Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte never stood a chance. First published in tandem with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, several months after Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre had become a sensation, Anne Bronte’s novel was easily dismissed as second-rate. and that judgement seems to have stuck for the most part. Anne’s second novel, a far superior one in my view, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was so scandalous that Charlotte did not reprint it during her lifetime in order to protect her sister’s reputation. She even published an apology for it in her biographical introduction to the later editions of Anne and Emily’s work.
The choice of subject was an entire mistake. Nothing less congruous with the writer’s nature could be conceived. The motives which dictated this choice were pure, but, I think, slightly morbid. She had, in the course of her life, been called on to contemplate, near at hand and for a long time, the terrible effects of talents misused and faculties abused; hers was naturally a sensitive, reserved, and dejected nature; what she saw sank very deeply into her mind; it did her harm. She brooded over it till she believed it to be a duty to reproduce every detail (of course with fictitious characters, incidents, and situations) as a warning to others. She hated her work, but would pursue it.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall deals with a woman, trapped in a bad marriage to a violent alcoholic, who runs away with her young son in tow. She then meets a good man, whom she falls in love with but cannot marry because she is legally bound to do whatever her husband insists. I think it’s a terrific novel that can easily stand up to comparison with just about everything from the 19th century. It is Anne Bronte’s great misfortune that she is the sister of not one, but two of the greatest English novelists. Almost no one can hold a candle to either Charlotte or Emily Bronte.
Agnes Grey is the story of a governess. Anne Bronte, like her sister Charlotte, had first hand experience as a governess–it was one of the only job options available to an educated 19th century woman of her class. Clearly, she wanted to expose the conditions governesses faced and the circumstances that forced women to accept them. She does a fine job of this in Agnes Grey.
Agnes must leave a happy, albeit somewhat poor, home to become the governess for a succession of families because her own family cannot afford to find a suitable husband for her. Agnes does not last long at her first position, with two very small, very spoiled children whose every whim she must obey. (One begins to wonder how the English aristocracy ever learned to read at all when the children are allowed to dictate when their lessons will take place, how long they will last, and just what they will cover.) Agnes’ second position is with two older girls, pre-teens or tweens in today’s parlance. She fares somewhat better here, but again the parents allow the children to do whatever they want and then blame Agnes for their shortcomings. Through it all, Agnes tries to remain true to her ideals, those she learned from her own mother who gave up a substantial position to marry the man she loved, though he was only a very poor clergyman.
Many people enjoy historical fiction, as do I. But it should be noted that if you want to find out what things were like in a particular time and place, you can go often go directly to the source. Anne Bronte has painted a full picture of a governess’s life, the isolation, the daily grind of the work, the demands of the employers and the children, and the small solace found when one child recognizes the hard work the governess has done. Agnes Grey may not be considered great art the way Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are, but it does provide a window into the private lives of an often misunderstood and neglected group of women.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009. I’ve been migrating all of my old reviews over to this new site for a while now. I have to say that I don’t really like this review. It kind of reads a bit like a passionless book report. It looks like I did my research, though I don’t remember it, but it reads like a precocious kid showing off how much he’s read. Kid can mean anyone up to age 45 when I use the word since I’m an AARP member now. Still, I’m committed to moving all of my reviews to this new blog, even the not so great ones, so I’m moving this one over, too.