A few days ago I did something that has defeated me for almost three decades: I finally finished reading Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. Alright, I’m exaggerating slightly; I’m on the cusp of turning 30 and therefore haven’t been trying to read Anne’s novel for my entire life, but I have spent a good decade (at least) trying to finish it. It only took me two sittings this time. Along with Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, it was never top of my list, but as a devoted Brontëite, I felt ashamed that I’d never made it all the way through Anne’s pioneering, unflinching, feminist novel. Charlotte is undoubtedly my Brontë; Jane Eyre is quite probably my favourite book ever written, Villette is a near perfect masterpiece, and I am ever so slightly obsessed with Glass Town/Angria, the fictional childhood world created by Charlotte and her younger brother, Branwell. I can’t neglect Emily either; who isn’t floored by the power of Wuthering Heights after reading it? Words simply cannot describe that novel. I first read the tale of Cathy and Heathcliff as a teenager; it rocked my world then and it still does. In fact, the only thing that comes close to its power is Anne’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a brutal examination of alcoholism, violence, masculinity, and the position of women in 19th century Britain. It’s a masterpiece. Although Charlotte’s early writings are experimental, racy, and morally questionable at times, she really toned down her work as an adult, to the point that it could actually be rather dull (The Professor, anyone?). However, her sisters went the opposite way with their adult novels, or at least, that is what the Brontë myth would have us believe.
Whilst I acknowledge the power of Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’ve never had much time for Agnes Grey, and this has always driven me crazy. Just what was it about this novel that defeated me time and time again? Maybe it didn’t help that I already knew how the novel’s events unfolded, maybe it didn’t help that although Agnes Grey was actually written first, Jane Eyre, another governess narrative, is, in my opinion, perfect, and I never thought Agnes Grey could live up to that. Maybe it’s because after having read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and practically everything written about it, the opening of Agnes Grey just feels a little bit flat, tame, and quite frankly, like a bit of a comedown from the heights and passions of the novels mentioned above. After hearing and reading of the impact of this novel for so long, I could sense none of the fire, the injustice, or outrage in the opening pages besides the estrangement between Agnes’s mother, Alice, and her father after choosing love over money. Consequently, I did what thousands of other book worms, bibliophiles, literature lovers, and even fellow Brontëites have been guilty of over the years; by putting Agnes Grey aside I neglected and rejected Anne Brontë, and by doing so I contributed to the stigma that she is somehow “the other Brontë.”
This is a label I have always despised, and whether overtly or covertly, many still see Anne as somehow less talented than her sisters. I think the best/worst example of this has to be the American sitcom, Family Guy’s depiction of the third Brontë sister. Watch it and prepare to be amazed that this literary genius can be reduced to such depths. The fact is that Anne is still very much “the other Brontë” in the eyes of society despite her amazing work. Although she only published two novels and co-published her poetry, Emily only published the one novel along with her poems, and does not suffer from this same stigma. This begs the question of whether Anne’s work can be seen as inferior to her sisters’ in some way, and how. My own theory is that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is too powerful and discomfiting for some readers, whereas Agnes Grey is too tame, and with no middle ground for readers to turn to, Anne falls into a gap and becomes neglected. It might seem like a strange idea as Wuthering Heights is also profoundly powerful and groundbreaking, but in a completely different way. Anne’s novels are firmly grounded in reality and the world around her, but Wuthering Heights is a masterclass in the demonic, unearthly, and supernatural. Both of Anne’s novels forced the 19th century reader into an uncomfortable examination of their own society and their treatment of others, and they have a similar effect on the 21st century reader.
However, in a world (largely) without governesses and servants, but one fit to burst with addictions, questions of masculinity, gender roles, and women’s rights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall has lost none of its power over time. Whilst Agnes Grey can still speak to a modern reader, I believe its impact is not what it once was. Although novels about governesses are arguably products of their time and society, there are some, such as Jane Eyre, which seem only to mature rather than tire or wither, which is unfortunately what I believe has happened to Agnes Grey. Once a firework, it is now a mere sparkler, but that does not mean it is not a good book, and now that I’ve made my way through the narrative, I know I will pick it up again in the future, and this time I will look forward to doing so.
