Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey was the first novel written by Anne Bronte.  It was published in 1847 in a collection with two other novels written by her sisters - Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. The main character in Agnes Grey is the daughter of an impoverished clergyman who, at eighteen, decides to leave home to seek employment as a governess.  Her family laugh at this suggestion as Agnes has been spoilt by them and not allowed to help with the household chores. However Agnes does gain a position with the Bloomfield family being in charge of  teaching the three children ranging in age from two to seven.

Agnes is very naïve, looking forward to her new position where she thinks she can "train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day!"  She very quickly realises that her task is not an easy one - made harder by the lack of any support from the children's mother.  The theme of how to discipline children runs throughout this book and is still topical today as teachers frequently debate the best methods of disciplining their pupils.  Agnes states, "The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me; my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt."  The description of Tom's cruelty to animals and birds is quite disturbing, as is his father's encouragement of his cruel practices.  Tom is only seven years old and sets traps for birds which he then kills.  When he does this, his uncle says "he is a fine boy."

After being dismissed from the Bloomfield family Agnes goes home to the parsonage. However sshe is still keen to gain a position and so after a few months, she finds one with the Murray family where she is to be governess to two girls - Matilda who is 14 and Rosalie who is 16.  There are also two younger boys who are sent away to school shortly after Agnes arrives. This position proves to be as difficult as Agnes's previous one although the girls present different challenges.  Matilda is a tomboy who prefers spending her time in the stables rather than in the schoolroom. "As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless, and irrational, and consequently very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest."  Her older sister spends her time flirting with young men whilst getting Agnes to act as chaperone.  She seems determined to enjoy herself before she is forced into an arranged marriage with Sir Thomas Ashby whom her mother has decided she will marry.

Agnes's position is quite a lonely one as she has no friends explaining to Mr Weston, the curate, that in her present position she is unlikely to make any friends.  Like the author, Agnes is very religious and so when Agnes becomes attracted to Mr Weston she feels the tension between religious and romantic love.  Agnes says "it is not the man I love, it is his goodness I love."  Unfortunately for Agnes, Rosalie decides that Mr Weston will be her next victim pursuing him relentlessly until she marries Sir Thomas.  The remainder of the book describes Agnes's pain at having to return home on the death of her father and not being able to see Mr Weston. 
The position of a governess in Victorian England was not an easy one and their plight was highlighted by The Governesses Benevolent Society in their reports.  Although entrusted with the children and expected to eat her meals with the family, the governess's position was a difficult one being neither a member of the family nor a servant.  Agnes obviously believed she was the family's equal and disliked being ignored and made to walk behind them on their way back from church.

This is quite a short book and relatively easy to read so would make a good introduction to reading Victorian novels.  I enjoyed this book although I had expected more about the problems facing governesses in the 19th century. Although Agnes Grey is not as dramatic as Jane Eyre, it certainly opens a window on the plight of the governess in Victorian times.  As Sally Shuttleworth says in the introduction to the book, "the 'quiet virtues' of Agnes Grey are deceptive. It possesses an inner intensity which belies its outer form."

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