Anne Brontë Continues to Rule with Agnes Grey

Warning: This post may contain spoilers for Agnes Grey, but there aren’t really any big plot twists so I don’t know if they’re actually spoilers…

Well now that I’ve caught up with my end-of-2013 and start-of-2014 posts, it’s time to catch up with my last two Brontë reviews. I’m going to start with Anne Brontë’s first novel, Agnes Grey.

Agnes Grey tells the story of, well, Agnes Grey, a young woman who takes a job as a governess to help relieve her family’s financial woes. As a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, she soon finds herself in over her head with the Bloomfield family, then later with the Murray family. Her first charges are positively monstrous, particularly the boy, who takes great joy in torturing and murdering animals. At the Murrays, the young boys are quickly sent off to school, leaving Agnes to care for the Murrays’ two daughters, who are closer to her own age. While the Murrays are not as awful as the Bloomfield’s, Agnes still finds herself being constantly manipulated and downtrodden. She begins to find relief from her social isolation by doing good works, and keeps crossing paths with the morally solid new parson, Mr. Weston…

I’ve long been interested in the governess as a figure of English literature, though my experience is actually quite limited. Looking at what I’ve actually read, Agnes Grey is my fourth governess, among the ranks of the narrator of “The Turn of the Screw,” Becky Sharpe in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and, of course, Jane Eyre. I remember in our class discussions of Vanity Fair, we talked about the potential of the governess character to move through social strata—unlike other servants, the governess must be educated (and most likely middle class I’m guessing) and is required to interact with the family members fairly often.

Agnes Grey seemed employ the governess trope very differently from other novels I’ve read. In the three other cases I mentioned, the position is kind of a platform for the characters to stand on so that plot can unfold: Jane Eyre gets to know the mysterious Mr. Rochester, Becky sinks her claws into the Crawley family, the “Turn of the Screw” governess begins her creepy dance with evil. To some extent this is true of Agnes Grey, but much more of this novel than the others revolves around Agnes’s actual work as a governess (based on Anne’s experiences in the same position).

Agnes, in her naïveté at the novel’s outset, expresses intentions to go out and make her way in the world (9). Because I’ve studied nineteenth-century lit before, my brain went, Bildungsroman! But as I continued, I discovered Agnes doesn’t really change much, which makes it hard for her to be the protagonist of a novel of development. She may learn that governessin’ is hard work and that rich people suck, but her virtue neither wavers nor improves—and how it could improve I don’t know, because her moral bar is set really damn high. (I still liked her, though—sometimes Lucy Snowe in Villette is too severe to do anything but laugh at her.)

When consulting Wikipedia for this post, I discovered that others have made the same observation. I only wish I had the time and my former academic prowess to report back on what sounds like a fascinating article by Cates Baldridge (those with JSTOR access can follow the link from the citation in this section of the Agnes Grey wiki). I’d really like to look into the Brontës’ relationships with the bildungsroman, so perhaps that post can come a little later down the road.

I read Agnes Grey after reading The Professor and Villette. And even though it’s important to me to see Anne Brontë as a distinct novelist from her sisters, I had to note the differences in style. Compared to Charlotte’s novels, and even compared to what I remember of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the descriptions in Agnes Grey don’t have the same richness. It’s obviously a first novel. There are some exceptions, of course, such as this passage:

Already, I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting; and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk, at last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life. The gross vapours of earth were gathering around me, and closing in upon my inward heaven; and thus it was that Mr. Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness; and I rejoiced that I had now a subject for contemplation that was above me, not beneath. (97-98)

But what I found most striking about Agnes Grey is not just its realism—in fact, really, ShirleyThe Professor, and even Villette are nowhere nearly as romantic as either Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights—but that there are these great little moments of sarcasm throughout that make you wonder if Anne had a taste for social satire that the brevity of her life (or some other circumstance, since it’s absent from Tenant) did not allow her to exercise. For example, Agnes disparages her vain young pupil:

I was sorry for her; I was amazed, disgusted at her heartless vanity; I wondered why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others…. There are, I suppose, some men as vain, as selfish, and as heartless as she is, and perhaps such women may be useful to punish them. (125)

I found these little asides to be almost Austenian—at the risk of lumping poor Anne Brontë in with yet more female novelists of the period. (Still, others have said the same, according to Wikipedia. Sorry for the terrible secondary sources, academic-minded readers.)To reiterate something from almost every post I’ve made, I’m not the biggest fan of the love plot. The romance in Agnes Grey is totally above board—it lacks the passion people tend to associate with the Brontës. There’s something to be said about Mr. Weston being of good moral character and a parson, but meh. It was kind of that nineteenth century novel thing where he’s the only eligible bachelor in town and she has a thing for him so you know how it’s going to end as soon as he shows up.

I said in my first post on this book blog—the one on Jane Eyre—that I aspire to be a Jane Austen heroine, but I’m really more of a Brontë heroine. But I’m not really a Jane Eyre either; I’m too polite and meek to rage at anyone outside my own head. Instead, as I’ve made my way through the Brontë novels, I’ve found myself closer to Lucy Snowe and very close to Agnes Grey. Agnes has fire, but I think she hides it the best of any Brontë heroine—unless Frances Evans Henri from The Professor is actually fiery and not the wet sandwich she appears to be. Agnes’s feelings are very strong, but she would never explode: “I was accustomed, now, to keeping silence when things distasteful to my ear were uttered; and now, too, I was used to wearing a placid smiling countenance when my heart was bitter within me” (145). This is, in fact, my exact experience working at some crappy job or other.

So those are my many, scattered thoughts on Agnes Grey. Next time, I revisit how I revisited Shirley.

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