At age 19 Anne Brontë left home and worked as a governess for a few years before becoming a writer. Agnes Grey was an 1847 novel based on her experience as a governess. Bronte depicts the precarious position of a governess and how that can affect a young woman. Agnes was the daughter of a minister whose family was in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment. Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children and how wealth can corrupt morals.
I think if I had to pick a Brontë sister to have tea with, I would pick Anne. She seems to have such spunk and takes more risks with her subject matter than Charlotte and Emily. I shudder to think if her previous employers read this book- in this day, she would probably have been sued for libel! I also feel infinitely sorry for Anne. She’s been largely forgotten by history, mainly due to her sister’s interference. Charlotte disapproved of Anne’s subject matter- particularly that of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and blocked further publication of the novel. Agnes Grey was sent to the sidelines, dwarfed by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.
Agnes Grey is a clergyman’s daughter. Her father lost his money, and in an effort to support her family, Agnes seeks employment as a governess. Her first situation is close to home, educating the children of a Mr and Mrs Bloomfield. Poor Agnes! The children are absolutely foul, Tom in particular. I’ve never come across such a vile creature! He delights in tormenting Agnes, beats his sisters and, most disgustingly, abuses small animals. The child literally rips baby birds limb from limb. I felt like leaping into the book and going all apeshit on the situation.
After surviving this, Agnes is fired for not adequately educating these wild animals. Quite frankly, Agnes should have slapped the mother, shot the father and uncle and left the damn kids in the snow to freeze. The world would have been a better place. The repeated references to animal cruelty throughout the novel made me feel quite revolted and uncomfortable. It shows the attitudes of some people at the time but I found it quite upsetting as an animal lover.
She then takes on a situation further from home, for the older Murray girls. Agnes is again bullied terribly by these girls and fails to educate them or instil much wisdom into the incorrigible girls. This shows the utter isolation many governesses felt- they were not equal to their charges, but not a servant. They were stuck in a limbo of classes, unable to move higher without marrying above her station.
I can almost hear Jane Austen in some sections of this book, particularly in the descriptions of the Murray girls’ behaviour. Rosalie makes Mrs Bennet seem sensible and even Lydia would have been scandalised by Matilda!
Luckily, Agnes gets a happy ending- much more than Anne did. There is some thought that this novel is partially autobiographical, and I can see why. I felt Agnes was probably not a good governess, but her situations were pretty hopeless. I was hoping she would grow a bit of a backbone, but was disappointed. I think Anne must have put a great deal of herself into Agnes, so perhaps that explains Agnes’ sometimes snarky inner monologue while remaining rather meek. Even Charlotte likened Anne to a nun, which I think was a bit unfair. Give the poor girl a break, Charlotte!
This book is deep into the moralising. If you thought Jane Eyre was heavy on the morals, Agnes Grey will shock you. I don’t enjoy this kind of thing but realise that this was an important part of Victorian literature. I just skipped those passages. Unfortunately, the moralising infiltrates the love story aspect of this novel and, for me, ruined the ending. I wish I hadn’t read the last paragraph.
The love story was also a bit of a disappointment. I would have liked to spend more time with Mr Weston. Agnes fixates on him a great deal but there isn’t much to show that he loves her until right at the end. Even then, it’s rather truncated and REALLY lacks passion. Anyone up for some elbow touching lovin’?
I liked Agnes Grey, though it made me feel rather uncomfortable in parts. It’s a rather short novel but felt much longer than it was. It’s an interesting look into a first Brontë novel, especially if you’ve not read anything by Anne before. I hear The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a vast improvement on Agnes Grey, so I’m looking forward to reading that in the future. I wish Anne had lived longer in order to have her happy ending, but I suppose we must be happy with Agnes’ triumph.