Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
I’ve read Jane Eyre several times, loving it for its gothic atmosphere, its strong vein of passion, its story of love that knows no bounds. I’ve struggled through Wuthering Heights (I hope to re-read it again and see how I fair this time around) once, struck (not in a positive way for me) by its wild passion and stormy love story. Then I read Agnes Grey and it was so normal.
I could so imagine myself sitting with Anne Bronte a.k.a Agnes Grey, in a coffee shop, catching up with each other after, say, five years. I would greet her with a laugh and ask her how the molly-coddled baby of the family had managed her years as a governess. She would smile and relate to me her hopes and simple ambitions to prove to her family that she can take care of herself and help be a decent provider to the family; how her excitement mounted up while on her way to meet her new mistress and her children. And then her face would change, the hope would die out of her voice as she related the horrors passing for children. She would relate how much she had tried, through patience and strong will to help these children overcome their brattiyish nature, but at the end was fired. Then she’d mention her second stint with a couple of older girls, so completely involved with themselves that they cannot think of others. She would mention Weston, the curate, and of how much she loved but had to suffer in silence as her pupils sought to take him away from her. Then would come the news of her father’s death, and her mother’s school. And finally, a quiet happily ever after for her.
Agnes Grey is so real. There is absolutely no drama, except for the mild bit of it we see with Rosalie, Agnes’ pupil, and the young curate. Anne Bronte could so easily have been giving us a biography of a governess during that time. The life of the governess was a very mean one. Most families who employed them were rather dismissive of them in general, and the servants always followed their masters’ cue. Their control over their pupils vastly depended upon the amount of control the parents sanctioned. And so, their hands were quite figuratively tied.
I think Anne Bronte brings out all this in her quiet way. There are no fireworks. There is no passion. But the story and the sentiments flow slowly yet steadily through the pages. Do I like Agnes Grey better than Jane Eyre? No. I doubt I would pick it up again. Yet, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad that there was something different to experience from Anne Bronte, different from her sister Emily and Charlotte. I don’t really see Agnes Grey as a ground-breaking work. It is a very staid novel. But it is a novel that isn’t lacking in courage. Anne Bronte tells us right at the start of the novel, that she really needs to put down what she knows:
All the histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge. I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself. Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend. (p.15)
I guess, she mostly sought to lend a moral boost to those other women out there who had no other honest way of earning a living than to become governesses. Entertainment was meant only for those who didn’t particularly look for the moral instruction. Whatever her motives might have been, I think she did a rather good job. I have to admit, that before I started reading this book, I wondered how much I would find myself comparing her to Charlotte Bronte. I never did once think of comparing her with Emily. I guess, this was mainly because of the ‘governess theme’. However, Anne Bronte made this book her own. Any comparison I thought I would be making stopped dead on the tracks of the very first paragraph of the very first chapter.
Agnes Grey isn’t brilliant. It’s no show stopper. But it is definitely worth its salt.