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.