Anne Bronte and her novel "Agnes Grey" : a review

A sketch of Anne Bronte done by her sister, Charlotte.
A sketch of Anne Bronte done by her sister, Charlotte. | Source
Anne Bronte's grave in Scarborough, England.
Anne Bronte's grave in Scarborough, England. | Source

1820 - 1849

The famous Bronte family of 19th century England, also produced another accomplished writer in the youngest of the Bronte children, and that was Anne Bronte. She, along with her two older sisters, Emily and Charlotte, was an English poet and novelist. She was the author of two novels, Agnes Grey in 1847, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848. Both novels were published under her pseudonym Acton Bell, and Agnes Grey was published along with her sister's novels, Wuthering Heights, by Emily and Jane Eyre, by Charlotte.

The Bronte family lived at Haworth in Yorkshire, England as their father became the. rector of Haworth in 1820, and he remained there for the rest of his life. Anne's mother died in 1821, along with two older sisters, Elizabeth and Mariah, who died a few years after the mother. Anne also had an older brother. All the Bronte children were sickly during their lives and all succumbed to tuberculosis in the end.

Anne was educated at home at the family's Haworth home in the cold and isolated moors and at Roe Head School. With her sister Emily, as children, she invented the imaginary kingdom of Gondal of which she wrote many poems. To entertain themselves in the bleak, and lonely parsonage of their father, they lived in this imaginary kingdom and became writers to pass the time living on the lonely moors of England in Yorkshire.

When Anne was nineteen, she took a brief position as a governess in 1839. When that position ended within a year, she then took another governess position for four years from 1841-45. She returned home to Haworth in 1845.

It was her experiences as a governess with these two families that became the subject of her novel, Agnes Grey, a semi-autobiographical novel. The novel depicts the travails of a minster's daughter in her service as a governess first to the unruly Bloomfield children and then to the callous Murray family.

Through the novel, Anne looks at the lonely and isolated position of a governess that Agnes experiences working for wealthy families in the early Victorian times. She also deals with the issues of abuse and oppression a governess experiences at the mercy of the families she works for.

During this time period, a governess was in a limbo class state: not a servant but not on equal terms with the family who has hired her either, since she must work for a living. However, a governess position was all that was respectable and available to poor but educated women of that time period. Anne looked at a governess as in a precarious position because one was at mercy of the the wealthy family that employed her.

In 1846, Anne joined her two sisters, Emily and Charlotte, and contributed twenty-one of her written poems to the publication, Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. It was published by all three sisters.

Next, she wrote her two novels and in 1849 she died from tuberculosis and was buried in Scarborough, England. She is the only sibling not buried at Haworth with the rest of the family.


The Bronte Family

Book cover of the novel Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte.
Book cover of the novel Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte. | Source

Agnes Grey

Anne's novel, Agnes Grey came about as the result of her reflections on life as a governess found in her diary in July 1845. She set about to have the main character, Agnes, to be a semi-autobiographical look at the life of a governess.

Through this central character, Anne was able to deal with the issues of oppression and abuse to women and governesses in early Victorian times. The isolation and loneliness of the life of a governess, never being really part of the family she works for, and the precariousness of a governess' position became the central themes of the novel. Another minor theme she deals with is the fair treatment of animals.

The Plot

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister, whose family comes to financial ruin when they lose all their money to lost investments. Agnes wants to care for herself and seeks employment as a governess as this was the only suitable and respectable employment for poor but educated women in early Victorian England.

She becomes a governess to children of the wealthy. She works for the Bloomfield's and the Murray's who clearly represent the two families Anne worked for as governesses. Agnes learns the troubles that face a young woman who must rein in spoiled, unruly children for a living and about the ability of wealth and status to destroy social values.

When Agnes' father dies, she resigns her governess position to open a small school with her mother and finds happiness with a man who loves her and sees her for herself, not as a governess. She and the husband, also a minister, have three children, two girls and a boy, and Agnes lives happily ever after for Victorian times.

Anne's style of writing is both witty, subtle and full of ironies and the novel comes off as very similar to the qualities of a Jane Austen novel. There are great scenes of Agnes verbally sparring with the spoiled children who are selfish and self-absorbed, and with the parents who are apathetic about their children's education and behavior. Anne provides minute observations and fine authorial irony and uses the delicate power of understatement, as Agnes tries to help to turn around the behavior of her charges, but with little success.

One of the most memorable scenes from the novel for me was when Agnes kills a group of birds to save them from being tortured by one of her pupils. This was taken from an actual incident when Anne was governess for the Ingham family. It is heartbreaking to read as Agnes stones the birds to death so that the family's bratty little boy cannot torture them to death. Then, Agnes has to deal with the parents who see nothing wrong with what the young boy was attempting to do. This goes with the theme of fairness to animals and having empathy and feelings for those smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable.

The novel has a somber tone to it and Agnes displays a strong Puritan personality reflected in her name. Agnes is Greek for chaste and Grey is associated with Quakers and quietists to express disassociation from gaudy worldliness.

