Home > 19th Century, Book Club, British Literature, Brontë Sisters, Classics, Feminism > Agnes is more black and white than grey

Agnes is more black and white than grey

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

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.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

  1. April 1, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I remember being left a bit disappointed by Agnes Grey when I read it a long time ago. It felt so bland compared to others of the Bronte sisters’ books and female characters and it certainly is one the most bland of the numerous governesses they came up with (I didn’t much like Lucy Snow in Villette though she was a more determined personality). At the same time, could it be that, unlike her sisters, Anne Bronte simply wrote about a real-life, standard governess, and that’s why she sounds a bit boring? I like the doormat description.

    • April 1, 2014 at 10:55 pm

      You’re making a good point there. Perhaps Agnes is dull but more true-to-life, like Eilis in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Our real lives aren’t that “romanesque”, are they? (what’s the English word for romanesque, I wonder)

      Personnally, I dislike Wuthering Heights, Cathy and Heathcliff get on my nerves. So if Anne writes differently from Emily, that’s good. Characters in The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall have more substance and are less binar than the ones in Agnes Grey.

  2. April 3, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    I’m glad that it isn’t among the unread Brontë books I own. I’ve got Villette, but I think it’s very good. This does not sound like a book I would enjoy. The cruelty against animals would be particularly horrible for me. I’m glad you reviewed it. I always wondered whether I should read it. I didn’t expect this to have a happy ending, reading the first parts of the review. It doesn’t seem fitting.

    • April 4, 2014 at 8:12 pm

      Cruelty against animals is always a good thermometer’s of someone’s humanity. Tom tortures a bird: it’s unbearable. I’d be horrified if one of my children had the idea to torture a bird like this. I’d question my parenting abilities.
      I didn’t expect the happy ending at all.

      • October 12, 2014 at 7:06 pm

        I can’t believe it. Why on earth did I forget this review? I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a few months I wouldn’t have read the book if I had remembered it. It was exactly like I imagined it, possibly worse. The end is so unrealistic.

        • October 12, 2014 at 7:47 pm

          We can’t remember all the reviews we read, Caroline. I’m sorry you forgot this one in particular, it would have saved you time.
          The ending is so unexpected given the tone of the book.
          Jane Eyre has more spunk, that’s why I like her better. Here, it’s like Helen Burns has become a governess.

  3. April 3, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    I think the Brontes depicted the plight of women who had to work for their supper well–differently from The Odd Women, but there’s that invisibility to these women. Jane Eyre goes down that path too, but she’s got some principles. I think the Brontes couldn’t help the romance part.

    • April 15, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Sorry for the very slow answer but somehow I missed your comment.
      Jane Eyre wasn’t as isolated as Agnes. She had Mrs Fairfax to talk to. (just noticed Mr Rochester had a Jane and a Fairfax in his house. Another reference to Austen?)

  4. April 13, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    The position between the family and the servants sounds the most interesting part. Not of the servant class, but no longer of the middle class entirely either. A precarious limbo.

    Shame about the ending though.

    • April 13, 2014 at 5:54 pm

      It is the most interesting part. She goes from being someone in her home village (the minister’s daughter) to being treated as if she were transparent. To be honest, I never realised how lucky Miss Taylor (in Emma by Jane Austen) was to marry Mr Weston. I never imagined how precarious her situation was now that Emma was a grownup.

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