Book review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (Wordsworth Classics, 1998 )
Agnes Grey is a trenchant exposé of the frequently isolated, intellectually stagnant and emotionally starved conditions under which many governesses worked in the mid-nineteenth century.
This is a deeply personal novel written from the author’s own experience and as such Agnes Grey has a power and poignancy which mark it out as a landmark work of literature dealing with the social and moral evolution of English society during the last century.
Is it a love story or is it a story about a governess? A bit of both in a rather confused way. Agnes is the youngest of two sisters and lives a sheltered and spoiled life as a parson’s daughter. She doesn’t have to do much more than play with kittens, because she’s the baby of the family. She wants to see and do more things in the world than that, and decides to seek a position as a governess. First, she comes to the Bloomfields, an unsympathetic couple whose children are absolutely awful. They’re manipulative and nasty creatures who have no respect for anyone and Agnes struggles to keep them in check. Failing, she gets dismissed and is back home.
She goes off again; this time to the Murrays, a bit further afield. The two girls are older and have been brought up better (there are boys as well, but they’re sent off to school), so Anne has an easier time with them. The younger girl is a tomboy who likes nothing better than riding and hunting, and the older one is being prepared for making her social début, and likes to flirt with the men of the region.
Here Agnes meets with Mr Weston, the Rector’s curate, and she finds herself thinking of him an awful lot, and we can also gather that he is falling for her as well. Weston is easily ranked high up on the list of cravat-clad crumpets from 19th century fiction. He’s incredibly sweet and such a nice guy with his heart in its right place. (I’d love being a priest, you know. Problem is, erm, some rather major religious differences which would forever disqualify me from pursuing such a career. Still, it sounds like an awesome job.)
The vain and incredibly spoiled older Miss Murray, Rosalie, flirts her way with the Rector, and when he proposes, she’s almost offended and fobs him off for being so stupid to think she was interested in him at all. When she gets the proposal her family wanted her to get from a richer man, she spends the time until the wedding flirting with Mr Weston instead, just to spite Agnes, who grins and bears it, waiting for the wedding bells to chime so the girl can bugger off once and for all.
The thing that struck me about Agnes Grey – I’ve been struggling to write “Agnes” instead of “Anne” in the above text, because this book is so clearly based on Anne’s own experiences as a governess – she even fell in love with her father’s curate – is that while it’s a bit wishy-washy plot-wise, it’s superb when it comes to characterisation. The characters feel alive. The Bloomfield kids could easily have been on Supernanny because we’ve all encountered them; psychopathic little brats running riot with everyone and their parents not paying attention to them and not believing people when they protest, because their “little angels would never do such a thing”. You know the type? Spot on. It’s fascinating to see that it’s not a modern problem, but worked exactly the same way in the mid-1800s! The Murrays (the younger one no doubt influenced by Anne’s tomboyish sister Emily) are also very alive. Every inch of Rosalie reeks of self-absorption. She cares little or nothing about anyone except herself and I found myself half-wishing Agnes would give her a good slap.
It’s clear that Agnes had no experience with looking after children, and she didn’t know how, as they more or less did whatever they wanted without paying any attention to her. Just like with dogs, you have to be the pack leader, the alpha fe/male, which is where some (okay, a lot of) parents seem to go wrong, and I know I’m not a dog nor child-friendly person, and I’m not exactly an alpha female, so I would’ve struggled just as much as Agnes.
Evident in both Anne’s and Charlotte’s writings are their dislike of vanity for vanity’s sake, and I applaud them both. It’s what’s inside that’s the important thing – the outer shell is just the wrapping. While the chocolate of a Kinder egg might be nice (mileages may vary), you only eat through it to get to the toy underneath. In theory, anyway. I’ll have the chocolate and not bother about the thing inside because to be fair, the things in there tend to be rubbish.
It’s a shame that there’s no clear plot in the book, which Charlotte’s The Professor also suffers from. Sure, there’s a bit of plot, like her being a governess and showing us all what a nightmare the job can be, but is the plot about her being a governess? As it then goes into a love story, is that the plot? It starts to resemble one, for sure, but it’s a bit all over the place. It might be a “trenchant exposé” of the governess life, and as such, it’s brilliant. As a novel, I would expect a bit more from it.
That being said, I rather enjoyed it. Anne’s truly a gifted writer, and I guess this was practice for the book she’d write next (or, while she was writing this one or waiting for it to be published or whatever it was): The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne wasn’t afraid of telling it how it is, and not every story is necessarily one with a happy ending (Rosalie’s marriage isn’t too inspiring, which is partly down to herself), even if Agnes Grey has one.
4 out of 5 snooty brats.