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 train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day!
To teach the young idea how to shoot!
|Governess, Companion, and Housekeeper|
adverts from The Times, 1845 - 1847.
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.