After reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall earlier this year, I wanted to read Anne Bronte’s other book, Agnes Grey. I approached it with trepidation having read some quite negative reviews of it. However, I was pleased to find that I enjoyed the book. Although I didn’t think it was as good as The Tenant and it didn’t have the feel of a must-read classic like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, there was still a lot to like about Agnes Grey.
The plot is simple, plain and linear. It’s the story of a young woman in 19th century England who goes out to work as a governess when her family fall on hard times. Unfortunately Tom, Mary Ann and Fanny Bloomfield are three of the most badly-behaved children imaginable. When her short, unhappy time with the Bloomfields comes to an end, Agnes finds another situation with two older pupils, Rosalie and Matilda Murray. This second position is not much better than the first – the Murray girls are selfish and thoughtless and the only thing that makes Agnes’s life bearable is her friendship with Mr Weston, the village curate.
Agnes Grey has an autobiographical feel because Anne Bronte herself had worked as a governess and was able to draw on her own personal experiences to show how servants were often treated with cruelty and contempt by their employers. I could sympathise with Agnes as I would soon have lost my patience with the spoilt Bloomfield children and the self-centred, inconsiderate Murrays. I also thought it was unfair that the parents expected Agnes to control their children without actually giving her any real authority over them. It was such a difficult position to be in. However, I found it slightly disappointing that Agnes seemed prepared to just accept things the way they were and not do anything to change the situation. The book was more about tolerance and perseverance than about taking action to try to make things better.
Another of the book’s themes is the importance of morality, virtuousness and goodness, qualities in which the Bloomfield and Murray families seem to be sadly lacking, leading Agnes to feel isolated and miserable. However, I think many readers will find Agnes too self-righteous and superior, so if you prefer your heroines to be flawed and imperfect this probably isn’t the book for you! Reading about the day to day life of a governess is not particularly exciting or dramatic, but I still found the book enjoyable and interesting – and at under 200 pages a very quick read compared to many of the other Bronte books.
Classic/Publisher: OUP (Oxford World’s Classics)/Year: 1998 (originally published in 1847)/Source: Library book