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Written when women—and workers generally—had few rights in England, Agnes Grey exposes the brutal inequities of the rigid class system in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Agnes comes from a respectable middle-class family, but their financial reverses have forced her to seek work as a governess. Pampered and protected at home, she is unprepared for the harsh reality of a governess’s life. At the Bloomfields and later the Murrays, she suffers under the snobbery and sadism of the selfish, self-indulgent upper-class adults and the shrieking insolence of their spoiled children. Worse, the unique social and economic position of a governess—“beneath” her employers but “above” their servants—condemns her to a life of loneliness.
Less celebrated than her older sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Bronte was also less interested in spinning wildly symbolic, romantic tales and more determined to draw realistic images of conditions in Victorian England that need changing. While Charlotte’s Jane Eyre features a governess who eventually and improbably marries her employer, Agnes Grey deals with the actual experiences of middle-class working women, experiences Anne had herself endured during her hateful tenure as a governess.
Fred Schwarzbach serves as Associate Dean and teaches in the General Studies Program of New York University. He is the author of Dickens and the City, the editor of Victorian Artists and the City and Dickens’s American Notes, a contributor to the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Dickens, and the author of scores of articles, essays, and reviews on Victorian life and letters.
From Fred Schwarzbach’s Introduction to Agnes Grey
It is impossible for any of us to approach the Brontës without calling up the Brontë myth. We are all familiar with its outlines. The isolated family house on the edge of a bleak Yorkshire moor. The four young children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne, their mother and elder sisters all dead, now in the care of a stern Calvinist aunt. The Reverend Patrick Brontë, a failed writer himself, reclusive, brooding, and subject to periods of dark rage. Then, through the agency of a present of toy soldiers, the children begin writing sagas in which the soldiers come to life. All four are gifted, though Branwell drinks himself to an early death, while the three young women precociously develop writing careers—Emily dying young of the family curse of tuberculosis, and Charlotte living longer, only to die shortly after her marriage. Anne, the youngest, is also the quietest and least talented; modest, religious, and industrious, she too dies of TB at an early age.
The narrative, like any myth, partakes of some truths but embodies a great deal of fantasy—and a great deal of that linked to the famous Wyler-Olivier-Oberon film of Wuthering Heights (1939). To begin: The parsonage was at the edge of a large, bustling mill town; the aunt appears to have been loving and kind and an evangelical Methodist, a far cry from Calvinism; Patrick Brontë was actively engaged in the affairs of the parish and the community, and clearly much concerned with the education and welfare of his children; and so on. But the myth is probably most unfair in its relegation of Anne Brontë to a bit player in the family drama—in fact, she was, though the youngest, probably the most precocious of them all as a writer, producing two novels and a substantial body of poems by the time she died at twenty-nine.
Anne’s relegation to a minor role within the family happened not long after her death. Her second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall—the story of a wife who abandons her husband to live under an assumed name and who commits the even greater moral crime of falling in love with another man while her husband lives—was nothing short of scandalous in its subject matter. By contemporary standards, no young woman could write about immoral acts without either knowing of them firsthand or by being tainted by having imagined them—in either case, her reputation was tarnished beyond repair. After Anne died, Charlotte tried to defend her sister against charges of moral impropriety by controlling the public representation of Anne’s character (and, similarly, that of Emily, whose reputation suffered from her authorship of Wuthering Heights), and it was she who began constructing the image of a quiet, passive, deeply religious (and by implication not as talented) Anne. Deeply religious she was, but far from quiet and passive—and she was very talented.
A useful starting point will be the facts of her life, which shed some considerable light on her character and her interests. The circumstances of the family are somewhat exceptional: Anne’s father was very much a self-made man, even making of his humble Irish surname (Prunty or Brunty) the rather more impressive, aristocratic, and vaguely French-sounding Brontë. The son of a farmer, and at first a blacksmith’s assistant, he was by age seventeen a village schoolmaster, but in 1802 his prospects changed dramatically when he managed to secure a scholarship to St. Johns College, Cambridge, where he prepared for a clerical career. He rose through the ranks of the church, acquiring along the way, in 1812, a respectable and mature wife, Maria Branwell. By 1820 they were settled in Haworth, where Reverend Brontë was perpetual curate (that is, he held the office for life) of a large, populous parish. Anne, the sixth and last child, was born on January 17, 1820, three months before the move to Haworth.
Not long after, in 1821, Mrs. Brontë died. Her sister Elizabeth joined the family to superintend the children and the household. But further tragedy was in store, when the two eldest girls, Maria and Elizabeth, returned from school ill in 1825 and soon died. (Charlotte and Emily had followed their sisters to the same school but now were brought home.) This may have been due to the arrival of what would, sadly, be their only lasting legacy to the family—tuberculosis, which many years later would carry off Emily and Anne, and possibly Branwell, too. One effect of this was Patrick’s determination that he would educate the remaining children at home, at least for the major part of their schooling; another effect was that the remaining children became extremely close emotionally, tied to each other, to their aunt, to their father, and to Haworth itself.
