“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.”Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
Goodreads: Agnes Grey
When her father’s investments cause her family to fall upon hard times, young Agnes Grey determines to help by becoming a governess. She imagines that it will be “charming” to win the trust and affection of her charges and, in so doing, lead them to find instruction and virtues both pleasant and commendable. Alas, Agnes soon finds that the upper classes as well as lower have their share of faults and vices. Worked against at every turn by parents’ indulgence and her charges’ belief that they are socially superior to–and thus able to boss about or ignore–their governess, Agnes struggles to find acceptance, friendship, and happiness.
Agnes Grey is a quietly powerful tale. The emotionally even Agnes narrates the story of her time as a governess, carefully filtering her experiences to teach a moral about how various vices turn boys into violently oppressive men and girls into unhappy women. To do so, Agnes presents herself as the opposite of her employers. They are indulgent, cruel, careless, vain, and greedy. She is peaceful, humble, and pious. On the face of it, the story might seem like a lesson, a boring work of Victorian morals. However, Agnes’s barely acknowledged indignation, her wounded pride, and her somewhat snobbish sense of her own moral superiority give Agnes Grey an emotional bite as it reveals the hardships faced by governesses when they went to live among those whose social rank was equal to their own, but whose greater wealth made it easy for them to treat their governesses poorly.
The first person narration of Agnes Grey can understandably lull readers into thinking that the book is merely a cautionary tale. Agnes spends much time describing how her work as a governess turns out to be nothing like she imagined. She sets forth dreaming that her kindness and care will make her charges love her. They then will grow to love learning and virtue. Instead, Agnes finds that she is treated as socially inferior to the young people of whom she is in charge. She is given no power to punish, and the parents indulge the children’s every whim.
Fully aware that Agnes can do nothing to stop them, her charges give in to every wicked impulse they possess. A young boy delights in torturing animals. A young woman gratifies her vanity by flirting shamelessly with every man she sees. Agnes shows how the boy will grow up believing violence against inferior creatures makes him manly–he will learn to be violent against the weak (women and the lower classes) when he is a man. And the young lady who is so heartless will throw her life away on a morally debased lover because she desires his title and property. She will soon learn that money cannot make one happy. The upper classes see themselves as superior, but they are no better than anyone else.
But, even though Anne Brontë clearly wishes to instruct her readers to love the good and to hate the bad, Agnes Grey is much more than a lesson on how to raise children. Agnes’s first person narration allows readers to see the emotional toll her work takes on her. Even though she is from a “good” family, her relative impoverishment means that her employers see her as an inferior. But, she is not the equal of the servants, either. She occupies a nebulous space, where the servants ignore her and her employers and their upper class acquaintances talk over her, refuse to look at her, and often forget her. She has no friends, no one in whom to confide, no one who cares. Her loneliness and the bitterness it engenders sometimes come to the surface of her story, despite her efforts to illustrate herself as a calm individual who submits to the will of God. Agnes wants happiness–and she is mad God has denied it to her.
Agnes Grey shocked society when it was first published, because reviewers could not believe that the upper classes could be as morally depraved as Brontë depicted them, nor that they could treat their governesses so poorly. But Agnes Grey is based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences. As such, the story gains even more power as it voices Agnes’s despair over finding her place in the world, a place where she is known, appreciated, and loved. The story seems calm on the surface. But, just underneath, Agnes–and Anne–are shouting against the system. The system that raises and celebrates violent men, traps women in unhappy marriages, and treats governesses more like automatons than like humans. Agnes Grey may read to some contemporary readers as the musings of an overly religious writer. But Brontë’s religion calls into question the values of her society and, in doing so, makes Agnes Grey a rather radical novel.