Let’s start with the facts. Agnes Grey is the first novel written by Anne Brontë and it was first published in 1847. Despite being penned after Anne’s novel, Charlotte’s Jane Eyre actually made it into print a few months earlier than her sister’s own governess narrative. Despite this, the novel was a success, and has never been out of print since. The narrative is, like Jane Eyre, a sort of bildungsroman, however, we meet Agnes as a young woman rather than a child like the young Jane, so her development takes place over the course of around four years. A warning for those who haven’t yet read the narrative; THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD. However, if you’re a Brontëite, you probably already know how everything unfolds anyway regardless of whether you’ve managed to make it all the way through to the end. Stick with it if you haven’t. Agnes Grey is the youngest daughter of Alice and Richard Grey, the latter of whom is the local parson. She lives with her parents and sister Mary until Richard loses the money he has entrusted to a merchant in order to provide a more comfortable future for his family when the merchant dies in a shipwreck. Facing financial ruin and tired of being treated like a child, Agnes decides to become a governess, and with the help of her mother and some relations she is employed by the Bloomfield family and travels to Wellwood House to take charge of the children.
Rather than being the adventure she hoped for, the children are wicked (the oldest, Tom, tortures animals for fun) and her employers cruel. Due to her position as a governess, Agnes is isolated from both her employers and the other servants. Despite this she continues for some months until she is dismissed for not making enough progress with her young charges. Following a period of rest at home, Agnes is helped by her mother to find another position. She is eventually employed by the Murray family who are only marginally better than the Bloomfields. Mr Murray, like Mr Bloomfield is cruel and distant, and Mrs Murray is cold but not quite as harsh as Mrs Bloomfield. When the boys are sent to school, Agnes is left to care for the beautiful but thoughtless Rosalie and the wild tomboy Matilda. Both girls are self-centred, spoiled, and often unpleasant and Agnes’s liminal position between worlds means she can do little to alter this.
There is some relief for Agnes when she visits the local cottagers, especially Nancy Brown, a kind and sensible woman who respects Agnes and enjoys her company. It is at Nancy’s cottage that Agnes first meets Mr. Weston, the new curate after hearing of his good nature. Although not dashing or handsome in a traditional sense, and certainly not rich, Agnes swiftly falls in love with Weston and pines for him in secret. When Rosalie suspects an attraction between the two, she plans to toy with Weston’s affections and break his heart, just as she has done with the rector, Mr. Hatfield. Rosalie and Matilda scheme to keep Agnes and Weston apart in the hope of tarnishing Agnes’s image and reputation in the eyes of her would-be-suitor. They are parted yet again when Agnes returns home for a short period after the death of her father. They meet for what seems the final time after a church service when Agnes resigns from her position in order to help her mother start up a small school closer to home.
Agnes throws herself into her new work and enjoys it far more than her position as a governess, but her love for Weston threatens her health and she tries to push him from her mind. Following Roaslie’s marriage to the wealthy Sir Thomas Ashby and a honeymoon tour of Europe, the young bride and new mother summons Agnes for a visit. Agnes reluctantly returns to the old neighbourhood, and whilst there is disappointed to hear of Mr. Weston’s departure. Pitying Rosalie who is stuck in a loveless marriage, Agnes returns home and unexpectedly encounters Weston whilst out walking on the sands near her home, accompanied by a former dog of the Murrays, Snap, who he adopted before leaving for his new position. Weston meets with Agnes’s mother, eventually forming a friendship with her and becoming a frequent guest at their home. The novel concludes with the marriage of Agnes and Weston, and offers a glimpse into their modest but happy future with their family.
My overall verdict? A mixed bag. Like I said, there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate about Agnes Grey and I’m so glad that I’ve finally made it all the way through. Anne’s (and Agnes’s) stance on animal rights and feelings is remarkably ahead of her time, and this is the part which resonated with me so strongly. A 19th century novel which depicts animals as sentient beings deserving of kindness and respect is nothing short of a revelation and I can’t praise Anne enough for this. The account of life as a governess is far more detailed, realistic, and unfortunately grim than that depicted in Jane Eyre. In fact, Anne’s novel makes me realise just how easy Jane had it with Adele. For a more realistic portrayal of the struggles of the governess, turn to Anne and Agnes. With regards to feminism, it is something of an umbrella term to me; it means so many different things to different people but I can certainly see why Agnes is viewed as a feminist and a woman to admire. Her courage, morality, honesty, and decency are to be commended, as is her decision to act in order to change her financial circumstances. In many respects, she is not the passive woman so often found in classic literature, but ultimately, she makes her own choices in life, and this, to me, is what feminism should be all about. However, Agnes’s mother, Alice stands out as the feminist figure of the novel. Her attitude to life, love, and loss is extraordinary, as is her final rejection of her estranged father, and her comments about whether or not she should suck up to him and make her children sorry that they were ever born.
