Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë.

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Agnes Grey was the first of two novels by Anne Brontë . Published in December 1847, it is at once a novel, a polemic, a love story, an autobiography, and a documentary detailing the lives of governesses in the mid-19th Century. It is both sombre and witty, gently written, yet, in allowing the facts to speak for themselves, the fury is subtlety but undeniably contained in this relatively short and powerful novel. It is, I believe, one of the finest books ever written.

Brontë tells the story of Agnes Grey, a young woman like herself, with a modest upbringing in northern England; her father a minister, and her mother who, by marrying her father, was disinherited, and her sister, Mary, (the other siblings, like Anne's, died young) who is a skilled artist. Her father, feeling guilty at what his wife has forsaken in marrying him, makes an unwise investment in a merchant's sea voyage, however the ship sinks and with it what little money the family had. Mary is able to sell her drawings and paintings to increase the family's income, however Agnes, feeling that she has no other talent, decides to become a governess.
How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mama and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed. And then, how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children! Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: the clear remembrance of my own thoughts and feelings in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser. I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections; how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid, and console the afflicted; how to make Virtue practicable, Instruction desirable, and Religion lovely and comprehensible.
–Delightful task!
To teach the young idea how to shoot! 
To train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day! 
Governess, Companion, and Housekeeper
adverts from The Times, 1845 - 1847.
Agnes is naive, the baby of the family who is treated like a child, but she wants desperately to help her family and make her way in the world, and so she seeks employment, working first for the nouveau riche Bloomfield family (based on the Ingham family, for whom Brontë worked in the late 1830s) with their over-indulged children Tom, Mary Ann, Fanny, and Harriet, and then for genteel, worldly Murray family (based on Robinson family, for whom Anne worked for in the early 1840s), Rosalie and Matilda (the boys, John and Charles, have been sent to school). Each family brings great trials for Agnes, suffering first under the abject cruelty of the Bloomsfields, then with the selfish, vain, and lazy Murrays. Throughout, Agnes is trapped in a world between ages and class, not a child but not treated as an adult, middle class, and yet not quite as she is working for the middle classes. This lack of ability to neatly categorise her means she is not at home with either the servants or the family, and thus she is effectively invisible. Anne Brontë writes,
As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me or across; and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy–as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so. It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were - though her young ladies might choose to have her with them, and even condescend to converse with her, when no better company were at hand. 
Agnes Grey is described as a kind of bildungsroman, a 'coming of age' novel, though the character, owing to the circumstances, stagnates. Agnes in fact, through much of the novel, spends much time alone crying (the scenes of which are treated with resignation, though without self-pity, and sometimes even with a degree of humour). Agnes is isolated, oppressed, though ever hopeful. Indeed her character does not develop in her employment, this does not mean that it is not strong or likeable. It is not until she leaves her employment as a governess that she grows. Agnes is a beautiful character, kind, honest, and virtuous, but believably so, and without being irritating or stupid. She's defiant, she does not accept cruelty and immortality, nor will she stand by and watch it unfold in front of her. Like the prose style, she is gentle and she is honest, and to me she is one of the dearest characters in English literature.

Anne Brontë is one of the greatest novelists in literature. She died at the age of twenty-nine, too young, far too young, and her great talent that was so clear so very early in her novels could never develop and never realise its full potential. One of the tragedies of English Literature: that we can never see where this might have gone. I am deeply and eternally grateful for Agnes Grey, and for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I suppose they're made yet more precious knowing not only that there could have been more, but also because there could have been less. I love Anne Brontë's beauty, power, defiance, and clarity. Her pure vision seems almost effortlessly transferred to page. Her two novels are exceptional, but if you haven't read any Anne Brontë, I suggest that Agnes Grey might be a very good start.

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Further reading

Comments

  1. I read both of Anne's novels last year and, I have to say, she became my favourite Bronte overnight. Before that, I'd always gravitated towards Emily on the basis of her poetry, but Anne's prose and ability to capture my attention and hold it was excellent. It would've been so beautiful to have just one more novel from her.

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    1. I think she's my favourite as well.

      Not read much of the Bronte poetry - just little bits here and there. Something to work on! :)

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  2. One of the finest books ever written is high praise indeed! I've had this on my shelf for probably over 5 years, still unread. I think I ought to read it now.

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    1. I think you ought to, too :p

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  3. I adore Anne Bronte. The woman had guts. :-)

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  4. I quite loved this when I read it last year....I have her other novel on some challenge lists for this year. I'm very much looking forward to it-I have a feeling that I'm going to love it.

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    1. I hope you do. I'm planning on re-reading it and writing about it fairly soon - it's a wonderful novel, there's so much to say about it! :)

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  5. O, I would like to comment on your post but I am so impressed with the post itself. You need to write reviews for a living. Really!

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    1. Thank you :D That's very kind of you to say so :)

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  6. I think her 2nd novel is much better, but I like Anne Bronte as well. It's a pity that people, when saying "Bronte sisters", only think of Charlotte and Emily.
    Anyway, I have a book called "A Companion to Victorian Literature& Culture" and have just discovered that IT DOESN'T MENTION ANNE BRONTE AT ALL. Not even once! At least her name's not in the index. Unbelievable.

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    1. Are you kidding?! WHAT!? That's heinous! I'm really shocked!

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    2. I know, right? It's this one: http://www.blackwellreference.com/public/uid=73/book?show=subscribed&id=g9780631218760_9780631218760
      I can understand why she's not included in the Norton anthology, but this one is specifically about Victorian literature!

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    3. I'm still horrified! Maybe it was a mistake? I see it was published in 1999 - I was hoping it was an early and sloppy edition one sometimes comes across.

      Oh dear....

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    4. Here's a picture of the index:
      http://s29.postimg.org/ub4ss2kmf/7b61dc92607decd645b08453594a65b2c9e45745f586f562.jpg
      (no virus)

      Btw there's an interesting discussion on Beyond Eastrod:
      http://beyondeastrod.blogspot.no/2015/04/give-me-just-little-more-time-plans-for.html
      I guess you could join and write about Emile Zola, perhaps Dostoyevsky, and some other writers.

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    5. Oh dear. Oh well, poor Anne. :(

      I'll look at that discussion, cheers :)

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  7. I adore Anne Bronte and it irritates me that she is always portrayed as the lesser writer than her siblings. All three had the gift of genius. Agnes Grey is my favourite of her two published novels, it's beautifully structured and I believe she wrote the happy ending she wanted for herself but sadly didn't get. Enjoyed your review.

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    1. It annoys me too - I don't know why or how it happened that she's "the other one".

      Glad you liked my review :)

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