Still, though none of us can choose our parents, it was a great stroke of luck for any girl at this time to be the daughter of a clergyman. Young women of the lower ranks of the professional and middle classes rarely were allowed any education beyond music, drawing, and the smattering of general knowledge deemed sufficient to entertain prospective husbands by the distaff side of the hearth. But a clergyman’s daughter had access to both a learned father and his library, and the Brontë girls were luckier still in that Patrick seemed ready to teach them fully much as he did Branwell. Certainly it was also fortuitous that Patrick was an author himself, a writer not only (necessarily) of weekly sermons, but a published poet and essayist of some genuine local repute. They read widely in the standard works of English literature; they subscribed to leading periodicals; and they had access to a lending library an easy walk away in the next town, Keighley. Anne could not have known this at first, but she was receiving excellent training to be a governess, learning music, drawing, and even Latin along with more general studies in literature, history, and geography.
Posted March 15, 2006
Anne Bronte is a step ahead of her sisters, while I loved Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Professor and Villete (haven't read Shirley yet! :p) I have to confess I was happy to see a woman write in plain words, ezpressing ideas and feelings that were natural and realistic. Instead of being the too forebearing Jane who berated herself for 'daring' to love Rochester Agnes can look at her employers and see clearly that she is their superior... and tell the reader so without malice or vanity! The language at time may appear slightly immature, but it's wonderfully genuine! Agnes is constantly chiding herself about how she should have said more, or said less, or said something clever, or said nothing! It's great because we as women do that now... and will FOREVER!
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
To start with, I think I figured out a few patterns with the Bronte sister's work. I've currently read four books of theirs and I've noticed that the beginning chapters of: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and now Agnes Grey require a lot patience from the reader. The books didn't exactly capture my attention at first. Like I said this has happened four times now, BUT once you get past the opening chapters and into the story, they do grab you and pull you into their worlds, but you have to be patient. I've read some reviews saying that the Bronte sisters were famous for their "wordy or flowery speech", I enjoy that kind of speech, but when you are really ready for something magical or interesting to happen or conclude, that's when the language gets dull and starts to ramble on and you just want to skim ahead. Honestly, I loved this book and don't get me wrong, I really enjoy the Bronte sisters but the stalling and rambling parts of their wonderful, original books should just be noted for any potential reader. Now saying that, I've also noticed that one of the sisters work will magically speak to you and touch you, whether it's Emily's "Wuthering Heights", Charlotte's "Jane Eyre" (these are the more well known books but there are so many more to explore). Wuthering Heights grabbed my attention and it's now one of my all time favorite reads, but I never really had a book of any genre speak to me more than "Agnes Grey". On the surface, it's a simple story of a young woman and her journey as a newly fledged governess, but it's so much more than this. The beauty and the magic of the words of Anne Bronte brought me to tears in a few parts of her tale. It's hard to explain, but if you have ever wanted to pursue a dream so badly and then had to learn some lessons a hard and cruel way out in the real world, then you can identify with this book. The way this author conveys and explains love, affection, and simple attraction is truly moving. This book by no means has the action or gothic mystery like her sister Emily's "Wuthering Heights" but still "Agnes Grey" makes you search yourself and will have you thinking and questioning yourself days after you finish the last page. I really loved and enjoyed this book, however I can see where a lot of readers will not appreciate it's understated messages. You will either love this story or move on.
2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 21, 2008
Posted January 30, 2008
As is generally written, Anne Bronte's storyreflects the life of a governess during hertime and place. No doubt greater detail would give us even a clearer picture of suchsituations. There is enough descriptionhowever to let us know it was a position fewwould want. The story is not all that, andwe do read about other aspects of thosetimes, and it does end happily on a love notewhich makes it satisfactory to the romantic.Anne is an excellent writer and should indeedbe given more credit and recognition than weusually find. This affordable edition is truly one to own, for it includes end notes,a biographical commentary by CharlotteBronte, explanations of certain local orarchaic expressions, an introduction by theAssociate Dean of General Studies at NYU,Victorian era reviews and a further readinglist. I will comment that Anne Bronte herselfand her character Agnes Grey were devoutChristians interested in the Bible, andthroughout the story Biblical phrases andreferences are sprinkled which will turn off some people, and be welcomed by others. (This is mentioned for those wanting a few more details about the story.)
2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
This is the first time I've read anything by Anne Bronte; but Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are two of my favorite books. I did enjoy this book by the youngest Bronte. It is sensitive and easy to read. The main character is interesting; but some of the other characters are almost unbelievably nasty, mean or just hateful. I doubt it will go on my "Read Again List" with the two afore mentioned books by her sisters. However, it is a good read overall.
