The most cherished novels from England's talented sisters, all in one gorgeously packaged volume
The Brontë family was a literary phenomenon unequalled before or since. Both Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights have won lofty places in the pantheon and stirred the romantic sensibilities of generations of readers. For the first time ever, Penguin Classics unites these two enduring favorites with the lesser known but no less powerful work by their youngest sister, Anne. Drawn from Anne's own experiences as a governess, Agnes Grey offers a compelling view of Victorian chauvinism and materialism. Its inclusion makes The Brontë Sisters a must-have volume for anyone fascinated by this singularly talented family.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Charlotte Bronte lived from 1816 to 1855. Jane Eyre appeared in 1847 and was followed by Shirley (1848) and Vilette (1853). In 1854 Charlotte Bronte married her father's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. She died during her pregnancy on March 31, 1855 in Haworth, Yorkshire. The Professor was posthumously published in 1857.Emily Bronte lived from 1818 to 1848. She wrote one strikingly innovative novel, Wuthering Heights, and was also a gifted and intense poet. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 30.
Anne Brontë, youngest of the Bronte sisters, was born in 1820. She worked as a governess between 1840 and 1845, after which she published Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) under the pen-name Acton Bell. Anne Brontë died of tuberculosis in 1849.
Date of Birth:April 21, 1816
Date of Death:March 31, 1855
Place of Birth:Thornton, Yorkshire, England
Place of Death:Haworth, West Yorkshire, England
Education:Clergy Daughters' School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire; Miss Wooler's School at Roe Head
Read an Excerpt
PENGUIN CLASSICS DELUXE EDITION
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
A NOTE ON THE TEXTS
The texts of these novels have been reset from the individual volumes published in Penguin Classics, which are edited from the first editions.
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.
I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.
The said Eliza, John, and Georgiana were now clustered round their mamma in the drawing-room: she lay reclined on a sofa by the fireside, and with her darlings about her (for the time neither quarrelling nor crying) looked perfectly happy. Me, she had dispensed from joining the group: saying, ‘She regretted to be under the necessity of keeping me at a distance; but that until she heard from Bessie, and could discover by her own observation that I was endeavouring in good earnest to acquire a more sociable and child-like disposition, a more attractive and sprightly manner – something lighter, franker, more natural as it were – she really must exclude me from privileges intended only for contented, happy little children.’
‘What does Bessie say I have done?’ I asked.
‘Jane, I don’t like cavillers or questioners; besides, there is something truly forbidding in a child taking up her elders in that manner. Be seated somewhere; and until you can speak pleasantly, remain silent.’
A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room, I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase; I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves in my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.
I returned to my book – Bewick’s ‘History of British Birds:’ the letterpress thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape –
‘Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides.’
Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with ‘the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space – that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold.’ Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in a sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreck just sinking.
I cannot tell what sentiment haunted the quite solitary churchyard, with its inscribed headstone; its gate, its two trees, its low horizon, girdled by a broken wall, and its newly risen crescent, attesting the hour of eventide.
The two ships becalmed on a torpid sea, I believed to be marine phantoms.
The fiend pinning down the thief’s pack behind him, I passed over quickly: it was an object of terror.
So was the black, horned thing seated aloof on a rock, surveying a distant crowd surrounding a gallows.
Each picture told a story; mysterious often to my undeveloped understanding and imperfect feelings, yet ever profoundly interesting: as interesting as the tales Bessie sometimes narrated on winter evenings, when she chanced to be in good humour; and when, having brought her ironing-table to the nursery-hearth, she allowed us to sit about it, and while she got up Mrs Reed’s lace frills, and crimped her nightcap borders, fed our eager attention with passages of love and adventure taken from old fairy tales and older ballads; or (as at a later period I discovered) from the pages of ‘Pamela,’ and ‘Henry, Earl of Moreland.’
With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy: happy at least in my way. I feared nothing but interruption, and that came too soon. The breakfast-room door opened.
‘Boh! Madam Mope!’ cried the voice of John Reed; then he paused: he found the room apparently empty.
