Friday, 10 May 2013

Book Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
The nineteenth century saw the rise of some female writers whose work has a very prominent place among the classics of literature today. There will be few who haven’t ever heard of Jane Austen (1775-1817). That George Eliot (1819-1880) was the male pen-name of Mary Ann Evans is a fact already less universally known  as I was amazed to see in a literature forum only recently. And then, there are the Brontë sisters Charlotte (1816-1855), Emily (1818-1848) and last, but not least Anne who is the youngest and least noted of the three.

Anne Brontë was born in Thornton in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, in January 1820 and grew up a few kilometres away at Haworth Parsonage (housing the Brontë Parsonage Museum today) where her father was the curate. She worked as a governess for almost six years, before returning home in 1845. The following year she and her sisters published a volume of poems under the pen-names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell that sold poorly. Then the sisters set out to write novels. Anne Brontë produced Agnes Grey that came out in 1847 (together with Emily’s Wuthering Heights), a few months after Charlotte’s Jane Eyre that had in fact been finished after Anne’s novel. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, appeared in 1848 and was such a success that it was sold out within six weeks. Today it is considered as one of the first feminist novels because it branded social and legal realities of women living in Victorian England. In May 1849 – a few months after her brother Branwell and her sister Emily – Anne Brontë died in Scarborough, United Kingdom, from pulmonary tuberculosis. 

Agnes Grey is a quiet novel, as quiet as are its title-giving heroine and its writer who put much of her own experience as a governess in two families and of her personality into it. In fact, there are many parallels between the novel and Anne Brontë’s life. From the start the book has been criticized (even by her sister Charlotte) for the lack of an intriguing plot because unlike in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre or Emily’s Wuthering Heights nothing much happens. There are no highly emotional scenes, no melodramatic turns of events, no dreadful secrets being revealed. Anne Brontë just tells the story of an average governess striving to make her living in a socially accepted way. 

In the early Victorian Period Agnes Grey as the well-educated daughter of a poor English clergyman doesn’t have many options to build herself a future. If she is lucky, she can find a husband who doesn’t care for a dowry, but in the beginning of the novel the girl has little hope for that to happen. In the meantime she is compelled to stay with her parents and live at their expense. Her elder sister Mary has a gift for painting and can financially support the family selling her sketches. The only option for Agnes Grey is to become a governess or a teacher although her family doesn’t like the idea. The eighteen-year-old is inexperienced and highly sensitive, but determined to go. 

First Agnes Grey takes up a position as a governess with the Bloomfields of Wellwood House. However, she is unable to manage the unruly three children aged between four and seven because she isn’t allowed to chide or punish them and is dismissed after less than a year. A few months later Agnes Grey finds another position as a governess to the Murrays at Horton Lodge. The girls are older, fourteen and sixteen, and therefore giving Agnes Grey less of a hard time, but their morals are very different from hers. The elder sister only thinks of amusing herself, flirting and making a good match, while the younger sister is a tomboy interested in nothing but riding and hunting. 

When Agnes Grey’s father dies, she quits her position to set up a school together with her mother because now they can’t stay at the parsonage and need to make a living. It seems as if a quiet and somewhat contented future lay before mother and daughter, yet the reward for their hardships – the true happy end – is still to come in the person of the young philanthropic vicar Edward Weston, the former curate of Horton whom Agnes Grey met while working for the Murrays. 

Admittedly, the plot of Agnes Grey is plain and at least as regards the love stories of the members of the Grey family idealistic, thus a bit unrealistic, too. The more interesting aspects of the novel certainly lie in the subtle observations of the narrating protagonist who for sure is a highly-sensitive introvert of the kind that rarely appears in literature and that to my experience is so easily misunderstood by the less sensitive, more extravert majority. Anne Brontë really painted a very lively picture of her world, and not a very flattering one in many cases. Strikingly the difficulties of teaching children who are indulged or neglected by their parents are the same today as they were when Agnes Grey was first published. 

I enjoyed the read very much because it made me think about life and the ways of people. Consequently, I’m more than willing to recommend Agnes Grey.


  1. Interesting, I didn't know about another Bronte who also wrote books.

    1. In that case, Zed, it was worth the time and effort of writing my review ;)


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