Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte
Of the astonishing Bronte sisters, Anne, the youngest, is the forgotten one. She is the one you struggle to remember in a pub quiz. Of the three she was the only one who held down a job, living a miserable existence as a governess, one of the few occupations open to an unmarried woman in reduced circumstances, and the only one to be buried away from Haworth, in Scarborough.
For many these days the upstairs-downstairs world of 18th and 19th century England has a strange fascination – witness the inexplicable success of Downton Abbey. The governess, though, existed in a sort of mezzanine world, not good enough to spend much time with her betters (natch) but too good to be hobnobbing with the servants. The result was that the governess often led a miserable and isolated life, at the mercy of the spoilt brats she was supposed to keep out of mischief, if not actually educate.
Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is autobiographical and tells the story and struggles of the eponymous heroine as, in order to make a financial contribution to her hard-pressed family after the death of her father, the parson Richard Grey, she finds employment as a governess firstly to the Bloomfields and then the Murrays. The Bloomfields were horrid brats and led Agnes a merry dance, forcing her at times to restrain them physically. The Murray sisters were a notch up the social scale. Rosalie, the elder, has ideas above her station, enjoys flirting and makes a socially improving disastrous marriage which she instantly regrets. The younger, Matilda, is besotted with her horses, wanders around with a whip in hand, swearing like a trooper.
Agnes is a rather passive voice relating the trials and tribulations that her charges bring on her. Although we are urged to see this as an early feminist novel – it is about a woman and written from the woman’s perspective but that doesn’t mean it is feminist in my book – you can’t help thinking that Agnes is a bit too prim and proper, a little too whiny and annoyingly infallible. She is the epitome of a vicar’s daughter. Her beacon of hope is the kind, worthy curate, Mr Weston, with whom she eventually settles down. But it is not a tempestuous love affair, merely one acknowledged by the bumping of elbows together. It is an interesting period piece about the role of a woman trying to make a living for herself but I think it would be wrong to read too much into it.
The style is easy and the book is well paced. There is one unsettling image. Tom Bloomfield has brought a nest containing some small birds into the garden and is proceeding to torture them, much as a cat does with its prey. Agnes puts them out of their suffering by dashing them to death with a large stone. But it is hard to say we get to know Agnes by the end of the book, what made her tick. She is slightly aloof from what is going on around her. Nonetheless, it is an interesting read and confirms what a literary powerhouse the parsonage in Haworth really was.
Anne’s relative obscurity is partly down to her big sister, Charlotte. Agnes Grey was accepted by publishers whereas Charlotte’s first effort, The Professor, was rejected but Anne was unfortunate in her choice of publisher and sales were poor. Charlotte’s second effort, Jane Eyre also dealt with the life of a governess in a rather more vigorous and romanticised style. It sold like wildfire and whilst Charlotte’s publisher took over the publication of the other sisters’ works and they were republished in 1847, Anne was destined to remain in her elder sister’s shade, not helped by Charlotte’s decision, after Anne’s death, not to allow the republication of the Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Sibling rivalry, eh?