Agnes Grey

Agnes_GreyWhen Simon was in DC this past week, he mentioned to me that the male love interest in Agnes Grey is the most likable (perhaps the only truly likable) male love interest in any of the Brontë novels that he’s read. Despite my completely illogical crush on Edward Rochester left over from my initial reading of Jane Eyre, I know he’s not an ideal partner for anyone, except perhaps Jane Eyre and then only at the end of novel. Edward Weston, the man who wins the affection of the title character in Anne Brontë’s novel, is a much better choice. But a nicer romantic lead does not make for a better book. Agnes Grey is not a bad book, but it lacks the fire of the Brontës’ other novels, including Anne’s second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who has been able to provide well enough for his wife and two daughters, but when he becomes ill, the family must dip into the meager savings, and they begin to fear for the future. Younger daughter Agnes, who’s never been required to contribute to the housekeeping, asks that she be allowed to use the education her parents have provided to become a governess.

Most of the novel details Agnes’s experiences in two different positions, thus revealing the difficulty governesses faced in 19th century England. Agnes is an employee, required to do what the family demands, even if what they demand is impossible.

In her first position, she’s given charge of three unruly children who she must keep in line without actually disciplining them. To a modern reader, the elder son, Tom Broomfield, is clearly a budding sociopath who takes pleasure not just in going out shooting game, as any young man of his time might, but in catching and tormenting animals. Agnes is so shocked at his cruelty that at one point she kills a nest of birds that he’s been given so they can escape the pain he has in mind. She’s given no support in her work and has no friends. Socially, her rank keeps her from mingling with the other servants, and the family keeps its distance. Her position here is intolerable, and there’s righteous anger in Anne Brontë’s description of her life with the Broomfields is similar to the passion that will later show up in Tenant, where she lays bare the trauma of abusive marriages.

The last half of the book is tame in comparison. When Agnes is told her services will no longer be needed by the Broomfields, she takes her time finding a new position, hoping to avoid her earlier mistake by choosing a family higher in rank and with less unruly children. The Murrrays have four children, but the two boys go off to school not long after her arrival, and she’s left to attend to the education of the two teenage daughters. The girls, Rosalie and Matilda, are selfish but not as violently cruel and unruly as the Broomfield children. Agnes’s position in the household is subject to their whims:

I observed that while Mrs Murray was so extremely solicitous for the comfort and happiness of her children, and continually talking about it, she never once mentioned mine; though they were at home surrounded by friends, and I an alien among strangers; and I did not yet know enough of the world not to be considerably surprised at this anomaly.

During her time at the Murrays, Agnes meets Edward Weston, the local curate, and becomes strongly attached to him. He’s kind to her and interested in her life, and he seems like a good man with a lot of love and concern for people. His approach to ministry is different from that of the parish rector who is more inclined to scold and condemn than to reassure and embrace. But the fickle and socially superior Rosalie had made it her mission to win the heart of every man in the village, including Weston, so Agnes, always aware of her place, must step aside again and again, fearing that she’ll be invisible to Weston once Rosalie is in the way.

As admirable as Weston is as a character, the romance in the book is a little bland. It’s clear that Agnes and Edward are well-suited for each other, if they’re only given a chance to see it and act on it. There’s no witty banter to enjoy, and there’s no great emotional upheaval to revel in. The obstacles come from outside, and the only real question is whether Edward has seen enough of Agnes to know whether she’s a good partner. The two would make an excellent pair to be part of, but a less exciting one to read about. In fact, when it comes to romance, it’s Agnes’s parents who stand out, with their star-crossed courtship that has lasted. It’s got passion and a sense of being right. A good romance to read about needs both.

Agnes Grey is a good book, but the social commentary lacks the incisiveness of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and the romance lacks fire. Tenant, on the other hand, has a creakier plot, with a structure that doesn’t entirely work in the end and a romance that doesn’t work at all. Agnes is more modest in its narrative. It tells a simple story, straightforwardly with no major missteps, other than not being as compelling as it could be. With Tenant, it appears that Anne was pushing herself to try something more ambitious, and it ends up being more flawed but more absorbing.

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22 Responses to Agnes Grey

  1. Jeanne says:

    The most likeable love interest in any Bronte novel. Hmm. Kind of a booby prize, isn’t it? It’s the flaws that make the men in Bronte novels irresistible. You’re making me think about picking up my copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall again; I bought it when we were in Haworth because I hadn’t read it yet, but put it down one day and haven’t picked it back up yet.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, definitely a booby prize. I mean, he’d probably make for a better marriage partner, but only because he wouldn’t murder your family, lock you in the attic, or get drunk all the time. But that doesn’t make him interesting.

      I liked Tenant a lot. It does get heavy-handed in its didacticism, but Bronte doesn’t hold back her fury, and I like that about it.

