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Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë

Agnes Grey is the first novel by Anne Brontë, first published in 1847, then re-released with corrections in 1850. As best we can tell, she wrote it before her sisters wrote their novels (Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), even though they were all published at the same time. I didn’t actually realise, prior to picking this one up, that it came before The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall chronologically – though, having read it now, it seems obvious. This is Anne Brontë’s literary starter home.

Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Anne Brontë drew on her own and her sisters’ experiences working as a governess to write Agnes Grey, a novel that offers unique insight into that line of work in the 19th century. The titular character works for families of the English gentry, and while on paper it seemed like a good deal (paid to live in a fancy house, eat fancy food and take care of fancy children) it was a very precarious position for young ladies without a lot of options.

In the novel, Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister and a formerly wealthy woman who was disowned when she married below her station. The Grey family struggles financially, but they’re rich in love, et cetera et cetera. They cut all the corners and scrimp as much as they can, but Agnes is frustrated that her mother and older sister baby her, and don’t let her contribute. That’s what leads her to take up employment as a governess, figuring she could hang out with rich kids all day for pay and send the money home to help out. Of course, in reality, it’s a tough gig, and Agnes has a few hard life lessons in store.

According to her sister, Charlotte, a lot of the elements of Agnes Grey were drawn directly from Anne’s employment. The children Agnes cares for are right little shits – if you’re on the fence about having kids, this might just be the thing to tip you back to the side of freedom – so pour some out for Anne and what she must have gone through. The fictional Bloomfields were allegedly based on the Ingham family of Blake Hall, for whom Anne worked as a governess in 1839; like Agnes, Anne was fired in under twelve months, and had to kill a nest of baby birds to stop the rotten son of the family from torturing them. (The introduction to my edition gives a thoughtful heads up for animal cruelty – thankfully, the episodes are brief and the perpetrators are duly punished in the narrative, with shitty marriages mostly.)

Agnes Grey is fairly easy reading, a good classic to start with if you’re intimidated by the length and/or language of most 19th century literature. Anne Brontë writes simple, straightforward prose and keeps things moving to prevent the story from going stale. Short and to-the-point as it may be, Agnes Grey does deal with lofty themes: class oppression and mobility, subjugation of women (particularly those in caring roles), morality and character education. Still, it doesn’t address these subjects in a way that feels overwhelming or dense.

Agnes Grey was received as “more acceptable but less powerful” than her sisters’ novels at the time of its release. I can certainly see how it was less explicitly offensive to the sensibilities of the middle class, but if you read between the lines, it’s pretty scathing. The moral of the story, as I read it, is that kids are terrors and the people who care for them deserve medals. The rich treat their hired help poorly at their own peril.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Agnes Grey:

  • “There’s a reason no one knows this Bronte sister.” A. Gang
  • “The sad part is that this could have been a great parody of upper class twits if it hadn’t been bogged down by its over-serious style and author avatar. Agnes Grey is the Seinfeld of stories, 300 pages talking about nothing.” – Emily Bowman
  • “Agnes Grey seems to want to be Anne Elliot, but just comes off as a sad sack, poor me, doormat. No one forced her to be a governess, yet she insisted and then spent the book whining how hard it was…quit then.” – M. Leister

2 Comments

  1. Anne is my favorite Brontë. The Tenant is certainly her masterpiece but I loved Agnes too.

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