Agnes Grey

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

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19 thoughts on “Agnes Grey

  1. One of these days I am going to read some Anne Bronte. It will probably be The Tenant of Wildfell Hall instead of this one, since that’s what I have on my shelf, but this does look like something I’d like. (Really just about anything Victorian makes me happy.)

  2. That’s exactly why I love Wuthering Heights so much.. it’s wild and melancholy! I’ve been wanting to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, too.

  3. You know, I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a couple of years ago, and I loved ir more than either Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre! I keep meaning to read this one as well. :)

    1. Teresa – I’ve been wanting to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for a while too but my library’s copy is missing (as is frequently the case) and I haven’t seen any copies at the bookstore, so…
      Ooh yes, same here. Anything Victorian is guaranteed to be a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

      claire – I actually hated Wuthering Heights at first, but it’s grown on me since. I agree that the atmosphere is the best thing about it. Should really re-read it soon; I’ve forgotten most of the story now.

      Shelley – The Professor is by Charlotte Bronte! Incidentally, my favourite Bronte sister and the one book by them that I didn’t like. Okay, so I only like Charlotte because of Jane Eyre. But Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey come a close second.

      Eva – wow, better than Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?! I suppose I should order a copy from the Book Depository straight away :)

  4. This sounds like a lot of fun! I think I would enjoy it, especially because I’ve always had a penchant for Victorian melodrama! ;) Also, if it isn’t clear, I’m also a big fan of love stories that touch the heart rather than the gag (or giggle!) reflex! I never would have considered this one, so thanks for the review!

  5. Oh, I really enjoyed reading your post about Agnes Grey. I think Anne is always overshadowed by her sisters and its easy to forget just how good Agnes Grey is. I’ve never been as fond of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, though. Many years ago I visited the grave of Anne Bronte in Scarborough expecting to find it desolate, but it was covered in red roses. Very moving.

    1. Steph – Hm, the gag reflex. Well, their relationship is a little coy and, well, based on a series of encounters which barely count as ‘conversation’, so it could possibly fall into the ‘extremely Victorian’ category. But gag? It’s nowhere near as bad as Twilight, if that’s what you mean ;)

      Nicola – that’s very moving indeed. I’m glad her grave isn’t being neglected. Hm, two contrasting opinions here… I’ll just have to read it for myself and find out, I guess. The Bronte sisters seem to be ‘one hit wonders’, though. Absolutely love Jane Eyre; not so fond of Shirley and Villette. And unless I’m mistaken, Wuthering Heights is Emily’s only novel, right?

  6. I really haven’t read enough of Victorian literature: but I was meaning to reread Jane Eyre this year (I last read it in, I think, 8th grade). I will add this one to my list too.

    1. Rebecca – Jane Eyre is also on my re-read list, although I’m not sure if I’ll get around to it this year with all the 2009 projects and all… Eight grade would also be about the last time I read it from start to finish. Definitely time for a re-read.

  7. I’ve always had a soft spot for Anne and her books. I agree with Eva about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall -a wonderful, wonderful book which it’s a pity more people don’t read.

  8. Tuesday, I feel like mentioning Twilight in the comment section of this post is somehow EXTREMELY blasphemous! ;) I definitely would consider it a gag-reflex romance, both in terms of the implausibility of it all (and this has nothing to do with the vampire aspect of it…) as well as the hackneyed writing. I think I just meant that I’m fine with a book, even if it does essentially revolve around a love story (and not much else), so long as it is able to capture the reader and feels genuine. Writing definitely plays a large part in this, as does tone.

    1. adevotedreader – hm yes, it is a pity, not just about Wildfell Hall, but about Anne Bronte in general. But yes, I will definitely be reading it sometime soon :)

      Steph – ugh, sorry to turn this into a discussion about Twilight, but there’s definitely something very unhealthy about their relationship. It’s creepy the way he’s so possessive and stalkerish. And, cradle-snatcher, anyone?

  9. I cannot say enough bad things about the Twilight series. It’s so unhealthy the relationship that is portrayed, and I find it really disturbing that young and old women alike are swooning over a dude who, in both the books and the movie, is aggressive, purposely tries to terrify Bella, controlling, rude, and does creepy things like sit outside her window every night. It’s 2009. I think that it might have been nice if the Bella character were anything more than boy crazy and could actually do things for herself without requiring saving from her “dark protector” ever five minutes. I also think it’s really unfortunate that the basis for the attraction seems to stem from her smelling good to him and him being really cute… because would anyone put up with his garbage if he were homely? No. It’s just so superficial and gross, and I hate how Meyer tries to downplay the really questionable messages throughout the series by saying it’s just a fantasy novel. Yeah, it is, but that doesn’t mean the fantasy is healthy and that people aren’t still going to get ideas from it. Just because young girls understand that vampires don’t really exist doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to respond to other elements of the story that they can emulate in real life. I shudder to think that there are people who believe that Edward Cullen is the perfect boyfriend, and that those two have the ideal relationship.

  10. After reading Jane Eyre last year, Anne Bronte would be the next Bronte sister whom I shall read. Flipping through the first couple chapters gives me the impression that Agnes Grey is a quiet but sharply pointed critique of the life of a governess and the instruction of children at the time. I do agree that Anne is often overshadowed by her sisters.

    1. claire – Be very glad. The only good thing about having read it is that I can make valid criticisms about it, and that’s not saying much :)

      Matthew – yep, your first impression is spot on. Well, except maybe the quiet part. Her writing style is definitely far from loud, but I suppose the sharp social criticism would have been considered far from quiet back in her day.

  11. Tuesday, I just finished reading this! I find most of your observations echoing my own thoughts.

    You say, “Real, red-blooded people need gray areas to make them human.” Exactly. And how ironic that her name is Grey!

    I borrowed a few lines from you (giving you credit of course). :)

    1. That is very ironic – I can’t believe I never picked that up before!
      Ooh, you express what I’m trying to say so much better than I ever could –

      “While it’s true each sister has her own distinct voice, there’s a unifying quality to each one (Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Agnes Grey, at least, the only ones I’ve read so far), and that is the brooding, reflective force of a solitary life.”

      and

      “Her intimations on the importance of inner beauty against vanity, and how true love and true happiness will always triumph over the luxury and comfort wealth gives – these serve as the heart and soul of this book.”

      particularly..

      Hmm I think I’m like you – pretty much detested the character, but loved the book! :)

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