‘Where the dickens is she?’ he continued. ‘Lizzy? Georgy! (calling to his sisters) Joan is not here: tell mamma she is run out into the rain – bad animal!’
‘It is well I drew the curtain,’ thought I, and I wished fervently he might not discover my hiding-place: nor would John Reed have found it out himself; he was not quick either of vision or conception; but Eliza just put her head in at the door, and said at once: ‘she is in the window-seat, to be sure, Jack.’
And I came out immediately, for I trembled at the idea of being dragged forth by the said Jack.
‘What do you want?’ I asked with awkward diffidence.
‘Say, “what do you want, Master Reed,”’ was the answer.
‘I want you to come here;’ and seating himself in an armchair, he intimated by a gesture that I was to approach and stand before him.
John Reed was a schoolboy of fourteen years old; four years older than I, for I was but ten; large and stout for his age, with a dingy and unwholesome skin; thick lineaments in a spacious visage, heavy limbs and large extremities. He gorged himself habitually at table, which made him bilious, and gave him a dim and bleared eye and flabby cheeks. He ought now to have been at school; but his mamma had taken him home for a month or two, ‘on account of his delicate health.’ Mr Miles, the master, affirmed that he would do very well if he had fewer cakes and sweetmeats sent him from home; but the mother’s heart turned from an opinion so harsh, and inclined rather to the more refined idea that John’s sallowness was owing to over-application, and, perhaps, to pining after home.
John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me. He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in a day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions; the servants did not like to offend their young master by taking my part against him, and Mrs Reed was blind and deaf on the subject: she never saw him strike or heard him abuse me, though he did both now and then in her very presence; more frequently, however, behind her back.
Habitually obedient to John, I came up to his chair: he spent some three minutes in thrusting out his tongue at me as far as he could without damaging the roots: I knew he would soon strike, and while dreading the blow, I mused on the disgusting and ugly appearance of him who would presently deal it. I wonder if he read that notion in my face; for, all at once, without speaking, he struck suddenly and strongly. I tottered, and on regaining my equilibrium retired back a step or two from his chair.
‘That is for your impudence in answering mamma a while since,’ said he, ‘and for your sneaking way of getting behind curtains, and for the look you had in your eyes two minutes since, you rat!’
Accustomed to John Reed’s abuse, I never had an idea of replying to it: my care was how to endure the blow which would certainly follow the insult.
‘What were you doing behind the curtain?’ he asked.
‘I was reading.’
‘Show the book.’
I returned to the window and fetched it thence.
‘You have no business to take our books; you are a dependent, mamma says; you have no money; your father left you none; you ought to beg, and not to live here with gentlemen’s children like us, and eat the same meals we do, and wear clothes at our mamma’s expense. Now, I’ll teach you to rummage my bookshelves: for they are mine; all the house belongs to me, or will do in a few years. Go and stand by the door, out of the way of the mirror and the windows.’
I did so, not at first aware what was his intention; but when I saw him lift and poise the book and stand in act to hurl it, I instinctively started aside with a cry of alarm: not soon enough, however; the volume was flung, it hit me, and I fell, striking my head against the door and cutting it. The cut bled, the pain was sharp: my terror had passed its climax; other feelings succeeded.
‘Wicked and cruel boy!’ I said. ‘You are like a murderer – you are like a slave-driver – you are like the Roman emperors!’
I had read Goldsmith’s ‘History of Rome,’ and had formed my opinion of Nero, Caligula, etc. Also I had drawn parallels in silence, which I never thought thus to have declared aloud.
‘What! what!’ he cried. ‘Did she say that to me? Did you hear her, Eliza and Georgiana? Won’t I tell mamma? but first—’
He ran headlong at me: I felt him grasp my hair and my shoulder: he had closed with a desperate thing. I really saw in him a tyrant: a murderer. I felt a drop or two of blood from my head trickle down my neck, and was sensible of somewhat pungent suffering: these sensations for the time predominated over fear, and I received him in frantic sort. I don’t very well know what I did with my hands, but he called me ‘Rat! rat!’ and bellowed out aloud. Aid was near him: Eliza and Georgiana had run for Mrs Reed, who was gone upstairs; she now came upon the scene, followed by Bessie and her maid Abbot. We were parted: I heard the words—
‘Dear! dear! What a fury to fly at Master John!’