The fiction part of the novel is the love story that ensues for Agnes during her second governess position, the marriage and the happy ending. Agnes is rescued, not by a dashing Byronic hero as in Jane Eyre, or by a moody, dark, passionate love of a Heathcliff as in Wuthering Heights, but by a man who is good, decent and hard-working as the minister of a small Protestant parish, in keeping with the Puritan personality of Agnes.

The Themes

One of the major themes of the novel is the cruel treatment of governesses and of women that recurs throughout Agnes Grey. Agnes is humiliated and degraded by the parents of the charges she is hired to teach. They undermine her authority with the children; in fact, they give her no authority over the children whatsoever, and then criticize and complain when the children's behavior does not improve under Agnes' tutelage.

The children are wild and unruly, talk back to Agnes, and are lazy and uninterested in learning anything Agnes has to offer. The men who head the families want nothing but peace and quiet and perfectly behaved children, but refuse to support Agnes when she tries to discipline or change the children's behavior for the better.

Besides book learning, Agnes tries to impart empathy in her charges and teach them the ability to empathize with others, but to no avail. As with the book learning, these children do not pick up on life skills lessons either.

The theme of isolation is a major one also in the novel. Once Agnes becomes a governess she is isolated by the long distance she is from her loving family. She is further isolated by the alienation of her employers who want nothing to do with her outside of her working hours. In the novel, Agnes uses this isolation by the family to her advantage as an opportunity for self-study and personal development.

While Agnes Grey is a well written and witty novel, it is overshadowed by Emily's Wuthering Heights, and Charlotte's, Jane Eyre. Agnes is passionate about her work, but more Puritan when it comes to love. Her husband is no dashing Byronic hero or obsessive lover. There is no great passionate love for Agnes as there is for Cathy in Wuthering Heights or Jane in Jane Eyre.

While I found the novel very interesting, it did not move me like the other two novels did. I would say this is written more in the feminist vein as it tries to portray the condition of governesses in early Victorian England. I found it interesting from a teaching standpoint as I have experienced the unruly and spoiled children and the apathetic parents.

I also think it is interesting to read as part of the Bronte sister's trilogy: Emily's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's Agnes Grey. Over time each novel has become an English classic. All were written at the same time and published together in 1847. Each is different in its own way and each is a different love story, but each is similar in the depiction of the lonely and bleak moors in Yorkshire.




Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved




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Comments 25 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Excellent review and profile of Bronte! I have to admit, I'm not a huge Bronte fan, but I certainly can understand her appeal to those with more refined tastes than I have. :)

Great job Suzette!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank yoy billybuc! I like the Bronte sisters because they wrote novels around strong women as the main characters. I think they were ahead of their time and proto-feminists. They really do depict the Victorian era in England. The mores then were so rigid and refined and you can learn alot about life then, especially for women. Thanks for your comments and for reading this!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

I have read Agnes Grey, but I didn't know even half this much about Bronte. Thank you for sharing.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

It seems we all write from what we know. The Bronte sisters try to move away from home, only to return after fairly short stints in albeit, miserable positions. As I read your captivating review of Agnes Grey, I felt that Anne Bronte was ahead of her time in the arena of abuse related to the vulnerable, particularly in her efforts to prevent animal abuse...a Victorian Champion of the Underdog. I was also struck by the absolute loyalty as part of the Bronte family dynamics.

Considering the contagious nature of tuberculosis, it is no wonder that so many in this family succumbed to it. Even if the children were born healthy, they didn't have a chance in the Victorian times. Even now, tuberculosis remains a scourge. I read that one of the reasons that the Occupy camps were eventually closed was due to the number of tent populace being infected with TB.

From your synopsis, Suzette, I gather that of the sisters, Anne seemed to write more from personal experience than her writer siblings in those areas where imagination was required. Anne describes a fictional husband more like her father, whereas her sisters imagine dashing, passionate men, far removed from the idea of a minister.

Someday, I would like to take the time to read each classic novel and with this interesting background you have provided, see how much I can decipher about each author, where there differences are and how it relates to their writing. Thank you, Suzette, for stirring my interest in the Bronte sisters and their classic works with your article that makes these "out of my range" writers so real.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: Thanks so much for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed this. The Brontes are an interesting family.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: I have to chuckle at the Bronte sisters. They move away from home then are unhappy because of homesickness and move back home. For feminists, they are sometimes quite wimpy. The heroines in there novels are stronger women then they actually are. It is sad that they all died of tuberculosis and their father actually outlived all of them. These writers are not "out of your range." Remember, it took time for Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey to become popular and classics. Jane Eyre was the only one popular at the time with any critical success. You will one day get to these classics. I read them when I was young and then read them again later in my adult life. They are better, I think, the later in life you read them. You can read these when you are lying on that Belize beach in retirement. LOL You'll make it someday! Thanks for reasding this Amy. Your insightful comments are always so interesing to read. Most appreciated.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I am laughing as I read your "quite wimpy" evaluation, Suzette. I thought that at first, but then figured, once they'd been out in the world as a nanny or governess, they must have missed the homelife they'd left. Comparatively speaking, the situation that Anne found herself in was the worst possible scenario (or almost), while at home she was free to indulge her creativity. From the sounds of it, I assume her job wasn't 9 to 5, but, more than likely she was "on duty" until the overindulged little darlings went to bed, leaving her with little time for anything else. Considering the fact that she took one job and went on to serve as governess for another family that lasted for a 4-year period, means she had more perserverence than I. I imagine she laid her head on the pillow at night and dreamed of home!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Well, perhaps I've been too harsh. But, I put up with the little darlings for 30 years and somehow I survived. But, it is good to hear the other side of things.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Actually, Suzette, I think you are right. I am notorious for giving way beyond a reasonable doubt. It's disgusting, even to me. Strong means strong and wimpy means wimpy, despite the circumstances.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

