Monday, 22 September 2014

Classics & Contemporaries | Social Commentary

Back in July I started this new series with Romance and promised that I'd be back in August with the Science Fiction installment. Then I ended up going on a little hiatus while I finished up my MA coursework and there was no C&C post in August! 

I thought of just bumping Science Fiction up into September and doing two C&C posts, but considering Halloween is next month, I thought it would be a lot more fun to write up Science Fiction then, alongside the Gothic post I have planned.

So today we're talking about Social Commentary, and I promise you it's a lot less boring and/or intimidating than it sounds!

Social Commentary does what it says on the tin; these are the kind of books that had something to say about the time they were written in, regarding issues from gender to class to race to poverty - you name it, someone's written about it!

Charles Dickens is probably one of the most well known authors for this kind of literature; so many of his stories explore issues with poverty and class - just think of the way he portrayed the workhouses in Oliver Twist.

In fact we're starting our Social Commentary journey in the 19th century, with a brilliant (and sadly underrated) female author...

Anne Brontë is one third of the fantastic Brontë trio, but no one seems to talk about her as much as her sisters. She is most famous for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is believed to be one of the first Victorian feminist novels, but today I'm going to be talking about her first, semi-autobiographical novel, Agnes Grey.

Agnes Grey tells the story of its titular character, who decides to take life by the horns and become a governess to help her family after her father loses all of his money through no fault of his own. As the younger of two daughters her family are initially uncertain, but Agnes is determined to prove herself and soon finds herself the governess for the children of the wealthy Bloomfields. 

Working for the Bloomfields is nothing short of disastrous; the children are spoilt and cruel, much like their parents who constantly criticise everything Agnes does. Unhappy and lonely, Agnes is relieved when Mr Bloomfield sends her back home, convinced that his children are not learning fast enough, and her mother helps her to find her new position with the Murray family.

Agnes becomes the governess to the Murray's two daughters, Rosalie and Matilda, and though she still often feels the isolation that comes with being a governess, she develops a tentative friendship with the flirtacious Rosalie and befriends the kind curate, Edward Weston.

Throughout Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë reveals how governesses were really treated in the 19th century, and through Agnes's friendship with Rosalie Murray she explores femininity and the way women were treated, even if they happened to be wealthy women. It's an exquisite little novel, and it's one of my favourites, but I think it's something of a marmite read; I loved it, but I've come across many people who found it boring.

So if you're not quite ready for the 19th century, perhaps this piece of historical fiction will be more to your taste...

Eva Ibbotson is a guilty pleasure of mine. She's well known for her children's books, but also for her YA historical romance fiction. A Song For Summer is one such novel, and, like Agnes Grey, it features a feminine heroine, named Ellen, who finds herself working with children when she accepts a job as the housekeeper at a school in Austria.

Ellen becomes intrigued by Marek, the school's mysterious gardener and fencing teacher, but as Hitler's troops advance across Europe their love is endangered by the looming shadow of war.

A Song For Summer is much more romance orientated than Agnes Grey, though Brontë does a wonderful job of portraying the yearning that goes hand in hand with unrequited love, but they both have an innate sweetness which is laced with serious and thought-provoking themes. If you like A Song For Summer, then I definitely believe you would enjoy a classic like Agnes Grey!

Next we have a much more modern classic, written by one of the world's most famous playwrights!

I'm incredibly jealous of anyone who got to study Arthur Miller's The Crucible in school. I had to read Death of a Salesman instead and I loathed it. The Crucible, however, is right up my alley!

The Crucible is Miller's take on the famous Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century. Originally published in the 1950s, it is believed to be an allegory for "McCarthyism", the practice of accusing people of treason or disloyalty without evidence, when the American government began to blacklist suspected communists. 

It's a brilliant commentary on hysteria, manipulation and morality, and you don't have to be a history enthusiast to enjoy it! (Though those of you who do enjoy your history might just appreciate it all the more).

However, while The Crucible is a modern classic, and therefore less intimidating than something as huge as War and Peace, it is a play, and often plays are a lot more fun to watch than they are to read.

But have no fear! I have a very recent novel that might just spark your fancy...

Katherine Howe is no stranger to the Salem Witch Trials; not only is she believed to be descended from two of the accused witches, but her first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, is all about witchcraft. Her recent YA novel, Conversion, isn't all that different.

In Danvers, Massachusetts Colleen Rowley, a student at St. Joan's Academy, is trying to get through high school and all the stress that comes with it. She's been reading The Crucible for extra credit, and when the school's queen bee, Clara Rutherford, falls mysteriously ill with seizures and violent coughing fits, an illness which soon spreads to her circle of friends, Colleen's suspicions begin to rise.

After all, Danvers used to be known as Salem Village where, centuries before, another group of girls suffered from the same epidemic...

I think the very fact that Conversion's protagonist is reading The Crucible herself makes it an ideal read for anyone out there who's not quite ready to read Arthur Miller's famous play. Ultimately, Conversion takes the famous story of the Salem Witch Trials, or at least the epidemic that led to them, and places them in the 21st century. So if you enjoy Conversion, I see no reason why you wouldn't enjoy The Crucible!

There's another genre (though I suppose Social Commentary is more of a sub-genre) done and dusted! Check back next month for Science Fiction and Gothic, just in time for Halloween!



  1. I love the idea behind this series! I haven't read any of Anne Bronte's works yet, but I want to soon. I hear lots of great things about her works even though she is the least talked about Bronte sister for some reason.
    I read the Crucible in my American Lit class in high school and it is such a powerful play, especially when put into historical context of the Red Scare and the fact that Miller was red listed himself for writing the play. I also love that copy of The Crucible, it's gorgeous!
    I look forward to the future installments of this series!

    1. Thank you! :) I definitely recommend Anne Bronte - she's my favourite Bronte and I'd love it if more people read her.

      Lucky you! I would have loved to have read The Crucible for a class. Yeah the Penguin Modern Classics are really pretty. ^__^

      Thanks - I hope you enjoy the rest of this little series!