- Tedious Reading:The Untimeliness of Anne Brontë
In Agnes Grey (1847), Anne Brontë's eponymous heroine routinely voices a concern about how her narrative may affect her readers. "I have not enumerated half the vexatious propensities of my pupils, or half the troubles resulting from my heavy responsibilities," Agnes states, "for fear of trespassing too much upon the reader's patience, as, perhaps, I have already done" (36). Despite the brevity of Brontë's single-volume novel, as a narrator, Agnes is anything but brief. Her sustained attention to the "vexatious propensities" of her young charges and oft-expressed boredom with life at Wellwood and Horton Lodge together lend torpidity to her narrative, limiting its transformative potential for any "unfortunate governess" (37) perusing its pages and diminishing its interest for prospective readers—the consequence that troubles Agnes most. Agnes's boredom is a product of the time she has spent in successive yet unsuccessful service positions, and, considering the working title for the novel, Passages in the Life of an Individual, Brontë may have thought Agnes's account applicable to any reader familiar with the demands of daily work.1 Brontë's novel routinely draws a parallel between the tedious nature of Agnes's everyday life and the tedium of her narrative. Conscious of this problem, Agnes leads readers to question the merits of what she chooses to represent and to wonder with her, toward the end of the novel, "Well! what is there remarkable in all this?" (163).
Critics have questioned the historicity of Anne Brontë's fiction along the lines of this problem of readerly interest: What is remarkable about Agnes's life? Does her narrative simply reflect the sociohistorical conditions that consigned women to domestic labour? Or is Agnes's boredom, and the acuity with which it is reproduced in her narrative, particular to her lived experience? Terry Eagleton concludes his 1975 work on the Brontës, Myths of Power, with a condemnation of Anne Brontë's ahistoricism, claiming that her characters are "too abstractly individuated, too internally unpressured by the strains and frictions of their social world" to be "linked by capillary fibres to the central nerves of history" and that as a result, Brontë presents "no historical life" in her novels (136–37). More recently, Amanda Claybaugh has argued the very opposite. In "Everyday Life in Anne Brontë," Claybaugh claims that it is Brontë's attempt to represent the diffuse nature of lived experience that makes the tedium depicted in her works historically significant, even if her experimental narratives fail to hold interest. [End Page 323] The difficulty of reading Anne Brontë today, it seems, is that both critical perspectives hold true. As Eagleton claims, Brontë's works do not depict the harried sensations typically associated with life in mid-century England at the moment of the acceleration of industrial capitalism. Yet, as Claybaugh argues, Brontë's novels borrowed from and helped shape conspicuously reformist literary works of the 1840s, such as works of temperance fiction, which stressed historical context and verisimilitude in their struggle to represent everyday life.2
In debating the historicity of Brontë's works, critics tend to rely on assumptions about readerly interest. For Eagleton and Claybaugh alike, a sense of excitement is curiously (if not dangerously) absent from Brontë's writing, and the experience of reading her novels comes unbearably close to the very historical conditions her novels represent, as if reading Brontë's novels amounts to experiencing the same historical conditions undergone by her characters. Yet by pursuing this strong connection between a certain mode of historicity and readerly interest, a connection that Brontë's narrators insist upon within their narratives, critics overlook how the tedium engendered by reading Brontë is actually in service of an alternative mode of temporality and an alternative model of novel reading. In what follows, I argue that the tedium of reading Anne Brontë's novels is instrumental to the sense of untimeliness that her works seek to represent, an experience of being out of sync with one's historical moment and its temporally contingent strategies for interpretation. By wedding the durational experience of novel reading to the diminution of...