I think it is good to look at both sides of any situation. I said in the article and then I am forgetting these girls were quite sickly during their lives and that probably had something to do with it too. I'm having one of those no good bad days and I'm down on everything today. Lol. So it is good you are balancing out my comments!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

Your open mind, curiosity and inquistive nature, Suzette, are precisely the reasons I know that if I had been so fortunate to have a teacher like you, I would have truly valued and sought out higher education.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

I personally love Agnes Grey and believe it to be a fine story. The life of a governess was indeed hard and unrewarding. All those stories about the governess finding love and marrying a wealthy dashing man are great to read but not very realistic. Agnes Grey offers the viewpoint from one who knew.

I would never call the Bronte sisters wimpy. I think they were true to the time they lived in. Young single women worked in the few professions available or lived at home where they were safe and cared for. I see that as family love and unity. Renting a home and living alone just wasn't done. But I admit I am a romantic and like to see the positive in relationships. Thank you for this great review. Now I will have to reread the book for the 17th time.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Dearest Amy: You and I are a mutual admiration society going on here. LOL I always love your comments. You have so much life experience that is so different from mine yet I admire so much in you. I wish I had your streets smarts. I am in much better spirits today. I am sure you have had one of those days where there is so much to do and not enough hours to get it done. Well, that was me yesterday, so I had a grumpy, negative attitude. But, today, I feel much better.

Amy, you could do anything and accomplish anything you want to in this world, with or without a higher education. Things are tough for everyone today, with the exception of the super-rich, so we all are just trying to get along in the world. You always brighten my days!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Hyphen: Well, you always brighten my days, too. Thanks for reading this. I just got around to reading Agnes Grey recently with my interestin in the Bronte sisters. I had read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre years ago, but never got to Anne's book. So now I've done the triology and taken together they are quite interesting. Wuthering Heights is still my favorite of the three, though. I don't really think the girls were "whimpy." If you read the next several comments, I do backtrack my comment. I was in a funky mood last night and I do agree with what you say. They loved their family and that strong bond they all had together, which can be so rare in the world. So, I take back the "whimpy "comment as I really do try to keep an open mind about these things.


Gypsy48 profile image

Gypsy48 4 years ago

I enjoy the works of the Bronte sisters and have read their books over and over. I love that time period. Interesting hub Suzette. Voted up and awesome :)


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 4 years ago from North America

I have not read this novel, but your review has led me to do so very soon! Thanks for alerting us to books we might enjoy. I certainly cannot keep track of them all, but love to discover new ones to me through Hubs. Rated Up and many others.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

I understand. Sometimes we forget that life was very different then. You made me want to read the book so I downloaded it on my Kindle alone with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. No sleep for me tonight but I shall be a happy girl even with shadows under my eyes tomorrow.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Gypsy: Thanks so much and I'm glad you enjoyed this article. I like the time period also, but am glad I live today. LOL Thanks for the votes. Much appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks Patty. I'm glad this has inspired you to read the novel. You will enjoy it. In fact, I believe anything written by the Bronte sisters is good to read. Thanks for your visit - most appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hyphen: So glad you are going to read these. I also read them off my Kindle also. I love my Kindle, it is so convenient. Glad to hear you enjoy these novels and thanks so much for the re-visit!


dreamseeker2 4 years ago

I never knew there was three sisters. Now you have me wanting all the sisters books. : ) Thanks for sharing your enlightened information and background on the youngest of such famous sisters in writing. Voted up, of course.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi dreamseeker2: Yes, all three sisters wrote English classic novels - they were quite a talented family. I recommend all three novels, but my personal favorite is Wuthering Heights. These three women wrote about women's issues during Victorian times and we are still discussing them today. Thanks so much for your comments - most appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi dreamseeker2: Yes, all three sisters wrote English classic novels - they were quite a talented family. I recommend all three novels, but my personal favorite is Wuthering Heights. These three women wrote about women's issues during Victorian times and we are still discussing them today. Thanks so much for your comments - most appreciated!


sharonchristy profile image

sharonchristy 2 years ago from India

Thank you for that lovely summary. I've already read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre but reading your hub has prompted me to read Agnes Gray too. Lovely as usual!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM Author

sharonchristy: I find it amazing that each of the Bronte sisters were talented writers. All from one family. That is amazing. 'Agnes Gray' is interesting and makes a feminist statement but not nearly as good or deep as 'Jane Eyre' or 'Wuthering Heights' but interesting in its own right.

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