishes Dorothy Wordsworth and I had met and that I got cream on my bilberry pie, and reports that she has seen Kate Bush live. Whoever that may be.

“In her earlier book, How to Be a Heroine, Miss Ellis debated which was the best Brontë: Charlotte or Emily. Now, perhaps in contrition for leaving me out, she wants to make a fetish of me. Yet she confesses to a growing impatience with our diaeresis! If I were to gain admittance tonight, my first duty would be to suggest she redirect her energies in future to author-victims with unaccented surnames.

“Finding my desperate knocking all in vain, I began instead a spooky scraping at the window, inspired by the histrionics of Wuthering Heights – I had always a great rapport with my sister Emily, alias Ellis Bell. But this Ellis was deaf to me. Hence, in muddy flight past the old Black Bull (ah, my hapless brother Branwell!), the Jane Eyre Lino Company, and Heathcliff’s Afternoon Dainties (both new to me), and briefly slipping into what is now dubbed the ‘Brontë waterfall’ (though I myself have no remembrance of it), I returned in defeat to the silence of my Scarborough grave, which Miss Ellis had already wept over in appreciation of the endearing drama of my premature demise…”

*

In her new book, Take Courage, playwright Samantha Ellis pinpoints the Brontës as ‘one of the most famous families in history’. We’re all taught to admire their pen names, pertinacity, potato peelings and pathos – and the way the three sisters achieved more than Branwell. Anne was possibly the most fiercely feminist of them all and, despite asthma and TB, had the stamina and chutzpah to write one excessively long and complex novel and one surprisingly short one, and get them published. The trouble is, they aren’t terribly good. She’s a true wheel-spinner.

The Brontës are all melodrama queens, but Charlotte and Emily added silly supernatural elements to the mix. Anne, who considered herself more down-to-earth, tried to stick to reality, her own version of it anyway. In her semi-autobiographical novel, Agnes Grey, the disadvantaged heroine Agnes slaves away as a governess, running after sadistic charges who kick her, spit in her workbag, and torture animals. One of them later even tries to steal her man. But as a protest against general inhumanity and in particular the mistreatment of governesses, the novel is marred by fairy-tale elements – the poor but happy family, an improbable shipwreck, and the magical reappearance of Agnes’s beloved in Scarborough, marriage-ripe. (Anne had a thing about Scarborough.)

The first two hundred and fifty pages of her other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, are creakingly slow. Once revealed, Helen’s big fat enormous secret (her escape from her no-goodnik husband) is exhaustively unravelled. Huntingdon seemed okay at first, a dashing suitor, but as a husband he goes awry, with the drinking, with the cha-cha, “live now, pay later, Diners’ Club” (as Dr Dreyfus puts it in The Apartment). He calls their baby a ‘little senseless, thankless oyster’ (a rather good description of a newborn baby!), and mistreats the dog. His pals are even worse, outrageous, dissipated and violent. The Brontës all have a scary side.

Anne’s concerns may well be seen as fairly modern and even political. But her characters are inscrutable posturers, always edging oddly toward windows to hide their emotions. Charlotte made Jane Eyre a defiant little girl and a passionate, no-nonsense woman: you root for her throughout. Anne’s books are more artificial, they’re novels of ideas, rinsed in a goodly amount of Victorian soap suds. The religiosity of Wildfell Hall is intolerable: dreary Helen’s a self-declared expert on how to secure a comfy hammock for yourself in heaven – a rather selfish idea, I’ve always thought.

Making big claims for both of Anne’s novels, Ellis says their political engagement, class critique, pleas for education, exposé of governessing, and the suggestion that mad bad Byronic men may be dangerous to know, ‘still feel revolutionary’. Her own literary aims here are somewhat less ambitious: apart from some insightful, whimsical or frivolous asides, the book just becomes a walk in Anne’s boots, which were probably as muddied as her prose. Big walker, Anne.

In a form of delayed literary stalking (and not a little padding), Ellis stalks the moors. She reads Brontë biographies, even that wacko Angria and Gondal juvenilia. She Googles and Pinterests. She dons latex gloves to examine Anne’s last letter or a hideous hair brooch of Charlotte’s. She asks if Anne Brontë invented the romcom (no). And she takes everything, but everything, personally: ‘wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, over-worked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horror of a first job.’ It’s Ellis who’s scraping at the window.

“Samantha, Samantha, let me go!”

LE

A version of this review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017.