For a while, I focused my attentions on contemporary literature – not because I was growing tired of the Victorians, but because my reading patterns were becoming increasingly unbalanced. I read novels off the Man Booker longlists, works of Nobel laureates, twentieth century classics, and in-between, Homer and Virgil and Chaucer. Occasionally, I slipped in books such as The Woman in White, but it was such a meagre sprinkling that I found myself craving more.
When I picked up Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey a few days ago, I was richly rewarded with everything that I love about Victorian prose: an intimate, conversational tone; a focus on solid, traditional storytelling and colourful – though often two-dimensional – characters.
Of course, comparisons with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are inevitable, but though Anne Bronte has long been overshadowed by her sisters, I see no reason for this to have happened. While it is true that the works of Charlotte and Emily are far greater in scale and therefore in intricacy of character and plot, Anne’s work deserves as much merit for the ideas it pursues concerning the treatment of governesses. Furthermore, any real similarities between the novels of the three Brontes are slight. All three do have a similar atmosphere, and I suppose, similar themes of isolation; this arises from the shared setting of the lonely moors of Northern England. Whilst setting is a significant device, I think it rather superficial to compare the works of three sisters based on setting. Poorer women in the 19th century, particularly the Bronte sisters (I would imagine), were geographically restricted. They set their stories in the landscapes they knew best.
Apart from these understandable resemblances, their prose differs in style. Charlotte’s work, for instance, is more ‘sensational’ and sentimental in content. This results not only from the sensitive and emotional protagonist, Jane, but also from the highly Gothic nature of the plot: abusive relatives, insane wife locked in the attic. Emily’s, though similarly ‘sensational’, is passionate in an entirely different way. Her writing – and the story she tells – is more raw; unrefined, in a way. It is “wild and melancholy”, as accurately described by Charlotte. Anne’s, on the other hand, is quiet. She has a simplistic and unadorned style of prose, and there is a dry detachedness to the way she depicts Agnes Grey’s life as a governess.
It is rather melodramatic at times:
Thus it was that Mr Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning-star on 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.
but I loved the proposal by the seaside, and everything else about the plot that was sentimental.
Agnes herself was not much of a likeable character. Her emotions seemed contrived; her morals too prim and upright. She has a lot in common with Anne Elliot of Persuasion, now that I think of it. Victorian context aside, there’s something too black-and-white about her. Real, red-blooded people need gray areas to make them human. Jane, I find likeable, because of the very characteristic that leads Mrs Reed to shun her. Agnes Grey seems incapable of commiting a fault. Though weak emotionally concerning her darling Mr Weston, at all other times, she’s infallible.
I suppose Agnes Grey is, in fact, an extremely black-and-white novel, encapsulating all those well-rehearsed themes: rich and poor, good and bad, etc. Agnes is a beacon of spiritual light in the home of the Bloomfields and the Murrays. What can I possibly say about those two families? Tom Bloomfield is a cruel tyrant who wrings birds’ necks with the hearty approval of his father; the infant Bloomfield, at the tender age of a few months, is already a scheming devious brat of a child. The Murray sisters were similarly flawed, but I rather liked foul-mouthed Matilda and frivolous, conceited Rosalie:
“Do, dear Matilda, try to be a little more lady-like. Miss Grey, I wish you would tell her not to use such shocking words … It nearly puts me into fits when she begins.”
“I learnt it from Papa, you ass! and his jolly friends,” said the young lady, vigorously cracking a hunting whip, which she habitually carried in her hand.
Although I stand by what I said before, I think I can understand how Anne came to be overshadowed by her sisters. I suppose it boils down, yet again, to the Victorians being blood-thirsty sensationalists who appreciated insane wives and the ghosts of lovers-past over delicate stories of morality and sensible love. If not as a remarkable work of fiction, Agnes Grey is well worth reading as an insight into the lives of Victorian governesses. For the one thing that sets Anne Bronte’s book apart from her sisters is that it is the most autobiographical of them all – in tone, and in content.
» Agnes Grey was read as a part of the 18th and 19th Century Women Writers project