Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë
Oxford World’s Classics 2008 (originally published 1847)
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Anne Brontë is generally considered the least popular of the Brontë sisters. Her books aren’t as well-known as either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. And where Jane Eyre is easy to fall in love with, and lots of people either hate or love Wuthering Heights, Anne’s books generally elicit the least strong reactions. Anne might also be the Brontë sister that is most often forgotten. Recent example? The fact that Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow is called “Charlotte and Emily” in the United States. Not that Anne is not just as much part of the book as Charlotte and Emily are, but I am guessing that her name is not expected to do well for publicity purposes.
I have to say that in a way I agree with the general opinion that there is not as much “spark” in Anne’s Agnes Grey as there is in Jane Eyre. And that maybe the world she created isn’t as innovative as Emily’s Wuthering Heights. But while reading The Taste of Sorrow, I developed a sympathy for Anne Brontë, which frankly, made me want to like this book. And I did like it, even if it is different, maybe not as exciting.
Everyone who knows a little about the life of Anne Brontë, can feel as soon as you start reading Agnes Grey, that much of it must be based on Anne’s experiences as a governess. And it is not a pretty picture she paints. I felt for both Agnes and Anne while reading the book. First, the cruelty of the Bloomsfield household. The uninterested demeanor of the parents, and the way they did not allow Agnes to punish the kids, yet not because they were against hitting or punishment of any kind, but because they wanted to keep that right to themselves. And all the while they wonder why Agnes cannot keep the children in check. And then the absolute wretchedness of the episode with the birds. Those poor, poor birds. And poor, poor Agnes.
Then, as if the first household wasn’t bad enough, the Murray’s. The children and parents hurt Agnes in a different, yet not less painful way. The proud demeanor, the way they choose to ignore the governess as someone below them in class. So much so that ‘even the servants’ (ah, how class is always a part of stories) refuse to acknowledge her.
As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy – as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so.
It was disagreeable too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for in truth, I considered myself pretty near as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were… though her young ladies might choose to have her with them, and even condescend to converse with her, when no other company were at hand.
The quoted text above shows perfectly how Anne Brontë writes, I think. She paints a situation, that I, as a shy person that often feels ignored in this manner and not because of class, can completely relate to. And yet Agnes does not submit to the unfairness of the treatment she receives. She never does. Nor does she compromise her own morals, ever. I wonder if that is why so many find it hard to like her, as a character? Is it like what happens in Mansfield Park, with Fanny? Is she too upright, too prim, too much set in the background and yet self-assertive?
Anyway, I have to say I liked the portrayal of the second family in which Agnes works better. There are more conflicts, more sides to the story. Miss Murray, for example, she is cruel and proud and condescending. And yet, at times, you feel a little for her: her scheming mama with her wish to marry her off to an unworthy man. The story also shows how Agnes, despite everything, grows to care for her pupils. Even if she would not give up her whole life for them.
There are aspects to this story that I liked, apart from the main storyline. There is the portrayal of Agnes’ belief. A belief, not in the hierarchical organisational structure of the church, but in a manner of life that is dedicated to God and helping others. It shows in her portrayal and comparison of the clergymen, Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Weston. There is also her portrayal of the struggles the poor lady Agnes visits goes through to come to the right faith, contrasted with the carelessness of the ladies under Agnes’ care. And then there is this small sentence, somewhere at the end of the book, that I had to write down because I felt it was such a strong thing to say:
The best way to enjoy yourself is to do what is right and hate nobody. The end of Religion is not to teach us how to die, but how to live; and the earlier you become wise and good, the more of happiness you secure.
There are other themes besides the cruelty towards governesses and ideas on religion to be found in Agnes Grey. For example, there is Agnes as a girl, eager to work as a governess to assert her place as a (somewhat) independent woman. (I love how this theme seems to be a part of the works of the Brontës! Um, yes, I base that on the few books I have read by them):
“You think, because I always do as you bid me, I have no judgement of my own: but only try me- that is all I ask- and you shall see what I can do”
How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter into a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mamma and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed.
Naive? Yes, a little. In her enthousiasm to become a governess, surely. But, even if Anne shows that she is naive for thinking being a governess is easy, she never rejects the ideals of “acting for yourself”, of truly becoming an individual in your own right.
So yes, Agnes Grey might not be my all-time-favourite Brontë. The emotions that Charlotte’s Jane Eyre elicits in me are not easy to surpass. But Agnes Grey is a worthy read.
There is one last quote that I just had to include. Look, there is a hint of sarcasm too:
“You’re to go to the schoolroom directly, mum- the young ladies is WAITING!!“
Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess!!!
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