Sunday, December 31, 2006

Review: Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë with a memoir of her sisters by Charlotte Brontë and an introduction by Angeline Goreau. Recommended.

The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters, Anne was the first to die, within only two years of the publication of Agnes Grey and one year of the publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In this edition, Angeline Goreau's introduction offers valuable insights into the relationships among the Brontë siblings, Anne's personality without the distortion of Charlotte's lens, and the conditions prevalent in Victorian England that inspired the writing of Agnes Grey.

For her first novel, Brontë chose to write about the social topic she knew best—life as an underpaid, unempowered, unappreciated governess. Her story, which begins, "All true histories contain instruction," closely parallels her own experience as governess to two families of overindulged, undisciplined, disrespectful children. She "candidly lay[s] before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend."

At times, Agnes Grey is hard to read, not because of the Victorian language and conventions, but because Brontë's unadorned, dispassionate writing style coolly conveys the monstrosity and heartlessness of the children for whom she has responsibility without power and of their distantly doting parents. When the cruel, sadistic Tom Bloomfield, age 7, tries to torture and kill a nest of baby birds and Agnes intervenes, spoiling his "fun," his mother coldly tells her, "You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience . . . I think a child's amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute." Through her portrayal of Tom, Brontë makes it clear who in her opinion is the "soulless brute" and how he came to become one. Meanwhile, Tom, his sister Mary Ann, and their parents foil Agnes's every attempt to perform her duties, including the teaching of morals.

Agnes's next family, the Murrays, are somewhat tolerably by comparison, although she is expected to, in her words, "study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine." In the Murray household, Agnes is subjected to a form of social snobbery and disdain from which her background, manners, and education do not exempt her. All that matters to the wealthy and privileged Murrays is that she is the hired help, to be controlled, ignored, bullied, or snubbed at their whim.

Agnes becomes a governess against her family's wishes so that she can help them out of their financial straits. When her illusions about molding the minds, hearts, and souls of her charges are taught away in chapters titled, "First Lessons in the Art of Instruction" and "A Few More Lessons," Agnes does not continue her ignominious career out of economic necessity; in fact, her family refuses to accept her financial assistance. She continues to work from a sense of pride; she does not want to admit to her family, and perhaps to herself, the personal and emotional cost of her own "instruction."

Given Brontë's purpose in writing Agnes Grey, there are some difficulties with the novel. First, Agnes's distress is primarily emotional, yet surely the masses of underpaid governesses suffered from poverty and from the hopelessness of escaping it. As Goreau notes, there were so many single women vying for governess positions that the employers could pay these vulnerable women next to nothing in wages, even taking deductions for laundry. Charlotte Brontë herself was paid 20 pounds per year at her final post, with 4 pounds deducted for washing. This deprivation, and the lifelong sense of despair that must have come with it, is not evident in Agnes Grey.

The novel also becomes sidetracked from its purpose when Agnes develops an interest in the new curate, Edward Weston. Toward the end, Agnes Grey is transformed from a novel about governesses and Victorian family life into a weak, undramatic love story that is too drawn out. The Anne Brontë who hid her feelings from the domineering Charlotte does not reveal them even through Agnes. While Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights seethe with the drama and passion of unhealthy relationships, Agnes Grey plods through the development of an uninspired one.

The strength of Agnes Grey lies in its characterizations of Victorian country society and the people who inhabit it. Their materialism, which reaches its apex here in the unhappily married Rosalie Murray; their wanton wastefulness; their view of nature as subservient to the whims of man; and their hypocrisy and recasting of God into man's image are the easily recognized precursors to many 20th-century attitudes. Despite its faults and facile ending, Agnes Grey is a tiny but honest glimpse into the Victorian world that preceded ours. Angelina Goreau's informative introduction, with its generous helping of quotations, makes this edition especially worthwhile.

Sunday, 31 December 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

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