When 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.