Anne Brontë’s novels are firmly grounded in reality and the world around her. Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are narratives that forced the 19th-century reader into an uncomfortable examination of their 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, does it have the same impact today? Although novels about governesses are arguably products of their time and society, there are some, such as Jane Eyre, which seems 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.
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 made it into print a few months earlier. The novel was a success and has never been out of print since. Agnes Grey 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 around four years. A warning for those who haven’t yet read the narrative; THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD.
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 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 are 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 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.
There is plenty to enjoy and appreciate about Agnes Grey. 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. 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. 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 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.
The concept of feminism 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 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 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.
However, there is something about the relationship between Weston and Agnes that feels a little too easy. The intended conflict was 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.
There are few real 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.
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 novels are slightly underdeveloped, as are their characters, their events are a little too predictable, 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 reworked, fleshed-out version of The Professor, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall builds on the foundations of Agnes Grey, fleshing out and developing themes and narrative techniques.
In Loving Memory of Bob the Bichon (2007-2019).
A lover of life, the Brontës, and Haworth who knows that I’m just going to write because I can’t help it.
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