Goodness degraded: Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte (she was the youngest of the Bronte children), was published in 1847 when she was 26, in the same volume as Emily’s Wuthering Heights. Being a less potent, poetic or emotionally visceral novel, lacking its gothic passion and sexual charge, Anne’s first novel tended to be overlooked. This is understandable, but I’d argue, despite its flaws, that it’s still worth reading – just don’t expect a masterpiece like WH or Jane Eyre.

The prim, irritating puritanical Christian- didactic tone of Agnes, who narrates, is established in the pedantic opening paragraph:

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find…Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge. I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself. Shielded by my own obscurity…I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay down before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend. (p.15 – all references to the Penguin Popular Classics edition I read)

Agnes Grey PPC cover

My copy in the cheap and cheerful Penguin Popular Classics edition

It’s based largely on Anne’s own difficult and degrading experiences as a governess in two upper-middle-class Yorkshire families. In the first part of the novel Agnes insists on taking a poorly paid position as governess to the children of the Bloomfield family; her clergyman father had foolishly speculated his savings and lost everything, and her own family was practically destitute. She’s just 18, and naively expects her young charges to be as biddable and respectful as she and her siblings had been. She’s in for a nasty shock:

The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me, my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt’ (49)

Seven-year-old Tom is a petty tyrant whose ‘propensity to persecute the lower order’ (he gleefully tortures birds and small animals) is positively encouraged by his doting parents and relatives. The polysyllabic, rather stilted Victorian prose style adopted for the most part by Anne Bronte is apparent here and in my other quotations; it makes the novel rather plodding, exacerbated by the over-earnest moralizing tone – but she’s capable of flashes of vernacular energy and outspokenness, especially when quoting the unruly children’s tantrums.

The novel is largely worth reading for these depictions of fiendish Victorian upper-class children: their cruel, selfish behaviour towards Agnes (and animals, over whom they also claim rightful dominion) reflects and reveals the deep class divisions and of Victorian society. Downtrodden, selfless, shy Agnes has to contend with the oppression and abuse of the children she is notionally in charge of; their portrayal in the narrative foretells what they will become when they grow up – cruel, heartless and feeling as completely justified in their attitudes and amorality as their complacently cruel, socially offensive parents and adult relatives.

That Agnes, in her lonely isolation, does so by reaching for Christian homilies and puritanical submission to adversity is pretty wearing, but the children’s demonic, sadistic nastiness prevents the novel from sinking completely into moralistic tedium.

Outfaced by these recalcitrant, disobedient, almost feral children she digs deep into her store of Christian forbearance and tenacity:

Patience, Firmness and Perseverance were my only weapons (50)

 

– but she secretly longs for a ‘birch rod’ or to have the courage to box the bullying ruffian Tom’s ears.

OWC cover Agnes Grey

The more elegant OWC cover – via Wikipedia

It’s ‘degrading to submit so quietly’ and ‘intolerable to toil so constantly’- but Agnes strives to resist being ‘subdued’. This submissiveness becomes grating, and one longs for a bit of spirit in our grey heroine. It’s a long wait.

Her position with the Bloomfields ends with ignominious dismissal:

I had been seasoned by adversity, and tutored by experience… [I] longed to redeem my lost honour [in the eyes of her family] (84)

She takes a new post with the Murrays – a socially superior family to the Bloomfields. The children in this household are older, but if anything more selfish and unruly than the Bloomfields, because they are more cunning and ruthless. Matilda is a tomboy who swears like a trooper, and totally uncontrollable. Rosalie, at 17, is disarmingly pretty, and aware of it: she’s a dangerous, manipulative flirt. Both are capricious and wilful.

Agnes continues to suffer mortifications and humiliation with ill-suppressed righteous indignation:

I sometimes felt myself degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities; and sometimes I thought myself a precious fool for caring so much about them, and feared I must be sadly wanting in Christian humility, or that charity which ’suffereth long and is kind, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, beareth all things, endureth all things.’ (115)

She has to accept her powerless position, being in a social limbo – neither servant nor  equal to the Murrays. Thus when they return from church together, she has no choice whether she is to walk with the girls or travel back in their carriage:

I liked walking better, but a sense of reluctance to obtrude my presence on any one who did not desire it, always kept me passive on these and similar occasions; and I never inquired into the causes of their various whims. Indeed, this was the best policy – for to submit and oblige was the governess’s part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils. (167)

Title page of the first 1847 edition

Title page of the first 1847 edition

The Murray children, being slightly older, treat Agnes with more contempt and disdain even than the Bloomfields had. Agnes, for her part, can only fall back on her sense of virtue and its superiority to the superficial, outward charms of preening, beautiful, deceitful Rosalie:

It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves, or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.

