Monday, April 25, 2016

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë

I'm half afraid to admit it but I'm distinctly ambivalent about the Brontë's; I quite like Jane Eyre but it comes with such a freight of criticism and interpretation to weigh it down that I find it harder and harder to enjoy reading it. Mr Rochester's defects as a romantic lead are as nothing to Heathcliff's though. If I'd read Wuthering Heights as a teenager I might have appreciated it more, as it is by the time I came to it in - in my 30's - however much I enjoyed it as a gothic masterpiece everyone seems do monumentally f****d up that it's hard to take it seriously.

Meanwhile there was 'The Tenent of Wildfell Hall' which has all sorts of interesting things to say, and is grown up yet subversive, so I probably should have read 'Agnes Grey' before now. Still, better late then never and after seeing something that Simin Thomas wrote about it I bought a copy on my way home on Friday night to read over the weekend. 

If the introduction is to be trusted (I'm sure it is) then it shows Charlotte in an extremely unflattering (but I'm happy to believe accurate) light, and suggests that the accounts of life as a governess closely reflect those Anne experienced.

I'm going to assume that anyone reading this will either already be familiar with 'Agnes Grey', or won't mind spoilers (there will be spoilers). So, starting at the beginning, at a time when the employment opportunities for ladylike young women were basically confined to governess we have a well educated but very inexperienced young woman heading out into the world to deal with other people's children. The social position of a governess is hard to pin down, separate from the other servants but still a paid employee, she must have all the accomplishments her pupils are expected to learn, and the right kind of accent and manners to teach them, but Agnes' so presumably Anne's experience is that she's also socially invisible. Agnes isn't a particularly assertive personality either and nor has she had any formal training to teach which undoubtedly adds to her problems when faced with deluded parents and incalcitrant children.

The first family seems to be made up of budding sociopaths (a lot of small animals are torn apart) and Agnes spends some time regretting that she isn't allowed to either box their ears or cane them with birch rods. It's impossible not to feel some sympathy for her point of view, they are horrible children, and how is someone who has neither the ability to punish or reward meant to maintain discipline in the schoolroom? Especially when the parents give the children no example of treating the governess with respect. Fortunately the job doesn't last long.

The next set of children are older and slightly less murderously inclined, and here too Agnes falls in love with the curate. He is in every way suitable - they share the same values and morals, are equally educated, have a similar class background, and no huge disparity in fortune. I wonder if Edwards extreme suitability, along with another portrait of an unhappy marriage to a rich man who drinks and gambles, are an explicit criticism of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester, or if Anne just shared my love of a reliable man.

At this stage Agnes's charges are Rosalie who at 18 is a vain and ambitious young woman, and her slightly younger sister who likes to swear and hang out with grooms. They're spoiled young women determined to have their own way, but I ended up having a degree of sympathy for their mother when she remonstrates with her governess. Agnes seems altogether too happy to loiter behind on walks whilst the girls talk to young men their mother doesn't care for, or to be sent off in errands that are more congenial to her when Rosalie is clearly making assignations, and if there's any chance of meeting Edward interest in her charges completely evaporates. It's human, but I'm not sure it's what she's being paid for.

Altogether it's a fascinating book, full of anger and frustration at the life so many unwilling young women must have been forced into, but also honest enough to leave me aware, sometimes uncomfortably so, of Agnes/Anne's deficiencies in her chosen profession. I'm so very glad that she chose to write rather than continue teaching, and sorry that she died before we could get more of her writing. Anne's work might not be as showy, but she's the Brontë who gives me some interest in the sisters and their collected novels, and provide some much needed balance to their passionate outpourings. Her books feel true, they have important things to say, and I'm sorry it took me so long to get round to reading this one. 


  1. Toffeeapple has left a new comment on your post "Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë":

    I am ambivalent about the whole bally lot of them, can't stand them or their books.

    Posted by Toffeeapple to Desperate Reader at April 27, 2016 at 5:06 PM

  2. I know exactly what you mean, they don't sound like the sort of women I'd like to spend time with. I found this book interesting though, partly because I assume Anne meant it as a lecture on the evils of modern child rearing, her agenda seems to educational and in the meantime it exposes her a bit - or specifically I feel she has a reforming even feminist agenda and I warm to that. I use feminist for want of a better word, I know it's not quite what I mean.

  3. I'm working on Villette, then I'm going to move on to Tenant of Wildfell Hall. After that, I feel as if I'll be good on my Bronte reading.

  4. This is exactly how I feel about Anne, her realism really balances out her dreamy sisters. I didn't find either of her novels as accessible as her sister's, but I think about them a lot more.

    1. Comments have got out of sync, the one below belongs to the one above... I agree, Anne isn't quite as much fun to read but she sticks with me, and I think she has much more to say. I don't know very much about the Brontë's but wondered when I read the time lines how much Charlotte pinched from Agnes Grey/Anne. Would we have Jane Eyre without her? By pinch I mean inspire, if she did take Anne's beginning she certainly made it her own with Jane Eyre.

  5. I should say so too! On the whole I'm not a Brontë fan. They have their moments but I can't be doing with all the drama. Give me Austen or Trollope any day.