  2. The novel is well-named, though. Grey as in colorless. Some of the earlier stuff with the kids has some color, I guess, but “bland” Is the right word for much of the novel.

    How can people think Rochester is not likable? The dude plays a giant “disguised as a gypsy” prank at his own party. He’s hilarious. Non-stop laughs.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought Tom’s behavior, along with his parents’ permissiveness, could have built up to something really interesting. There was a lot of potential for color, which in the early part of a book is good enough. The rest is just competent, good enough not to feel like a waste of time.

      As for Rochester, there’s likable as in fun at a party, and then there’s likable in not trying to marry you when he’s already got a wife locked in the attic.

      • Samantha says:

        And I always found that deception to be kind of dark and disturbing. Perhaps I was influenced by the musical version (yes, there is a musical theater version of Jane Eyre!), which I heard before I read the book. That particular scene is deliberately grotesque in the musical, so I read the book with the same feeling.

      • Jenny says:

        That’s the problem with extroverts. They are fun at parties but who knows what they have got in their attics.

      • It never even occurred to me to marry Rochester.

        A musical or film generally tosses out the narrator, right? That changes everything in Jane Eyre. I am tempted to say ruins everything.

        My vote, glancing down the comments, is For Completists, but Agnes Grey is an ordinary good novel of its time, not a genuine stinker like The Professor AG is essential for anybody writing a dissertation on the Victorian governess. Ten or twenty years ago there were apparently lots of people doing that.

      • Teresa says:

        You know, I think most of Rochester’s likability rests in the fact that Jane likes him, even when he’s being a jerk, and Jane is the steadfast conscience of the novel. I’m with Tom that removing her voice does serious damage. That might be one reason I’ve never found the films entirely satisfactory.

  3. Samantha says:

    I’m really looking forward to this one! By virtue of being my newest-purchased Bronte novel (and thus my only unread one), Agnes Grey gets to be my upcoming winter break book (and I still have an eye out for Tenant and Shirley). Glad to hear that it’s a good one! Thanks for the lovely review.

  4. Jenny says:

    Would you actually… recommend this book? Or is this only for Bronte completists? Of which I may or may not be one, I haven’t decided yet.

    • Teresa says:

      I wouldn’t disrecommend it, but it’s not essential reading. If it had been long, the more boring second half would have been deadly, but the whole thing is just 150 pages or so.

  5. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I really enjoyed reading this one, and I suspect it was due to its being so less tediously hung up on religion than Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I found the situation of the governess fascinating – all that stuff about how the boys are to be stuffed with Latin and the girls are to be made attractive. It made me happy to live when I do! Re the romance, when I go back and look at my notes, I see I found Mr Weston “insufferable”! ;-)

    • Teresa says:

      I have a high tolerance for religion, so I didn’t mind those parts of Tenant. Sometimes it got a little too explicit in its message, but I loved how angry the book is and how she’s just shaking her fist at the patriarchy and how pertinent aspects of the book still are.

  6. JaneGS says:

    I haven’t read this book, but it actually sounds pretty enjoyable and interesting. It also sounds awfully biographical :)

    I couldn’t read all of Tenant–I read the first half, and found the second half to be just more of the same and found myself skimming it.

    • Teresa says:

      I understand that a lot of it is based on Anne Bronte’s own experiences.

      Tenant’s second half isn’t as good as the first. It does eventually alter in its subject matter, but it turns into an unconvincing romance at that point.

  7. Stefanie says:

    I see what’s going on here. You like your romantic leading men to be dark and dashing with a splash of danger and Weston is clearly lacking ;) Your comparisons with Tenant have me curious though, how it is more flawed but its ambition makes up for it. I’ve read it but not Agnes Grey so you have succeeded in a roundabout way in making me want to read Agnes Grey!

    • Teresa says:

      Rochester is probably as dangerous as I like my romantic leads to be. What I really like are the leads who turn out to have more to them than meets the eye. Weston, on the other hand, is just dull. Nice, but dull.

  8. Natalie says:

    I’d never actually thought about it, but I suppose Weston is the only truly likeable Brontë love interest. When I read Agnes Grey, I too initially found it rather simple, but there seems to be a lot brimming below the surface in the book, and the scene with the birds that you included here seemed pretty shocking to me. And I love the wit in Agnes’s narration. When taken alongside The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey cements Anne as the most socially conscious Brontë.

    • Teresa says:

      That scene with the birds was shocking! If the book had continued in that vein, I’d have found it more interesting. I did wonder at times about the characterization of Agnes, whether there’s more going on with her than meets the eye. She talks about being spoiled, and then she complains about the spoiled children she cares for, for example. And I agree that Anne comes across as the most socially conscious Bronte.

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