‘Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!’
Then Mrs Reed subjoined: ‘Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there.’ Four hands were immediately laid upon me, and I was borne upstairs.
Reading Group Guide
Published in 1877, Anne Brontë’s first novel exposes with remarkable realism the hardships and exploitation endured by governesses in Victorian England. In a narrative that drew heavily on her own experience, Brontë’s goal was not to amuse or to entertain but, as Agnes Grey says, to benefit those whom it might concern—governesses themselves, whose numbers were rapidly growing in the late nineteenth century, and the British aristocracy who employed them. Because of the great imbalance in the ratio of women to men in England, with so many men living and working abroad in the far reaches of the British Empire, thousands of women were unable to marry. This problem was compounded by the strong social stigma against women working and the extremely limited professions to which they were admitted. Increasingly, out of desperation, women became governesses, accepting terms that would leave them exhausted, impoverished, and socially outcast. Brontë sought to make their plight visible to the English public and to arouse the kind of compassion that might lead to reform.
But Agnes Grey is hardly a didactic novel. By rendering the daily life of her protagonist with such vivid detail, and in a tone that is coolly restrained, Brontë lets Agnes Grey’s experience speak for itself. Abused by the children she is enjoined to teach, treated with derisive arrogance by the men and women who employ her, Agnes lives in a world without friends, adrift between the servant and the genteel classes, at home in neither. But it is the cruelty, vanity, and moral emptiness of the upper classes that the novel exposes most unsparingly. In her first position, with the Bloomfield family, young master Tom is shown to be a budding sociopath who delights in torturing helpless animals and is spurred on in this activity by his elders, who either merely condone the behavior or actively applaud it. When Agnes intervenes to spare a nestful of baby birds from Tom’s sadism, Uncle Robson says: “Curse me, if I ever saw a nobler little scoundrel than that. He’s beyond petticoat government already;—by G—, he defies his mother, granny governess, and all! Ha, ha, ha. Never mind, Tom, I’ll get you another brood tomorrow’” (p. 105). In her second place of employment, with the Murrays, Agnes tries and fails to reform young Rosalie, who derives a similar enjoyment from causing pain. The beautiful Miss Murray delights in playing the coquet with her suitors, manipulating their affections for the sole purpose of dashing their hopes and reveling in the suffering she causes them. When not actively cruel, Rosalie is often deeply unfeeling, a woman who regards her servants as “mere automatons” (p. 233). In such a world, a governess is considered only slightly more human than a servant and only slightly more deserving of sympathy than a nestful of baby birds.
Against this moral vacuum, Brontë places the love story between Agnes and the curate Edmund Weston. Unlike the cold-hearted and self-serving characters that surround them, Agnes and Edmund exemplify the Christian virtues of compassion, charity, and brotherly love. In their visits to the elderly widow Nancy Brown, both Edmund and Agnes demonstrate the ability—and the willingness—to feel the suffering of others and to do what is in their power to alleviate it. That they visit Nancy independently but also chance to experience their first meeting in Nancy’s humble dwelling is perfectly appropriate. Theirs will be a relationship based on a higher purpose, their love for each other rooted in a more selfless love for all their fellow beings, human and nonhuman alike. Indeed, how animals are treated in the novel offers a telling glimpse into Brontë’s moral critique of the English aristocracy. While his predecessor, Mr. Hatfield, kicks Nancy’s cat when it seeks his affection, Edmund caresses it and in fact rescues it from being shot by the gamekeeper. Similarly, Agnes takes care of the puppy, Snap, that Rosalie can’t be bothered to raise, and when it is given away to the rat-catcher, Edmund performs another rescue, saving the dog from a terrible fate. When Edmund is reunited with Agnes on the sands, it is Snap who leads the way to her.
