Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Agnes Grey

Much prettier than my ugly old copy
Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

I just love Anne Bronte.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is fantastic.  I read Agnes Grey years ago, but I'd forgotten a lot about it, so I thought I would pick it up again.  Lovely!

The story is narrated by Agnes, who is the younger daughter of a middle-class clergyman who loses all his savings in an investment gone wrong.  Agnes decides to contribute her bit by becoming a governess, which is about the only work she can do.  She first goes to a household with younger children and no order or discipline whatsoever.  Her difficult position is vividly described; as a governess she is expected to teach and discipline the children through some sort of magic.  She has no power or authority and at any time the children can run to their parents and get her into trouble while escaping any consequences of their own.  The family looks down on her, but as a gentlewoman she cannot socialize with the servants.  She is alone.

Her next family is very nearly as spoiled, but the children are older and the work is not as physically exhausting.  Here, Agnes can try to exert an improving influence by setting a good example.  Her charges need it too!  They are nice enough girls, but one is too focused on flirting and the other only thinks about horses.  Neither is in the least considerate of others.  Agnes does her best and tries to cope with her loneliness as best she can.  Then she meets the new curate--at last, someone who is her equal.  Agnes is really honest about her feelings and it is both neat to read and also almost hilarious to see a crush so perfectly described--in delicate Victorian terms.

I thought the elder Greys' relationship was really interesting.  Mrs. Grey is held up as a perfect Victorian wife and mother; having originally married below her station for love and been cut off without a shilling, she cheerfully embraces life in the middle class.  When they become downright poor, she again tackles the situation with courage and determination, never complaining or wishing aloud for the lost fortune.  (This reminds me of a moment in By the Shores of Silver Lake, when Ma proudly tells a neighbor that Mary, who has lost her sight, has never once repined.  Digest that for a minute, realize that it constitutes heroism, and then we'll move on.)  Mr. Grey tends to worry about what his wife has given up, and unfortunately he allows it to become something of an obsession that affects his health and ability to deal with their situation.  He makes things harder for himself and his family, but they all still love each other and are written as, mostly, a model family that is affectionate, orderly, and virtuous.

This is an overtly moral novel.  Agnes is didactic and draws a portrait of stark opposites and their just deserts.  Characters who are honest, kind, thrifty, orderly, and devout are opposed to others who are snobbish, proud, uncontrolled, spoiled, and selfish.  Guess who gets a happy family life?  It's didactic, but also (I think) quite true a lot of the time.



The novel specifies no location, but Anne Bronte based the story on her own experiences, which took place in Yorkshire, so that's where it goes.  Yorkshire, it turns out, is huge.  It's gigantic.  I'm wondering if I should count it as three because it's divided into three ridings, which apparently count as counties somehow, but not really.  Well, that's up to o and not my problem. :)

3 comments:

Eva said...

I love Anne too! :) I wish she'd been more prolific, as she's definitely my favourite Bronte sister. I know I should like them all, but for some reason I just can't connect with Jane Eyre. Maybe I should try Villette.

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I've still never read anything by the littlest Bronte sister. I think I started Tenant of Wildfell Hall and wasn't mad about it and gave it up (like a pansy!). Gotta get back to her one of these days -- everyone says she's the most feminist of the three.

Jean said...

Tenant has a slow start for sure. But I love it. And I think yes, she's the most vocally feminist. Both of her novels can be classified as such, whereas it's kind of subtle and debatable about Jane Eyre, and WH is just whacked.