Saturday, June 17, 2023

Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

by Rich Horton

My latest Victorian novel is Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey. This was Anne's first novel, published simultaneously with her sister Emily's only novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847. I had read Charlotte's first published novel, Jane Eyre, long ago, and quite liked it; and I read Wuthering Heights for a high school class, and hated it. But -- to some extent because I accepted the long held notion that Anne was the least of the three sisters as a novelist, I hadn't read either of her novelsI think this notion is less accepted these days, or, at least, Anne's novels (perhaps particularly her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) are held in much higher critical esteem now than in the past. (Perhaps this can be laid in part at the feet of Charlotte, at least in the case of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, of which she wrote it "had an unfavourable reception. At this I cannot wonder. The choice of subject was an entire mistake." Charlotte also prevented republication of Wildfell Hall after Anne's death in 1849.)

I had determined I should read Anne's work, and also Charlotte's later novels. I bought copies of both of Anne's novels, and decided to read Agnes Grey first, primarily because it is significantly shorter, at perhaps 70,000 words. I have a copy of the Oxford World's Classics edition, edited by Robert Inglesfield and Hilda Marsden, with a useful introduction, and endnotes, by Sally Shuttleworth, as well as a copy of Charlotte Brontë's somewhat notorious "Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell" (signed as by Currer Bell,) written for the second edition (1850) of Wuthering Heights/Agnes Grey.

The novel is told in first person, from Agnes' point of view. She is the younger of two surviving daughters of Richard Grey, a clergyman. Agnes' mother is from a richer family than Richard Grey's, but she was disinherited because her father disapproved of the marriage. However, they live happily enough until Richard decides to make a risky investment (out of guilt over his poor circumstances relative to those his wife grew up in) and inevitably loses all his money. Eventually the two sisters try to make some additional money to help the family make ends meet -- Mary, the elder, is a talented artist and will try to sell some paintings, and Agnes resolves to become a governess.

Her first situation is with the family of a Mr. Bloomfield, a wealthy man, though but a tradesman. There are three children, all quite young. The mother is convinced they are angels, but of course they are utterly horrible. The boy is a bully, tortures small animals, etc., while the older girl is incorrigibly lazy. Neither will attend to their lessons, and both know very well how to complain to their parents about Agnes' efforts to correct them. Both parents are quite horrible to, as are the grandmother and uncle, and before long Agnes is dismissed.

After a little while back home, Agnes determines to get another position, taking care to insist on higher pay, and on clients of a better class. The new family, the Murrays, live at the excellently named Horton Lodge, rather further from her home than she has yet been. There are four children, all somewhat older than the Bloomfield children. Mr. Murray is described as a "roystering country squire", while Mrs. Murray is a handsome woman, apparently much interested in fashion and parties. The elder Miss Murray, Rosalie, is a budding beauty of 16, a pleasant enough girl but vain and shallow. Her sister Matilda, at 14, is a hoyden, something of a tomboy, rather impolite and inconsiderate but not quite terrible. The two boys are 11 and 10 -- the elder a somewhat normal boy, though not much of a scholar, the younger being more of a piece of work, an habitual liar. But with a year or two both are bundled off to boarding school.

So most of Agnes' efforts are to educate Rosalie and Matilda. And both girls are capricious, not much interested in learning, and not willing to hew to any schedule, so that Agnes is required sometimes to be up very early, only to have them sleep in, and otherwise put to much inconvenience. Still and all, this situation proves a bit better than at the Bloomfields, and Agnes stays for a few years, and thus we see the main action of the novel.

This concerns a couple of things ... Rosalie's "coming out" and eventual marriage (with sad results); and in the interim her very unwise flirting ways with numerous local young men. Secondly, there is drama at the church: the vicar is a youngish man, very conceited and not terribly religious, and soon he gets a new curate, Mr. Weston, a poorer man, but devoted and virtuous and very religious. The vicar takes an interest in Rosalie -- but is not rich enough for either she or her mother. And, the reader soon realizes, Mr. Weston is just the man for Agnes Grey. The novel quite nicely wends it ways through various complications and misunderstandings -- Rosalie setting her cap at Mr. Weston just to be mean, Agnes and Mr. Weston both help some of the poorer and older members of the parish but sometimes this becomes awkward, and eventually Mr. Weston gets a new position, and Agnes also leaves Horton Lodge, as her charges age out and, more importantly, her father dies, and she decides to open a school with her mother.

It's a fine novel, if not a great one. Honesty forces one to admit that Agnes can be a little prosy, and rather prudish (if in response to true provocations.) Brontë's prose is just fine. Her depiction in particular of Rosalie's fate, very much driven by her character (and that of her mother) is effective, and Agnes' love story is nice. On the whole, I enjoyed the novel but didn't love it. I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a different animal, more challenging, more modern, and I will get to it sometime. 

I should add that there are very distinct autobiographical aspects to Agnes Grey, particularly as to the two governess jobs Agnes holds. Both are apparently based to some extent -- a very considerable extent, it seems, in the case of the first one -- on Anne's own experiences as a governess. (I wonder if the models for these characters read the novel and were embarrassed or enraged.)
In addition, the novel appeared at a time when the general mistreatment of governesses had become, or was becoming, something of a national issue, and this novel certainly contributed to that conversation.

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