Agnes Grey Book Review
Book Cover of Agnes Grey
The Book Agnes Grey
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is one of the classics of English literature. Although overshadowed by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the classics of Anne's sisters Charlotte and Emily, Agnes Grey is definitely very interesting and enjoyable reading. Anne Bronte's portrayal of the resilience, integrity, and survival of one woman in the face of upper class snobbery and social values was pioneering in the patriarchal society of Victorian England in the first half of the 1800s. In this article, I will begin with a brief biography of Anne Bronte, and then account for the setting, characters, plot, and themes in Agnes Grey. I will conclude by commenting on the strengths and weaknesses of the novel.
Bronte Sisters Painted by Brother Branwell in 1834
Anne Bronte, born on January 17, 1820, was a British novelist and poet. She was the youngest member of the Bronte literary family which included her oldest sister, Charlotte, and second oldest sister, Emily. Anne also had an older brother, Branwell.
Being the daughter of a poor Irish clergyman in the Church of England, Anne Bronte spent most of her early years with her family at the parish of Haworth in West Yorkshire. After studying for a few years at a boarding school, Anne departed Haworth at the age of 19 and secured employment as a governess between 1839 and 1845.
After leaving her governess teaching position, Anne Bronte fulfilled her literary ambitions. She first wrote a volume of poetry under the pen name of Acton Bell with her sisters (Poems by Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, 1846.) Following this, Anne wrote two novels. The first, Agnes Grey, paralleling her experiences as a governess, was published in 1847. Anne Bronte's second and last novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, came out in 1848. Anne's second novel is considered to be one of the first feminist novels in Victorian England exposing the maltreatment of women through marital oppression and abuse.
Following Anne Bronte's death of pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1849, the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was prevented by Charlotte Bronte probably for selfish and jealous reasons. For this reason, Anne Bronte is less well-known than her sisters, Charlotte, author of Jane Eyre, and Emily, author of Wuthering Heights.
Biographical information about Anne Bronte was taken from Wikipedia.
The Bronte Sisters
West Yorkshire in Northern England
The Haworth Village Center in West Yorkshire
A Reading from Chapter 1 of Agnes Grey
The Book - Agnes Grey - an Autobiographical Novel
Agnes Grey is an autobiographical novel with similarities between its events and Anne's life as a governess. According to Charlotte Bronte, in April of 1839, Anne took up a governess position with the Ingham family of Blake Hall, Mirfield, in West Yorkshire, 20 miles from Haworth. This strongly parallels Agnes Grey's governess position with the Bloomfields. In December of 1839, Anne was dismissed from her position with the Ingham family just like Agnes was fired by the Bloomfields. Furthermore, based on Charlotte Bronte's accounts, Anne found a second governess position at Thorp Green, Little Ouseburn, near York, 70 miles away, just like Agnes' second position is further from home with the older children of the Murrays. The fictional Murrays of Horton Lodge resemble the Robinsons of Thorp Green, especially Mrs. Murray who echos Mrs. Lydia Robinson.
The setting for the novel, Agnes Grey, is in northern England in the West Yorkshire countryside and the fictitious village of O near Horton Lodge, Wellwood Mansion, and the village of A on the sea during the first half of the 19th century.
The main characters in this novel are Agnes Grey, the youngest daughter of a poor clergyman, and her mother who remains a pillar of strength for the family during the novel.
Significant secondary characters that appear as the plot unfolds include the Bloomfields where Agnes has her first governess position, and the Murrays where Agnes Grey has her succeeding governess position.
While employed at the Murrays, Rosalie Murray, Agnes' oldest student, plays a big part in bringing out the governess' personality as well as curate Edward Weston who establishes both an intellectual and emotional connection with Agnes. Finally, Nancy Brown, one of the cottagers on the Murray estate, teaches the governess how to experience joy in helping the less fortunate.
3. Plot Summary
Agnes Grey is the youngest daughter of a clergyman who through a bad investment loses his savings and becomes very poor. Agnes who is determined to help support her family and herself, finds a job as a governess to the children of the wealthy upper-class. After working with two different families, the Bloomfields and the Murrays, Agnes learns that it isn't easy to control misbehaved, spoiled children for making a living. She also gradually sees how wealth and upper-class status ruin social values. After the passing away of her father, Agnes and her mother open a small school for girls and find happiness, especially after Agnes reunites with her soul mate.
Bronte Sister Classics
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Some Themes in Agnes Grey
These are some of the recurring themes which I found while reading Agnes Grey.
1. Desire to Return Home and Aid Family
Throughout the novel, Agnes Grey as a devout filial child has a desire to return home and care for the needs of her family. The first time she does this is after being dismissed from her governess position by the Bloomfields. The second time is on the occasion of the death of her father when she returns home and assists her mother in opening a boarding school for girls.
There are events showing the cruel treatment of governesses and of women recurring throughout the novel. The governess, Agnes, is treated almost as a servant by the Bloomfields. Clergyman Hatfield, surprisingly, shows cruel treatment to Nancy Brown by expecting her to walk to church when she is ill. Finally, Agnes' mother who comes from an upper-class family, is disowned and disinherited by her father after marrying a clergyman.
At both the Bloomfields and the Murrays, Agnes attempts to instill in her students the ability to empathize with others. This is clearly seen in her dialogs with Rosalie Murray whose insincere treatment of loving men clearly upsets the governess.
Agnes appears to be isolated from childhood. After growing up in a rural setting away from society, Agnes becomes more isolated while working as a governess.
5. Empathy and Treatment of Animals
Agnes teaches her students to respect animals like humans. She is abhorred when the young Bloomfield children mistreat baby birds found in a nest.
Agnes Grey Book Review
Agnes Grey Book Review
After reading this classic, I find the following strengths and weaknesses:
Style - Unlike the overly romantic and moralizing novels of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey has a perfect and simple prose which makes it very easy and enjoyable reading for everyone.
Honest Reality - Anne Bronte is one of the pioneering female writers who honestly and realistically reveals the oppression of governesses and of women in Victorian society.
Teaching Empathy for People and Animal - It was a breath of fresh air to read the accounts of a person in the early 1800s who could empathize with both people and animals.
Advocating Moral Ethics Upheld by All - As a governess, Agnes Grey taught her students that all people regardless of social class must be treated equally with moral ethics and values.
Plot - The plot could have been more complex. There really weren't any unexpected turns in the story. If readers are expecting a plot similar to that of Jane Eyre, they will be disappointed.
Revelation of Conscience - In Jane Eyre, the governess bares her conscience when portraying her relationship with Mr. Rochester. In Agnes Grey, the reader is often, especially up until the later part of the novel, guessing about the exact feelings which Agnes has for Edward Weston.
Agnes Grey is a novel which everyone will enjoy reading. It's simple prose makes it very easy reading, and after reading Agnes Grey, you will quickly empathize with the maltreatment of governesses and of women during Victorian England in the early 19th century.
© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn
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