Mr. Weston has his charms and is a perfectly acceptable romantic interest for Agnes. Indeed, I confess to finding Agnes a little dull until his arrival. To see her falling for him, and agonising over what she thinks is her unrequited love for him demonstrates that she is human and able to think, feel, and fall in love, and that there are emotions beneath her rather hard exterior. This is in stark contrast to Rosalie Murray, who taunts the men around her like prey, and doesn’t care about anybody enough to love or respect them. I like Weston’s good nature, and his abrupt yet earnest manner. In fact he’s responsible for my favourite part of the novel; I love Agnes’s reaction to Weston offering her the use of his umbrella when she says, “‘No, thank you, I don’t mind the rain'” before lamenting her lack of common sense when surprised. But Weston’s incredulous reply of, “‘But you don’t like it, I suppose?'” is just spectacular in the most understated way possible. Maybe it’s Northern English humour, I don’t know, but this is when I knew I adored him, not quite as much as Mr. Rochester, but Mr. Rochester is another story, and belongs to another story. However, there is something about the relationship between Weston and Agnes that feels a little too easy. The intended conflict was obviously the schemes of the Murray girls to keep them apart and Rosalie’s plan to seduce Weston. However, not enough time is devoted to this, and it falls a little flat on the page.
The biggest issue for me, and the reason it took me so long to get into the novel, is that nothing much happens over the course of the narrative, and what does is predictable. There are no surprises along the way: Agnes will never be an entirely successful governess, her father will die at some point in the story, Rosalie will toy with many men but will never win over Mr. Weston, and Agnes and Mr. Weston will live happily ever after. There is also very little conflict in the story to liven things up and make the reader care and invest in these characters. What little conflict there is is actually resolved in the first part of the narrative with the Grey family’s financial problems and Agnes’s trials at the Bloomfields’ house. I know the Bloomfields are an utterly appalling family, but I was quite sorry to see the back of them as they really challenged Agnes, and actually helped with her development in the world outside of her sheltered family life. I didn’t feel the same way with the Murrays, and at times it felt as though Agnes was merely plodding on in body, but not in mind, something that seemed to go against her principles and intentions when becoming a governess. But then again, maybe this was Anne’s intention and she was making a point about the position and lifestyle of the governess.
I have read reviews comparing Anne’s novel unfavourably with Jane Eyre, but they are two very different beasts. Rather than being the poor man’s Jane, I think Agnes Grey has more in common with Charlotte’s The Professor. Both narratives are full of potential but never quite live up to it. Both novels are slightly underdeveloped, as are their characters (we barely know him so do we really care when Agnes’s father dies?), their events a little too predictable, their protagonists a little dull, and any real conflict is resolved in the first part of the narrative (William’s relationship with Edward; Mademoiselle Reuter is just not enough of a threat). Just like Villette is a re-worked, fleshed out version of The Professor, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall builds on the foundations of Agnes Grey, fleshing out and developing characters, themes, and narrative technique. The parts I liked the most about Agnes Grey were actually the sections which foreshadowed what was to come in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall such as drunken, abusive husbands, loveless marriages, the attempted corruption of young Arthur (who almost becomes a Tom Bloomfield), and of course, the rights, position, and role of women in the 19th century.
For me, Agnes Grey is not quite the thing, but I do intend to re-read it in the near future to see whether my initial reaction was unfair. However, as often as I revisit The Professor, I never change my view that it too is not quite the thing. So although Agnes Grey may be “the other Brontë” novel, it is in good company with The Professor. Anne, meanwhile, will never be “the other Brontë” to me.
By Nicola F. a.k.a. The Brontë Babe.
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