It’s really a pity, a true shame, that Anne Brontë didn’t live long enough to write more than two books. I loved her work after I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Agnes Grey is just as wonderful. I really wish that it had been longer than novella length because I so enjoyed the time I spent in Agnes’ company.
Critics agree–and I have to agree with them, having read Anne’s short biography on Wikipedia–that Agnes Grey is a highly autobiographical novella. It details the experiences of Agnes Grey as she becomes a governess and eventually finds love and happiness with a rector. Agnes, like Anne, was the daughter of a clergyman who didn’t have the best luck with money. To help the family, Agnes takes work as a governess for two families that have awful children. The first family Agnes works for, the Bloomfields, are the worst. The mother and father are blind to the faults of their children and blame Agnes for their misbehavior. Agnes has no power to discipline the children, so they never improve. The oldest boy is even abusive to animals. Critics and biographers note that the scene in which Agnes kills a nest of birds to save them from being tortured actually happened to Anne. Agnes is fired and takes work with a new family, the Murrays, further away from home.
The Murrays are not as awful as the Bloomfields in that they are probably not budding sociopaths, but they are awfully vain, lazy, and self-centered. A few months after Agnes arrives, she meets Edward Weston–one of the few genuinely good people in this book. She falls in love with him from a distance, then has her heart broken when her oldest charge, Rosalie Murray, decides that she wants to flirt with him and break his heart. Eventually, it works out. Rosalie gets her just desserts and Agnes and Edward Weston marry and live happily ever after*.
What I love most about Anne Brontë’s work his how real it is. You don’t see the perfect coincidences of Austen here, or the drama of her sisters’ work. The characters in Anne’s book are human. They make the same kind of mistakes that you or I would. Agnes has a charming habit of being a little rude when surprised, which leads her to say the wrong thing to Weston more than once. That is exactly what I have done a time or two. Further, I really think that Agnes Grey gives you clear idea of what life as a governess was like. It’s not the romantic occupation that Charlotte Brontë wrote about in Jane Eyre**. It was a lonely life, in which the governess was caught between the family and the servants. The only people Agnes gets to talk to, at any length, are her charges and her charges make it clear that they view her as a servant. Governesses were powerless, most of the time, and served at the whim of the family. Neither the Bloomfields nor the Murrays have any idea what their children are really like, so they think Agnes is a liar and an incompetent much of the time.
As I read Agnes Grey, I got a sense of just how much anger Anne must have felt. It’s as though she took every slight and frustration and put it into this book. It reads, in places, like a change for Anne to get her literary revenge on the families she worked for. Critics of the time noticed it too, apparently. Wikipedia cites Julie Nash and Barbara Suess, who say the contemporary critics found it “coarse” and “vulgar.” Those kind of reactions and Anne’s writing style make me want to classify her as an early Realist writer. She is so unlike the other writers of her time and place, especially her sisters. I really wish she had lived longer.
* This book was published in 1847, so hush about spoiler alerts. Yeesh.
** Jane Eyre is still one of my favorite books, though.