Saturday, July 28, 2012

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte.

 “Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.” 

Anne Bronte was the only Bronte I hadn't met yet. Neither of her books made it onto my 250 project list, but I made sure to include them both on my Classics Club List. And since Agnes Grey was both short and by the last Bronte sister, I wanted to make sure that I got to it during the Victorian event.

I am so glad I did.

My experiences with both Emily and Charlotte have been wonderful. I met Emily first when I read Wuthering Heights. And while I didn't really love the characters, I admired the story and Emily. I've also read both Jane Eyre and Villette by Charlotte. Both of those blew me away and definitely overshadowed my reading experience with Emily. So, it was time for Anne to speak to me. And speak to me she did.

I should first say that while I wasn't completely blown away by Agnes Grey, I did love it. It was her first novel, and it seemed a bit rough around the edges...almost as if she wasn't sure what she was going to write about and say when she began. The book opens with telling the reader a bit about Agnes' life. Her family isn't super well off, and while she doesn't have to, she decides to find work as a governess. The first family she works for has a bunch of little hellions, and the parents aren't much better. She eventually finds a second situation that seems to be a little better, but not perfect. I really loved the descriptions of her struggles with her students. Some bits made me chuckle because guess what, I go through the same thing when I'm teaching!

“I had been seasoned by adversity, and tutored by experience, and I longed to redeem my lost honour in the eyes of those whose opinion was more than that of all the world to me.”

But, the book shifts gears about midway through when Agnes is in her second placement. A love interest emerges, and while he isn't necessarily all the book focuses on from that point forward, the change made the novel feel a bit disjointed.

The novel begins to focus a bit on one of Agnes' students-Rosalie-and her quest to find a proper husband. In some ways, I felt that the novel took a bit of a shallow turn here. Where I was interested in Agnes' almost invisible role as the governess to spoiled and rotten children (I really did love her observations of the children and her own reactions to their actions), I felt that her observations of Rosalie's situation were...well...judgemental.

Let me explain. As a governess, Agnes would have been almost invisible to the wealthy members of the family. As long as she did her job properly, she would lead a lonely life among the children of the family-her charges. Those observations, like those that took place in the beginning of the book, were fascinating on their own. But once Agnes' observations became intertwined with Rosalie, I began to lose a bit of interest.

However, there were some interesting and underlying things that caught my attention once I shut the book. First, the Bronte sisters worked as governesses, so obviously some of the material was probably inspired by Anne's own experiences. She wanted to show the life of a governess in this time period to those who were unfamiliar with the lonely and unrecognized side of taking on that kind of employment. I am sure that the experiences poor Agnes had as a governess would have meant something different to men and women reading this novel back in the 19th century.

But I was also struck by the difference in lifestyle between Agnes and Rosalie-arguably the two main female characters. Agnes made it a point to tell her readers that she lived in a reasonably well off family (I would say a middle-class family. She never really wanted for anything and her family always supported her) and that Rosalie came from money. So, here are two women with slightly different circumstances...but such a difference in choice.

Agnes was allowed to choose to go and find work on her own. She wanted to help support her family, so she found work as a governess and pursued it. She was allowed to do almost as she pleased in her spare time-spend time with the poor, read, write letters, etc. On the other hand, Rosalie was raised more by a governess than her own mother. She was instructed from the beginning to be a flirt and to find a place with a well to do man. Her life was consumed by finding a husband whereas Agnes was allowed to be herself.

It was an interesting comparison and one that really struck me only when I finished the novel. In many ways, I think that Agnes' story was a way for Anne to acknowledge that her own life was something more than many others could hope for. If you really think about it, the Brontes were an incredibly interesting family. The three sisters were allowed a lot of freedom and choice in what they wished to do-something that probably wasn't all that common.

In the end, I really did love Agnes Grey. Do I think it would have been better to have a novel focused on the plight of a governess and a separate one to point out the comparison between classes? Absolutely. But this was still fabulous and gave me a lot of food for thought once I finished it. It also made me eager to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I am hoping to get to later this fall.

“I still preserve those relics of past sufferings and experience, like pillars of witness set up in travelling through the valve of life, to mark particular occurrences. The footsteps are obliterated now; the face of the country may be changed; but the pillar is still there, to remind me how all things were when it was reared.”

After finishing this one and writing a post about the Brontes last week, I was stuck thinking for awhile about which Bronte sister I am most like, now that I have "met" them all. I think I would like to be Charlotte. She was adventurous, romantic, and took chances. After all, she traveled to Belgium, and was resolute in getting the novels she and her sisters wrote published. She was also strong after losing her siblings and carried on. But I'm not really like that. Anne was the youngest and from her writing, she seemed incredibly passionate about social issues and exploring the nature of human relationships. She also ventured out on her own a bit and worked as a governess as well.

But Emily...she was a quietly passionate and stormy one. She was more of a homebody (she refused to go to London to prove her identity to her publisher) and seemed to be a bit more...dreamy. I think that if there was a Bronte I am the most would have to be Emily.

Who do you think you would be most like? Or do you disagree with my observations on the sisters?


  1. Charlotte is my 'favourite' Bronte too, I think she writes emotion in a way that neither of her sisters can. Villette is my favourite Bronte book.

    I'm a teacher too, and like you that gave me enjoyment as I read Agnes Grey. I especially enjoyed all the little mistakes she made at the start of her first job, because I made them all too!

  2. My favourite Bronte is indeed Anne, but more so in the Tenant. You are right in saying that they managed to experience so much, living all the while such constrained lives... Like you, I realy liked Agnes for the portrayal of society vs. The governesses, a profession so essential, but also so mistreated. I'm sure you will like the Tenant all the more!

  3. I haven't read anything by Anne yet, but this review makes her sound worth reading too. If Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are among my favourite books, I'm sure any of Anne's works will soon join that list.

  4. I would definitely say that I'm very much like Anne. I adore her because, in ways, she reminds me of Thoreau. And her writing style, particularly in The Tenant, reminds me of Austen.

    I love the disjointed feel of Agnes Grey. I don't know why! It's almost like I could see her confidence build through the writing. That said, Tenant is a much, much smoother read. And it is definitely an example of "taking a chance." I hope you'll love it when you read it! :)

    Also, I love your thoughts on the comparison of Rosalie and Agnes. :)

  5. I keep reading so many good things about Anne's novels--I really need to read them! The exploration of the life of governesses in this time period sounds really interesting to me. One of these days...

  6. haven't read either of Anne's, but am wondering if i've been Charlotte and Emily at different times of my life?.. circumstances that call for responses in kind or a maturing that resources what's needed in my character...

  7. I'm definitely a Charlotte girl, but I love the differences between all the sisters. This is the only Anne book I've read, but I enjoyed it too. I really want to read Tenant next.

  8. I can't wait to get my hands on this book. It's been on my to-read list for years, and let me tell you, this post hasn't made me any less impatient. You make some very interesting points in there. I'm looking forward to hearing your opinions on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as well.
    As for the Brontë sisters- Writing-wise, all three sisters were extraordinarily talented and I've enjoyed every single book of theirs I read immensely. But as far as their personalities go- I like Anne the best- I'm not the biggest fan of Charlotte and I agree that Emily was very introverted and dreamy. I admire Anne's determination, temper and will; how she would take whatever life threw at her and make it shine. She was easily one of the strongest historical figures I've ever read about, and I find her absolutely fascinating.

  9. Hi, We read this at the Bronte Parsonage Museum, and wondered whether you'd care to follow us on Twitter (@BronteParsonage) for lots and lots of Bronte-linked news and events?