I’m from Yorkshire: it was probably about time I read something by one of the Brontës. So here’s the first novel by the youngest of the sisters, for which Anne drew on her own experiences as a governess.
When her family falls on hard times, cleric’s daughter Agnes Grey – who has so far been sheltered in life by her parents – determines to become a governess, and is excited at the prospect:
How delightful it would be to be a governess! […] And then, how charming to be intrusted with the care and education of children! Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task…I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections… (p. 9)
Over the course of the novel, Brontë vividly dismantles these rosy preconceptions. Agnes’s first governess job is teaching the Broomfield children, including seven-year-old Tom, who loves torturing birds; and Mary Ann, who will scream out loud whenever Agnes tries to instil the slightest bit of discipline in her, knowing full well that it will bring Mrs Broomfield running, wondering what is going on. Of course, the parents see nothing of what’s really going on, and place the blame for their children’s poor education squarely on Agnes’s shoulders.
Working for a family of higher social status is no better: theMurrayslikewise take only the most superficial interest in their children’s education, and sideline Agnes. Perhaps the worst of theMurraychildren is Rosalie, a ghastly, vain creature who’s in the process of entering adult society, and revels in her own loveliness:
And now, Miss Grey [says Rosalie], attend to me; I’m going to tell you about the ball. […] There were two noblemen, three baronets, and five titled ladies!—and other ladies and gentlemen innumerable. The ladies, of course, were of no consequence to me, except to put me in a good humour with myself, by showing how ugly and awkward most of them were; and the best, mama told me,–the most transcendent beauties among them, were nothing to me. (p. 75)
Well aware of how attractive she is, Rosalie has no interest in love – she’s determined to marry the local lord, purely for money and prestige, and will happily manipulate others in the pursuit of that aim. Rosalie also has no time for the poor cottagers on the estate (except to the extent that visiting them allows her to massage her own ego). In these characteristics and attitudes, Rosalie stands in contrast with the stoical, moral Agnes, whose attraction to the curate Mr Weston (the only character besides Agnes to look beneath the surface and show concern for the cottagers, and hence her equal in temperament).
One thing that strikes me about the characterisation in Agnes Grey (and I don’t whether this is just me, whether it’s down to the passage of time, or whether it has been the same since Brontë’s day) is that the secondary characters – especially Rosalie Murray and Tom Broomfield – often feel more vivid than Agnes herself, despite her being the narrator. This is effective in terms of those secondary characters – their vividness makes them attractive, but their behaviour does the opposite, which creates a nice tension – but it seems to unbalance the novel as a whole.
Agnes Grey is a strong portrait of its protagonist’s difficulties, and her employers’ attitudes; but I leave it expecting to find stronger works elsewhere in the Brontë sisters’ bibliographies. Which should I read next?
This book fulfils the Classics category of the Mixing It Up Challenge 2012.