Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, published in 1847, is a deeply moral novel about a young woman, a governess and her experiences working for two families in Victorian England. Agnes is the younger daughter of an impoverished clergyman. Her parents had married against her mother’s family’s wishes and when their fortune was wrecked Agnes determines to help out by working as a governess.
The first family she works for are the Bloomfields. Mrs Bloomfield tells Agnes her children are clever and very apt to learn. In fact they are terrible children, utterly spoilt and cruel. I found their brutality shocking, the more so since Anne was writing from her own experiences. One of the most vivid scenes is where Agnes kills a brood of nestlings to prevent Tom Bloomfield from torturing them.
Agnes is treated like a servant, rather than as a governess. She has no authority over the children and is not allowed to discipline them much as she would like to. Her attempts to improve their wild behaviour by quoting Bible texts and moral instruction have no effect on the children’s behaviour. As Agnes’s mother has told her that people do not like to be told of their children’s faults she kept silent about them and despite her best efforts she failed to make any impression on them:
But either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.
Her second post with the Murrays is little better – her charges are two teenage girls, who are just as spoilt as the younger children, wilful and determined to have their own way and two younger boys who are rough and unruly. Fortunately the boys are soon packed off to school and she only has to cope with sisters.
Both families are portrayed as wealthy, snobbish and totally lacking in any regard for Agnes. The only glimmer of hope comes through her friendship with Edward Weston, but even then Rosalie, the older daughter, is determined to make him fall in love with her. But surely Edward will not be deceived by Rosalie’s scheming ways? Agnes is gentle and self-effacing, never making her feelings known and it seems as though she is destined for a miserable life. Although she loves Edward she is totally unable to give any indication of her feelings towards him. Things seem to get even worse after her father’s death and she has to leave the Murrays – and Edward. However, Snap the dog plays his part in bringing some joy into Agnes’s life.
Agnes Grey vividly portrays the class distinctions of Victorian society, the position of women in that society from both the working and the middle classes through the first-person narrative. Above all it gives a very clear picture of the life of a governess, with all its loneliness, frustrations, insecurities and depressions. The characters, for the most part are well drawn, (the minor characters are one-dimensional) and I liked Agnes’s unspoken thoughts, eg. when told to go to the schoolroom immediately because the young ladies were waiting for her she thinks, ‘Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess.!!!’
Reading Agnes Grey has made me keen to re-read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for one thing to compare the two governesses. It’s been years since I read Jane Eyre, and my memory is that it is a much more dramatic novel (certainly it is much longer).
- Format: Kindle Edition
- File Size: 449 KB
- Print Length: 155 pages
- Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0812967135
- Publisher: Modern Library (18 Dec 2007)
- Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
- Source: My own copy
- My Rating: 3/5