Goodreads: Agnes Grey
Feeling that her family treats her like a child, Agnes Grey determines to make her own way in the world by becoming a governess. However, her idealistic vision of molding the characters of children is quickly shattered. In her positions, she is often denied authority and thwarted in her efforts to teach her charges virtue. Additionally, she finds herself increasingly isolated as her position raises her above the servants but keeps her inferior to the families for whom she works. Still, Agnes quietly perseveres in doing right.
Anne Brontë tends to be overlooked when the works of her sisters are discussed. In recent years, however, there have been attempts to revive her reputation, especially in reference to her work The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of a woman who leaves her alcoholic husband. As critics begin to reexamine the feminist undertones of Anne’s works, undertones so far ahead of their time that even Charlotte refused to have Tenant republished, it seems fitting to return to Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey.
In many ways, Agnes Grey seems a quiet and unassuming novel–and yet it made audiences uncomfortable in its own day. The titular character begins work as a governess in two different wealthy households. In the first, she is prevented from punishing the children and so cannot prevent their misbehavior. In the second, she is instructed never to cross the wills of her charges, leading the eldest to become a shameless flirt who delights in hurting men to cater to her vanity and the second to curse and run about in the stables with the male servants. Rendered ineffective by the directions of her morally decadent social superiors, Anne becomes increasingly unhappy and struggles to remain patient, humble, and cheerful.
The novel does not only critique the morals of the wealthy families but also examines the unfeeling treatment of women who occupy a nebulous space in society. As a governess, Agnes can neither become friends with the servants nor enter into intimate conversation with her families or their guests. She becomes all but invisible and mute, her small pleasures denied to her by those who have her at their mercy and her attempts to instill virtue in her charges silenced. At night, she has only dreams of a certain upright Mr. Weston to console her–but Agnes can scarcely believe he would ever glance her way.
There is an undeniable sense that Anne Brontë writes of her own experiences in these pages, making the isolation, the heartbreak, and the impotency all feel keenly personal. Well might her contemporaries have felt shamed, for she does not hold back in describing the callous carelessness of the upper classes in their pursuit of their own pleasures and vanities. Women and social inferiors are simply casualties of the whims of their “betters.” Brontë ‘s perceptiveness, her deft characterization, and her fearless social commentary all make Agnes Grey a remarkable read–one that should not be overshadowed by her sisters’ works.