Agnes Grey may be read in many ways—as an exposé of the plight of the English governess, as a searing indictment of the materialism and lack of empathy at the heart of Victorian values, and as a love story in which kindness and compassion are rewarded and vanity and heartlessness are punished. It is a testimony to Anne Brontë’s brilliance as a writer that she could seamlessly merge these themes into a narrative that is driven by a high purpose and simultaneously is such a pleasure to read.
ABOUT THE BRONTË SISTERS
Anne Brontë was born in 1820 and raised in the Yorkshire village of Haworth where her father was curate. She was educated at home and, as a child, she invented—with her sister Emily—the imaginary world of Gondal, for which she wrote copious chronicles and poems. After attending boarding school for two years, she left Haworth at the age of nineteen to work as governess, first with the Inghams at Blake Hall and, from 1840–45, with the Robinson family at Thorp Green. She drew heavily on her experience as a governess for her first novel, Agnes Grey, published under the pseudonym Acton Bell in 1847. The novel appeared in a single volume with her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. While critical reaction to Wuthering Heights was fiercely negative, reviewers barely noticed Agnes Grey, and most simply compared it unfavorably to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a more romantic novel which also deals with the life of a governess and which had created a literary sensation earlier in the year. Many aspects of Anne’s life find their way into Agnes Grey. Like her heroine, Brontë also wrote poetry. Brontë was the daughter of a curate and, like Agnes, seems to have fallen in love with another curate, William Weightman, who became an assistant priest in her father’s parish in 1839, and may have served as the model for Edmund Weston in Agnes Grey. Many other details of Anne’s character, home life, and education correspond to those of Agnes Grey.
Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) offers a powerful feminist critique of marriage laws and the crushing limitations and double standards that governed sexual morality and the education of men and women in Victorian England.
Anne Brontë’s creative life was cut short when she died at Scarborough in 1849 of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of twenty-nine. Long overshadowed by her more widely read and highly esteemed sisters, Anne Brontë is at last receiving the critical attention she deserves.
- Brontë begins her novel by writing that “All true histories contain instruction” (p. 61). What is Brontë’s purpose in writing the novel? In what ways is the book instructive? In what ways is it subversive?
- In her introduction to Agnes Grey, Angeline Goreau asserts that, “Through her ‘simple’ exposition of the case of the governess, Anne Brontë also gave her contemporaries an indictment of the ruthless materialism at the heart of Victorian life” (p. 45). Where is this “ruthless materialism” most keenly felt in the novel? How does it affect Agnes?
- What are the chief hardships Agnes faces as a governess? How does she feel about the injustices done to her? How does she respond to them?
- How are the upper and lower classes depicted in the novel? What are the major differences, for example, between Brontë’s portrayals of Nancy Brown and Rosalie Murray?
- Rosalie says that her husband Sir Thomas has never forgiven her for giving birth to a girl. What picture emerges in Agnes Grey of gender roles in Victorian England? In what ways are boys and men treated differently, and valued differently, than girls and women in the novel? What roles were available to women in Victorian England?
- When Agnes objects to Tom’s desire to torture baby birds, Mrs. Bloomfield replies: “You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience” (p. 105). What does this statement suggest about the worldview of the English aristocracy? What are the immediate and ultimate consequences of such a worldview? Where do such beliefs come from?
- In what ways does Edmund Weston differ from the rector, Mr. Hatfield? What do their vastly different responses to Nancy’s religious doubts reveal about how each views the essence of Christianity?
- Why are Edmund and Agnes so drawn to each other? In what ways are they an ideal, or perhaps idealized, match? How do their values, principles, and behavior set them apart from the most of the other major characters in the book?
- Why does Rosalie derive such enjoyment from misleading and tormenting her suitors? Does Brontë manage to make her a sympathetic character in spite of her vanity and lack of empathy?
- How are animals treated in the novel? In what ways do animals illuminate the moral characters of the human beings who interact with them?
- How might Anne Brontë view the situation of women today? What contemporary issues might move her to write a novel similar to Agnes Grey?
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