Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is an excellent introduction to the work of the third Bronte sister. Written in secret when she was working as a governess, it’s an unromantic portrayal of the Victorian governess reveals much about the daily life of these women. Less famous than Jane Eyre, but more than deserving of your attention. And here’s why.
“All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”
Thus begins Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte. This self-deprecating tone sets the reader up for the rest of the novel. But do not be fooled, Agnes Grey is neither trivial, nor bothersome. I find that there’s something delightfully indulgent about reading Victorian Literature which no other literary period quite matches.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy contemporary fiction. But give me a novel with the decadent approach to prose that this sentence suggests any day. With sentences that undulate across the page and prose that takes its time to paint a picture in your mind. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is a brilliant example of this.
This book is neither so long that it’s off putting, nor so short that it scrimps on word count. Anne Bronte’s writing is matter of fact yet lyrical. And in this, her first novel, we begin to glimpse the first inkling of her masterpiece The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
“Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister whose family is in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment; desperate to prove herself to a capable woman she becomes a governess. Here Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children, how wealth can corrupt morals and grapples with whether happiness and love are unattainable for women like her.”
A strikingly modern classic
“The genuineness of texture and dialogue in Agnes Grey is the product of minute observations, focused by a fine authorial irony and delicate power of understatement.” Steven Davies.
A glance at a plot outline suggests a slightly tedious tale of a Victorian Governess. Unloved and underappreciated by everyone around her. However, it is far more than that. It is here that Anne’s opinions, on the role of women, on the dangers of a hasty and unequal marriage, for example begin to develop in Agnes Grey.
I was sorry for her; […] amazed, disgusted at her heartless vanity; I wondered why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others.
Anne Bronte really deserves more praise for her quiet, minute character study. It exposes the thin veneer of those who have all the money and manner but none of the true goodness of spirit. I was struck, when reading this, just how strange the middle class Victorian family dynamic was. The parents are disinterested and the children raised by Governesses with no power to inform or educate them. This uncomfortable relationship is stressed in the strange role Agnes must inhabit, invisible at best and put-upon at most.
Despite this, Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is not a depressing book. Agnes has a wry sense of humour which draws the reader in. Additionally I found the budding relationship between Agnes and Edward Weston to be adorable.
From an underappreciated genius
“What a fool you must be,” said my head to my heart, or my sterner to my softer self.”
Agnes Grey was first published in 1847 and received a modest critical reception. A second edition was published in 1850 but, by this point, its honest tone was considered coarse and vulgar by some, and moralising by others. Due to this, and the premature death of its author, the novel largely fell out of favour with 19th century readers. During the 20th century it underwent somewhat of a revival, with author George More praising it as containing “all the qualities of Jane Austen and other qualities”. Despite this renewed enthusiasm for its wry, understated style it again languished in obscurity for decades.
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is a testament to all the ways Anne differs from her arguably more famous sisters. It is packed with subtle irony, subdued passion and beautiful prose that will stay with you long after you finish the last page. Luckily for us Anne Bronte and Agnes Grey are undergoing a well-deserved resurgence in popularity. Long may it continue.