So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience? (214-15)

Here at last we see a flicker of spirit in her: she challenges her own moral certitude.

Agnes Grey represents an intermittently interesting use of the first-person narrative, autobiographical voice, as I hope my quotations have indicated. We are largely invited to share the innermost thoughts and suppressed feelings of Agnes. There is very little subtlety in the way this is done: there’s no free indirect discourse or revelation of character through witty dialogue, as in Jane Austen, say. Our narrator claims to be mining her diaries of the time for raw material, and as such the narrative often reads too much like ‘this happened then this, and this is how I felt, though I said nothing.’

But read Agnes Grey for its uncharacteristic Victorian depiction of obnoxious, indulged children and spoilt adolescents (though I know Dickens has some pretty awful children in his novels). Their awfulness is an index of the social injustices and inequalities of which this novel is largely an indictment. The romance part is unconvincingly tacked on to provide a supposedly upbeat ending (that’s no spoiler).

It would be interesting to hear what your views are of this novel, or of the depiction of children in literature: wilful savages if left unchecked (Lord of the Flies), or angelic (Little Dorrit, Little Nell) – any more?

Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote about the Bronte sisters collectively HERE, and considered Agnes Grey  ‘a dud’; a bit harsh, but understandable.

 

 

‘Among gentlewomen’: Barbara Pym, ‘Excellent Women’

Excellent Women was Barbara Pym’s second novel, published in 1952, but set, as a note on the MS indicates, in the year immediately after the end of WWII: London is a city still gripped by economic austerity, rationing is still in force, meat and other commodities are in short supply, there are still bomb-ruined churches (though the services still go on), and the men are still coming home from military service to find their homes much changed. The women they left behind have learned to become more independent, and unsure whether they want to return to the old, pre-war culture of subservience to the men.

My Virago Modern Classics copy

My Virago Modern Classics copy

The novel has been much written about by other bloggers (links at end), who all give admirable summaries of plot and themes, so as with some of my recent posts I’ll give just a sketchy outline of plot here, then focus on those aspects of the novel that I found most interesting.

The protagonist is a 31-year-old spinster, Mildred Lathbury (a dowdy name, resonant perhaps of ‘mildewed’ or ‘mouldered’? buried?), who lives alone in a flat in an unfashionable part of London, on ‘the “wrong” side of Victoria station’. She’s a pillar of the local Anglo-Catholic church, and much of her life is devoted to its fund-raising and parochial matters. She’s a close friend of its priest, Julian Malory (he’s ‘about 40’), and his slightly older career-spinster sister, Winifred. The two women have vague notions that he and Mildred might one day marry; he insists he’ll remain celibate, until he meets his glamorous new lodger, Allegra (more on her shortly). Despite her relative youth, Mildred comes across as lonely, middle-aged and frustrated, for she is imaginative and spirited, not entirely convinced that she’s cut out for the life of submissive service to others – of taking on their ‘burden’ (a key word in the narrative) — that she’s assumed, and which others assume, is her lot.

Mildred’s life, and those of the Malorys, are changed irrevocably by the arrival of two sets of new neighbours. This plot device causes all three of them to reassess their relationships, their feelings and their destinies.

The central theme is the desirability of or necessity for a woman to marry. Is there a possibility of fulfilment in any other kind of relation in this world, as there is for men? Pym is too subtle an artist to give a clear answer; her delightful skill lies in her subtle and deceptively witty way of posing such questions.

As others have written so fully about all of this, I’ll simply look at a few passages and comment on what I enjoyed so much about this novel.

First, it isn’t as cosy or twee as it might seem on the surface. As with Jane Austen’s heroines and fictional worlds, with which Pym’s have often been compared, there is a steely, deeply serious quality beneath the humorous, parochial triviality of Mildred’s daily routine.

Another revealing literary parallel drawn explicitly in the narrative; Mildred says early on that she is not Jane Eyre,

Who must have given hope to so many plain women who tell their stories in the first person, nor have I ever thought of myself as being like her.

This merits close attention. There is no further explanation or justification of this remark, and one’s initial reaction is to think: Really? What makes you think that? Isn’t Mildred deceiving herself, or failing to face up to her own shortcomings and weaknesses? By the time I’d finished the novel, however, I revisited this statement, and have come to agree that indeed she isn’t a Jane Eyre. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine is always going to find her Byronic, broodingly handsome and wealthy hero, despite her self-deprecating, humble doubts that such is the fate for the likes of her.

