R87. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Year Published: 1847
Pages: 242

Pairing: governess and curate
First Sentence: All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.
Climax: "You love me then?" said he, fervently pressing my hand.

Review: Since I've reviewed both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I felt it was necessary to review Agnes Grey as well. Anne Brontë has never gotten her share when it comes to the Brontë fame, and I didn't want to continue the trend of leaving her out. In fact, I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall quite a few years ago now, and was amazed by how much I liked it. I intended to review it, but life got in the way at the time. So here I am reviewing Anne's only other novel, her first, instead.

Agnes Grey is just barely a romance novel if you squint to see it. What it mostly is is a study of a lonely young woman struggling to make her way in the world.

Agnes is the younger of two daughters of a minister. He has very modest means but made a love match to a woman, Agnes' mother, whose family ended up disowning her because of it. At the beginning of the novel, Agnes' father is struggling with poor health and she convinces her parents to let her go out and try her hand at being a governess. Her first place is with the Bloomfields, where the three children in her care are basically holy terrors. Most memorably, Agnes is forced to kill a nest full of baby birds in order to prevent one of the children from torturing them to death. Not long after, the Bloomfields decide to release her from their service.

Her next place is with the Murrays, where she fares better once the boys in her care are sent to school and she's left with the two Murray daughters. This is also where she meets the romantic hero, the curate Mr Weston.

Most of the rest of the novel consists of Agnes having a tough time managing the Murray girls. Mr Weston is kind, thoughtful, smart, and really quite devoid of any of the usual flare of a romantic protagonist, but he's also exactly the right sort of man for Agnes.

Eventually the older of the two Murray daughters (Rosalie) has her debut, and is thus no longer in Agnes' care, though they continue to spend time together. Rosalie is very pretty and vain, and wants nothing more than a ton of admirers. She also wants to marry a wealthy man. She succeeds in courting the richest man in the area, and marries him while Agnes is away on holiday (one of two brief visits she gets with her family each year).

Not too long after this, or semi-concurrently I should say, Agnes' father takes a turn for the worse, and she rushes home in time to find him dead. Her sister, Mary, being married already, Agnes and her mother decide to earn their keep by opening a school in a nearby town.

As it turns out, marrying for money alone isn't the best idea, and Rosalie is miserable in her marriage. She writes to Agnes, begging her to visit, which is when Agnes discovers that Mr Weston has left the area and Rosalie obviously never bothered to find out where he's gone. Agnes goes back to her school, convinced she's never see Weston again.

Then, months later, while enjoying an early morning walk on the beach, Agnes and Weston do meet again. He's now the minister at a church near the town, and has been looking for her. Over the next few months they spend time together talking. He meets and befriends Agnes' mother. Finally, they are engaged and live happily ever after.

Here's the thing. I personally am much more of an Agnes Grey than a Jane Eyre (and no one could ever mistake me for a Catherine Earnshaw). Agnes is bookish, shy, retiring, and more than a little judgemental. She can be hard to like as a protagonist, when it's frustrating to see her constantly fail to speak up for herself. That is, until you remind yourself how young she is (still her very early 20s at the end of the novel) and the precarious position she's in. Which is to say working at a job which is one of the very few available to her in this era, and entirely at the mercy of her employers and their spoiled kids.

In fact I think Agnes' general lack of likability is the major flaw in this book (which overall I liked a lot). While it's possible that I just see the worst parts of myself in her, I also think that Anne Brontë could've done a better job of illustrating the barriers Agnes faces. Or maybe this is a contemporary versus modern reader problem, and those barriers would've been obvious to anyone reading this book shortly after its publication in the mid 19th century.

Agnes Grey is based on Anne Brontë's own experiences as a governess, although she never got a happy ending like her protagonist. Instead, Anne died young, after may more years as a governess. I don't quite know how feminist I'd say this book is, personally. To me it seems more specifically aimed at the precarious position of the governess, and is very class-conscious, though maybe not to the same extent as Jane Eyre.

I'm glad that Anne Brontë got braver when she wrote her second novel. There's more romance and passion in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'd recommend starting there instead.
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It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood, and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper no doubt, but are such assertions supported by actual experience?
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Well! What is there remarkable in all this? Why have I recorded it? Because, reader, it was important enough to give me a cheerful evening, a night of pleasing dreams and a morning of felicitous hopes. Shallow-brained cheerfulness, foolish dreams, unfounded hopes, you would say; and I will not venture to deny it—suspicion to that effect arose too frequently in my own mind— but our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.
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