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 25, 2007
I must say I loved Jane Eyre more. Jane Eyre is exciting, passionate and superiorly original. However I enjoyed this one beacuse it plainly describes the life of a real life governess, not an extraordinary one. It really gave me the idea of how simple people lived in the victorian era. This book is short and easy to read, and while it may not contain the moral topics present in Jane Eyre, I enjoyed it anyway.
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 15, 2013
Posted September 6, 2011
I enjoy this because through fiction, one can often catch a glimpse of what life was like during the mid-nineteenth century. Agnes struggles with education, class, and duty in this quaint novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 14, 2011
I found this book an enjoyable (and shockingly amusing) account of a governesses life, and perhaps a somewhat autobiographical account of Anne's own life. I have to admit, the parts I found to be the most enjoyable were those with the wretched misbehaving children. Her first, younger pupils were both mean and physically violent, and even find joy in torturing animals, while her next were simply silly and self-absorbed. I hate to say that the most interesting part was how bad the children were, and my interest declined a little with Agnes' romantics woes concerning the admirable (but quite boring) curate Mr. Weston. Also, Agnes was a little bland herself, but perhaps was meant to be. One could say the novel wasn't really about Agnes, but represented a larger social problem of the time. But overall, it was a short and relatively easy read that details the daily duties of a governess (with some hopefully exaggerated accounts of evil rich kids) and a glimpse into an education system far different from our own.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 1, 2011
I fell in love with the simplicity of the book. It is definately a short read and in my opinion the best of Anne Bronte. I found myself absorbed by the main characters troubles and actually yelled at the pages where the wealthy and insensitive characters were unjust to Agnes. This story shows a character that hates her work but has to endure it which makes the character so much more relatable.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Unlike her sisters, Anne Bronte has a more down-to-earth writing style. Agnes Grey is not a wildly romantic book, but it's not a drag either! You can most definitely relate to Agnes's character, especially as she falls in uncertain love. The book is easy enough to understand and is interesting. There are even some topics worthy of discussion. The author did a great job, overall.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 29, 2010
Certainly not as engaging or developed as either of the sisters' works, this is, I imagine, a rather accurate portrait of what most governesses went through. Somewhat dry, and the narrator tends to come across as young and self-indulgent (but she admits that in the beginnign), but the romance is beautifully understated and Agnes' growth into adulthood is real. Nice that it's available, so it's possible to read all the Bronte's works.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
To be honest, not a whole lot happens in this book as far as plot goes, but I surprisingly liked it. The narration was not thick and heavy. It almost sounded as though a person from today was talking, the way some things were worded. The main character (who does most of the narration throughout the book) was able to get her points across clearly in a way you could understand quite well. I was able to identify in many ways with circumstances the character found herself in. Many times I stopped after reading something and thought, "Someone back then thought that, too?" The only thing I wish the author would have included is a scene at the end where Mr. Weston tells Agnes what it had been about her that attracted him to her (like personality, wit, etc.?-- sort of like at the end of "Pride and Prejudice"). There is never a reason given anywhere in the story, so we're to assume that it is because Agnes is the heroine of the book (which is NOT a good enough reason!). I know several people have expressed a wish see this done as a movie, but frankly I don't think it's filmable. It's great as a book, but as a movie (unless the director took great liberties with the storyline) would be flat and dull. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in all things Bronte-- it's a sweet story.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 11, 2010
The main character tackles the job of governess to very spoiled children. She recieves no respect from her employers, her charges or even the servants of the manor. Although her position is not that of a servant she is despised by the whole household.
This story relates her struggles to please her employers, the children she has in her charge and prove to her family her worth.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 14, 2009
Posted December 24, 2002
As a person who has read Jane Eyre four times, I must say that this story is a lot less agonizing. It is still richly emotional. Agnes is an endearing character and the end couldn't be more perfect!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2001
Agnes Grey is certainly not Ann Bronte's finest masterpiece, but it is definately an engrossing novel, simple, but certain. Agnes Grey stands for the young, poor woman looking for love and a life, a story almost similiar to Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, but Agnes Grey has found a place in my heart that will never hold Jane Eyre. I truly loved this shadowed novel by the Bronte sister who stands in the background of her sisters, but who still stands firmWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 10, 2000
Agnes Grey is a wonderful portrayal of the life of a young girl striving to bring meaning and love to her life. Ms. Grey is a simple, overlooked girl full of knowledge and goodness. Surrounded by those with power and money, Agnes realizes that wealth does not bring happiness or refinement.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 4, 2000
If ever there was a book deserving praise this is it. A sad story of a young woman who must become a governess to help support her family, Agnes Grey goes out and faces the cruel wind of the world, yet she stands up against all hardships for her family. Don't worry, there's a happy ending.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 5, 2011
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