Agnes Grey, my first book by one of the inimitable Brontë sisters, did not exactly fill me with enthusiasm to read more.
An interesting exploration of the hardships (both emotional and professional) endured by young governesses when they were hired to educate the children of geographically isolated members of the gentry.
The titular character, Agnes, is raised as a kind of invalid of leisure by her parents and elder sister. The happy family is reduced in circumstances when their father loses the (limited) family fortune in a poorly chosen investment. Agnes undertakes to become a governess in the aftermath of this disaster, seconded as it is by her father’s illness and decline, and thus be able to contribute directly to her impoverished family.
Agnes Grey is a sobering examination of the difficulties experienced in finding and keeping employment by then-marginalised members of society; limited to less desirable prospects, Agnes faces challenges in each of her positions in the form of strict limits of authority placed upon her by the parents, and the disrespect of her students. One cannot help but feel that this is not aided by her lack of any formal training as a teacher, a commonality amongst governesses of the period.
Contrary to her hopes when seeking employment, the children themselves are often more awful than the parents. In her first placement, the spoilt children (particularly the young master) find great enjoyment in snaring and torturing animals; when Agnes is forced to crush a nest full of fledglings under a large stone to stop the boy from torturing them to death, his uncle objects, claiming the activities of the boy to be simple unrestrained exuberance of spirit: “Damme, but the lad has some spunk in him, too. Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that. He’s beyond petticoat government already: by God! He defies mother, granny, governess and all! Ha, Ha, Ha!” – and promises to find the boy another nest of young birds to dismember. Agnes promises to destroy them first, if such a thing should occur.
Her subsequent placement is not much better; put in charge of four children, all of whom have been allowed from birth to terrorise their servants and carers, she is forbidden from visiting any discipline upon them, or from bothering their parents with issues, and subsequently finds them difficult to impart any knowledge to.
One of the young boys, John Murray, is finally packed off to boarding school, having been a person “boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable—at least, for a governess under his mother’s eye.” His lack of schooling quickly becomes obvious. “…(A)nd this, doubtless, would all be laid to the account of his education having been entrusted to an ignorant female teacher, who had presumed to take in hand what she was wholly incompetent to perform.” It is a little difficult to disagree with this sentiment; while well-read and motivated, Agnes is not much older than her students, and has limited practical experience.
His younger brother is not much better a personality, and the two girls, Misses Rosalie and Matilda, are just as difficult in their own ways. Rosalie, being attractive, has been groomed by her mother to make as good a marriage as possible, as early as possible. Personality and emotional attachment do not merit consideration to the girl; she seeks only titles and wealth, and the opportunity to break the hearts of poorer suitors along the way: “Oh, it provokes me so! To think that I could be such a fool as to fall in love! It is quite beneath the dignity of a woman to do such a thing. Love! I detest the word! As applied to one of our sex, I think it a perfect insult.” She obtains all her wishes, and ends up unhappily married to a rich older man whom she cannot stand, at war with her mother-in-law, and confined to the country estate, so that she cannot cause her husband a scandal.
The other Murray girl, Matilda, is described as a “veritable hoyden, of whom little need be said.” Preoccupied with horses, dogs swearing and running about with the boys, it is apparent that her undesirability in any sense was derived from her lack of interest in ladylike manners and modesty. “‘Tilly, though she would have made fine lad, was not quite what a young lady ought to be.” A large amount of Agnes’ teaching in the Murray family appears to comprise of unpleasant rote lessons (Matilda), completing the bulk of their endeavours for them (Rosalie) and enduring the lectures of their mother as to how a governess should properly act.
Agnes accompanies the young Murray ladies when they pay visits to the poor farmers’ homes, to disseminate limited largesse amidst a spray of patronisation; their real opinions on the peasants? Rosalie “wondered why the stupid people couldn’t keep in their houses; she was sure she didn’t want to see their ugly faces, and dirty, vulgar clothes.”
Throughout the novel, Agnes finds consolation in her faith. She is deeply religious, but seeks to live by example, and is not loudly demonstrative in her beliefs, an intriguing contrast to Miss Clacks, the proselytizing terror of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Similar to The Moonstone, the patronising attitudes of those better off towards their social and economic inferiors is marked. In her position as governess to the Murrays, Agnes accompanies them on their visits to poor farmers’ homes to disseminate limited material aid amidst a spray of patronising advice. Despite this, she makes friends with an unwell farmer’s widow named Nancy Brown, who is prone to deep fits of depression and crises of faith. The unfortunate woman’s application to Mr. Hatfield the Rector for help is met with a brief, brusque order to go to church more frequently, and to take solace in her cleaning duties.
The novel is often dreary, treading regularly on the themes of loneliness and moral dissipation. Agnes’ store of happiness in the end is limited to the appropriate-for-young-ladies trope of ‘Fall in love and get married to a parish priest that Mother approves of. Also, God and Modesty.’
“…I was lonely. Never, from month to month, form year to year, except during my brief intervals of rest and home, did I see one creature to whom I could open my heart, or freely speak my thoughts with any hope of sympathy, or even comprehension.”
K.L gives Agnes Grey 2.5 out of 5 terriers romping on the seashore. Well, imagine two of them romping. Try not to imagine half a terrier romping, on the seashore or anywhere else. It will make you feel just as sad as if you’d read Agnes Grey.
“Already, I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting; and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, and all my better faculties be sunk, at last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life.”