Mildred, the novel shows, is far from certain that her ‘Mr Right’ exists in her circle of acquaintance; more important, she has serious doubts whether she wants or needs a man to complete her. Yes, she presents herself as ‘mousy and rather plain’, with the drab dress sense of a much older woman. But after meeting her glamorous new neighbour, Helena Napier, and the splendidly and deliciously inappropriately named Allegra, a predatory merry widow who turns the head of Julian when she ingratiates herself into his life as his lodger, Mildred smartens herself up and even buys some uncharacteristically sexy ‘Hawaiian Fire’ lipstick and swaps her usual dowdy brown skirts for a chic Dior-esque black dress. She is not prepared to become the kind of ‘excellent woman’ Jane Eyre was, and did not want to conform to that romantic formula – even though like Jane she craves love and companionship. In that sense this can be seen as a proto-feminist novel in its questioning of that kind of fairytale plot outcome.

How does Pym negotiate all this without descending into banality? Here’s a random passage I’d marked early in ch.1:

I don’t know whether spinsters are really more inquisitive than married women, though I believe they are thought to be because of the emptiness of their lives…

 Her language here, as in the previous passage about Jane Eyre, is suggestively ambiguous. Mildred habitually expresses such bleak thoughts in an unassertive way, often as negatives (she is not Jane Eyre, she does not know about married women compared with her own spinster state), with frequent hedges – all that use of adverbial markers of doubt or uncertainty, like ‘really’, ‘rather plain’ and so on. And the more she protests her unworthiness with such unassuming, self-deprecating timidity, the less I believe her. This is the persona she has been ‘trained’ for – as she often suggests about her upbringing as a ‘clergyman’s daughter’. For although it’s her natural inclination to assume her role in life is to be a mouse, as it was Jane Eyre’s, like Jane she has suppressed fire in her. In that sense she IS Jane Eyre – but Jane’s Rochester is definitely not matched by Mildred’s handsome new neighbour Rocky Napier (the similarity of name is surely deliberate).

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Photo from the Barbara Pym Society website

Mildred is sexually attracted to Rocky, with his ‘charming smile’, but realises he’s a shallow, philandering flirt. Part of her would love to throw herself at his feet – but this is not 1847, and Rocky isn’t going to be symbolically castrated, as Rochester is when he’s blinded in the fire at the end of Jane Eyre. On the contrary, Rocky never really looks at Mildred, preferring to gaze at his own reflection in her adoring eyes. And deep down she knows it.

Mildred had worked ‘in the Censorship’ during the war, and later at a ‘Learned Society’ of anthropologists – as Pym herself did. As a consequence she isn’t as unworldly or naïve as she chooses to suggest – though she certainly deceives those who know her into assuming that she is, and it’s easy for a modern reader to fall into the same misconception. Despite her frequent references then to her gradual drift into becoming ‘fussy and spinsterish if I wanted to’, ‘set in my ways’, ‘spinsterish and useless’, one of the shabby-genteel ‘impoverished gentlewomen’ whom she helps out in her voluntary work, the language clearly hints that she doesn’t ‘really’ want this fate:

I forebore to remark that women like me really expected very little – nothing, almost.

 She says this to the other potential romantic partner in her life, the attractive but desiccated Everard Bone (Pym’s good on names). As ever the apparent nullity of her expectations is counterpointed by those qualifications: ‘really’ (yet again), ‘almost’. And of course, she ‘forebore to remark’ the words anyway. She might have thought them, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to say them to the pompous, treacherous Everard.

It’s this plucky refusal ultimately to accept the Trollopian fate that all around her – and those who shaped her – take for granted will be hers that makes Mildred such an engaging heroine, given her apparently self-effacing character. In another of her little remarks in which as usual she appears to present herself as nugatory, there’s the equally usual ambiguity; she’s being teased by Father Julian about her crush on the desirable sailor home from the war, Rocky; Mildred would never ‘do anything foolish’, says his sister Winifred, springing to her defence. Mildred reflects on this ‘a little sadly’ (note the usual hedge) as being ‘only too true’, but

…hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.

 

Exactly. She may be a female Prufrock, but like Eliot’s wistfully cautious and obtuse ‘Fool’, who is ‘not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be’, Mildred has heard the male equivalent of ‘mermaids singing’. And she’s less inclined than Prufrock to believe finally that they won’t sing to her – or that if they do, she’ll be taken in by their siren calls.

Other reviews

 Most recent is the excellent post at Jacqui Wine’s Journal. Jacqui closes with links to several other bloggers’ reviews. I’d also recommend to anyone interested in further researching the work of this once neglected author’s work the site of the Barbara Pym Society, which has links to a huge range of web resources, including scholarly conference papers of that Society.