A serendipitous confluence of two events led me to read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey this January, one of two novels penned by the youngest of the Bronte siblings. First, my daughter brought a bunch of books home recently that she was finished with and she’d thought I’d enjoy. This novel was among them. Second, I have resolved to read more in this new year. Because I’m a freelance editor, working on between 40 and 50 novels a year, my recreation in off hours is more likely to be doing crossword puzzles or watching television. Anything but reading more novels! I’ve missed losing myself in a good book for pure pleasure, though, so I swiped Agnes Grey off the to-be-read pile and gave it a whirl.
At first, I thought this slim book was going to be a Jane Eyre without the romance, without a single moment to relieve the drudgery and bad fortune of its protagonist, a daughter of a clergyman, whose mother was disinherited by her upper class father when she married beneath her station, and whose sister helps the family’s income by drawing. Agnes proposes to provide financial aid by becoming a governess. The book proved to be more than that grim story.
Agnes’s first job is with a family of psychopaths. They’re not described in those terms, but the children seem to take pleasure in tormenting and killing animals, and the parents tolerate the behavior with more satisfaction than rationalization. Good news for Agnes — she doesn’t work out well there, and the family lets her go but promises not to damage her with bad recommendations.
On to the next household, the Murrays, where she spends her days trying to teach the vain and flirty Rosalie and the boyish and bad-talking Matilda. In the course of her stay, she meets Rev. Weston, a new curate at the village church, and, you guessed it, falls for him in the way Victorian governesses do. That is to say, she meets him on walks sometimes or talks to him after church in some complex coded language about the weather, religion, villagers, anything but how they seem to like each other.
Eventually, Rosalie marries a rich aristocrat, as she and her mother wished, Agnes goes back to her home to help her now-widowed mother set up a school, and Rev. Weston reenters the pages near the end of the story. For a spoiler on how things work out, look no further than the opening line of Chapter 38 of Anne’s sister Charlotte’s most famous novel.
As I desired, this book swept me away, and I enjoyed many hours lost in its tale. Here’s the rub, though: through my modern eyes, I viewed some of the characters a little differently than I suspect Anne Bronte wanted me to see them. I suspect she wanted us to identify and sympathize with poor Agnes as she tried to instill lofty and pious thoughts in her charges, as she tried to move Rosalie beyond vanity to an appreciation of the interior world. While I certainly cheered on her efforts, I have to admit that sometimes I wondered if Rosalie wasn’t so obstinate because Agnes did seem at times to demonstrate a “holier than thou” attitude. Rosalie could be thoughtless, selfish, and sometimes even cruel, but she knew what she wanted and she went after it. Unfortunately, what she really wanted was something no woman of her age was allowed to contemplate:
“I shouldn’t greatly object to being Lady Ashby of Ashby Park, if I must marry; if I could be always young, I would be always single. I should like to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.”
In other words, she wanted to live as independently as a man. These are sentiments, by the way, expressed in a different way in Jane Eyre, Anne’s sister’s great novel, when Jane declares her independence, not wanting to be the mistress of Rochester, even though no one was around to scold her for such an act:
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
Jane wants to be independent, too. Both she and Rosalie of Agnes Grey yearn for the same thing: to lead their own lives, independent of a man, only enriched by one should they so choose him.
In Agnes Grey, Rosalie’s sister, Matilda, too seems to prefer the activities of men of the era, everything from riding to hunting to cursing a blue streak just as the stable hands did. These are aspirations good Agnes Grey (or Anne Bronte?) doesn’t seem to understand or approve of.
To add to the picture of an over-scrupulous Ms. Grey, there’s her refusal to congratulate a buoyant Rosalie on her wedding day to the above-mentioned Sir Ashby. “I cannot congratulate you,” says stuffy Agnes, “till I know if this change is really for the better.”
Keep in mind that Agnes is supposed to be the good one here.
As it turns out, Rosalie does change, asking Agnes to visit her at Ashby Park, confessing to being lonely since her husband has contrived to keep her in the country rather than in London where she seems to have outshone him. She suggests in a letter to Agnes that her former governess could fill the same position for her own newly born daughter and raise her in a manner that will, essentially, correct the flaws of her frivolous parents. Self-awareness has dawned, and in a far more cheerful manner than Agnes herself is prone to exhibit. So, again, who’s the better woman?
I loved that ambiguity about Agnes Grey, even if Anne Bronte didn’t intend it. It’s fascinating to read the thoughts of a spiritual woman trying to be a good Christian (there’s a moving passage where a villager Agnes visits asks her to read the Bible passage about God being love), surrounded by girls just a few years younger than she is whose contemplations run to material things, yet who are not without redeeming qualities, as Rosalie exhibits.
In fact, one of the more fascinating passages to me in the tale relates how Rosalie conspires to flirt with Rev. Weston to a degree that she seeks him to fall in love with her. She keeps Agnes from any encounters with the clergyman during this little game, and it would seem cruel except for one question: Was Rosalie trying to force Agnes to stop being such a prissy sort and go after the man she wants…just as Rosalie does with the aristocrat she eventually snares?
I’ve written this little review before reading a single syllable of analysis of this novel by literature experts, but I heartily recommend it to fans of Jane Eyre and Victorian literature in general.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist. She has written a retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre called Sloane Hall. It was one of only 14 books featured on a Simon & Schuster blog on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth.