Classics Club Challenge: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte

^Mysterious moor, very Bronte! Busted – okay, that’s Dartmoor, not the Yorkshire moor. But still mysterious, and spooky with the mist, no?

Agnes Grey is stir-crazy. And like many other young women of “good family” (her father a poor but respectable curate, her mother the daughter of a rich gentleman who disowned her when she determined to marry a clergyman with more ethics than prospects) in the Victorian era, her options are limited. If she wants to get out of the family abode, she can do one of two things: (1) get married, or (2) become a governess. Looking for adventure and wanting to earn something to help support her family, Agnes chooses option 2.

Agnes’ first household is a horror show, where she is handed off charge of a pack of unruly children, immune to any form of discipline – or at least, immune to the tepid discipline that Agnes is authorized – children who throw maniacal fits and torture wild birds for fun. Their mother undermines Agnes’ authority at every turn, and then blames Agnes for her charges’ intractability. Agnes sticks it out for a year before she is unceremoniously and unfairly fired. She retreats home, feeling herself in disgrace, but unwilling to give up on her plans – and quickly finds herself another situation.

The second job is easier in some ways – Agnes’ charges are older, two young women who are nearly ready to marry and leave home, and the elder of the two sisters is already the belle of the county. There is no bird torture, so Agnes feels it’s a major upgrade – but there is other, subtler, torture, as Agnes’ charges thoughtlessly toss out snobbish asides and petty cruelties. When Agnes befriends Mr. Weston, the new curate, her elder charge – despite having no interest in marrying a curate and finding Mr. Weston’s earnestness a matter for cruel comedy – decides to snatch the curate from her governess, just to show she can. Agnes covers up her heartache as best she can, but she can’t stop herself musing bitterly on her untenable position to Mr. Weston, when he asks her directly about some friends of her charges’.

“You are alone again, Miss Grey,” said he.

“Yes.”

“What kind of people are those ladies – the Misses Green?”

“I really don’t know.”

“That’s strange – when you live so near and see them so often!”

“Well, I suppose they are lively, good-tempered girls, but I imagine you must know them better than I do, yourself, for I never exchanged a word with either of them.”

“Indeed! They don’t strike me as being particularly reserved.”

“Very likely they are not so to people of their own class; but they consider themselves as moving in quite a different sphere from me!”

He made no reply to this, but after a short pause, he said, “I suppose it’s these things, Miss Grey, that make you think you could not live without a home?”

Agnes Grey is Anne Bronte’s blistering indictment of the governess system – a relentless churn in which young women are dumped into unfamiliar houses and forced to fumble their way without allies or a discernable place. Neither servants nor members of the family, governesses don’t fit in anywhere. Often forced to bear the brunt of family snobbishness, Agnes shoulders her lonely burden with her only solace the occasional letter from home. Anne Bronte was a governess herself, so she knows of what she speaks (or writes) – the isolation, the loneliness, the low pay, the bitter challenge of being caught between charges whom you cannot discipline and who therefore won’t listen to you and don’t respect you, and their parents, who refuse to grant you authority in your own classroom and then blame you for their children’s bad behavior.

Like many young Victorian women, Agnes doesn’t stay a governess forever. And it’s a testament to her strength of character that she leaves her bitter experiences behind her, still able to appreciate moments of beauty and joy. Anne Bronte is known for pushing social envelopes, but she deserves to be just as well known for her beautiful writing:

There was a feeling of freshness and vigour in the very streets; and when I got free of the town, when my foot was on the sands and my face toward the broad, bright bay… no language can describe the effect of the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean, the bright morning sunshine on the semi-circular barrier of craggy cliffs surmounted by green swelling hills, and on the smooth, wide sands, and the low rocks out at sea… looking, with their clothing of weeds and moss, like little grass-grown islands – and above all, on the brilliant, sparkling waves. And then, the unspeakable purity and freshness of the air! there was just enough heat to enhance the value of the breeze, and just enough wind to keep the whole sea in motion, to make the waves come bounding to the shore, foaming and sparkling, as if wild with glee. Nothing else was stirring – no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands – nothing before had trampled them since last night’s flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left it fair and even, except where the subsiding water had left behind it the traces of dimpled pools, and little running streams.

Can’t you just see it? Aren’t you just walking with Agnes on the beach? (That might be my favorite passage in the entire novel.)

I’ve said before, and I’ll say again, that Anne is my favorite Bronte. (It took me a long time to get there and still feels a bit disloyal – like the teenaged me who read Jane Eyre several times a year is frowning in disapproval – but it’s true.) Less histrionic than Emily, sparer with her words and prose than Charlotte, but just as willing as her eldest sister to take on unfair social systems – Anne has the total package. Agnes Grey isn’t going to top The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for me, but it was a compelling and beautifully-written narrative, and quite up to the “Acton Bell” standard.

Who is your favorite Bronte sister?

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