I know I sound like a broken record, but this is yet another book that you will not be
able to put down until it’s finished. That’s what happens, I guess, when you possess such a wealth of great books!
It was written by the least known of the three Brontë sisters, Anne. While dwarfed in comparison with Charlotte or Emily, I wonder why, because she truly stands with the best in this extraordinary novel, published in 1847. She died very young in 1849 at age 29, just months after Emily, leaving Charlotte alone to share intimacies of their sisterhood. And that she does, included as an Introductory note, originally written as a preface for an 1850 publication of Wuthering Heights.
The three sister, at the time they began serious writing, lived much as Anne’s character, Agnes—secluded in a country setting, isolated from society and education, relying on each other and books for artistic stimulation. Charlotte writes that in 1845, she discovered poetry written by Emily, which she found remarkable. The three decided to create a book of poetry together, authored under the names Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. She goes on to tell of the rejections of publishers through which they struggled, for both the poetry and books, yet the most stringent criticism of their writings seems to have come from they themselves. In fact, the temperament which pervades this prefatory note is one of deep humility, combined with strength, courage, and determination, an obvious model for Anne’s Agnes Grey. My goodness! How shocked they would be today if they could observe the favors history has bestowed upon them! Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have certainly become staples in not only literature, but movies and television specials, and the name Brontë is certainly a household word for anyone schooled in classic literature. One can barely imagine what these women could have produced had they lived longer, or under different circumstances. But perhaps it was their circumstances that gifted them with expressing the unfathomable depths of human suffering, spirit, and purity of love that have characterized their writings and endeared them to readers for over 160 years.
Agnes Grey is a brutal exposé of the cruelty, arrogance, and wickedness of the wealthy upper class, contrasting sharply with the meek and humble personality of Agnes, who was modeled after Anne herself. Charlotte describes her:
“Anne’s character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted.”
Not only the personality of Anne is represented in Agnes, but her degrading experience as a governess, which is the subject of the novel. The blurb on the back of the Dover edition says:
“ Written with a realism that shocked critics, this biting social commentary offers a sympathetic portrait of Agnes and a moving indictment of her brutish and haughty employers.”
Raised in a household of love and respect, Agnes and her sister Mary grow up the daughters of an English country clergyman. Their mother, forbidden, then
disowned by her wealthy parents for marrying so low in the social and economic scale, never one day regrets giving up her servants and luxuries, and deeply
loved her husband through his life and death. Becoming a plain housewife was a joy, and she passed on her sense of value and priority about the important
things in life to her children. Even when the family fortune is lost, she cheerfully does her part, pays off debts one by one, and continues to love and
Agnes, who, even in her late teens is always treated as the baby, decides she wants to do her part to support the family, and is determined to become a governess. She knows languages, music, drawing, and other skills, and believes she would enjoy children. Reluctantly, her mother helps her secure a position not terribly far from home. But the pleasant and rewarding mental image of the position is quickly squelched, turning into a nightmare of rudeness, abuse, and demeaning treatment by the haughty and arrogant Bloomfields.
And as if the lack of civility of the parents isn’t bad enough, the children are worse than spoiled brats, they are nearly wicked. Tom is seven, and finds it humorous to abuse animals like baby birds, encouraged by his father. Mary Ann is six, and is stubborn and out of control, Fanny, age four, throws tantrums and spits on people and things when she doesn’t get her way. Agnes is not allowed to discipline them in any way, yet she is expected to mold them into proper children. Determined to approach them with patience and love, her attempts are mocked. She is bossed around by the children as well as the parents, and treated with less respect than the servants. And lower wages, no doubt.
In one particularly horrible scene, which takes place after she returns from Christmas holiday, the children come up to the school-room, with the purpose of “being naughty.” As Agnes tries to cajole Tom into completing one task, pinning him into a corner. Fanny grabs Agnes’s bag, spitting into it, as Tom tells her to throw it into the fire. He then orders Mary Ann to throw the desk containing all Agnes’s valuable out the window, and as Agnes lets go of Tom to save her desk, they all bolt out and run into the snow without coats, hats or boots. Of course, she is reprimanded by the parents for allowing this (remember, she is forbidden from disciplining them), and overhears Mr. Bloomfield’s mother telling Mrs. Bloomfield that Agnes was incompetent.
Fortunately, she is dismissed from that position.
Upon returning home, and still determined to support the family, she runs an ad in the newspaper with a description of her skills, and also demanding much higher pay, this time making sure that the money will be worth the hardship. She secures another position, but much farther away. The parents are much the same, but with the boys soon sent off to a regular school, she is left with two teenage girls. While still demoralizing, the situation is nowhere near as bad, and she actually comes to like Miss Murray, Rosalie, age sixteen. Miss Matilda, age fourteen, is into hunting and riding, but Rosalie is into flirting, with a penchant for deliberately hurting her suitors by leading them on, then ridiculing them with rejection. But as they say, what goes around comes around, and it certainly does to Rosalie.
Agnes stays here several years, and since she has much spare time, becomes acquainted with the squire’s renters, helping the poor, reading the Bible or other books to the sick or elderly. She goes to church with the family every Sunday, often twice with the girls who are looking for something to do, and especially since Rosalie flirts with the rector, Mr. Hatfield, arrogant and pretentious like the Murrays and many of his other parishioners. But there is one bright spot of goodness, and it is the curate, Mr. Weston, a humble man who practices what he preaches, and treats other with compassion and love.
After all the horror, misery, and personal suffering Agnes endures, this book does have a joyful ending. It is well worth reading and highly recommended.
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