Agnes Grey — A Small Jewel about a
Search for Respect and Love
Looking to explore Anne Brontë's writings, I found (and purchased) a hardcover
containing both of her novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. In this edition,
Tenant stretched for nearly 500 pages, while Agnes occupied a mere 203. I decided to
read the epic-length Tenant first and save Agnes for dessert.
That instinct was on point. Tenant was a dense, meaty story dwelling on
dark themes (see my review). In contrast, Agnes is a much
lighter confection, in which most of the worst scenes describe disrespect rather than wholesale
Following a tenuous childhood as the daughter of a poor clergyman and a squire's
daughter who married beneath her station, 18-year-old Agnes leaves home in search of income and adventure. She
serves, in succession, as governess to two families that are different in their structure but similar in their
spoiling of progeny and in their disdain for the hired help. Supposedly, the frustrations and ill treatment Anne
portrays mirror her own travails as a governess.
After trying (and failing) to instill manners and maturity into some young
charges, Agnes moves to a new situation where she is tasked with turning two teenage girls into ladies. Their
resistance to her efforts, and their generally uncaring and often appalling behavior, drive poor Agnes to
distraction. One of her few small escapes from her despondence comes on Sundays, when the family visits
church — a familiar environment made more intriguing by the entry of a new young curate.
Subtle and not. Several types of actions weave their way
through Agnes: subtle ones, blatant ones that the actor thinks are subtle, and straightforward ones with
no pretense. The second of those categories is exemplified by Rosalie Murray, the elder of the two teen girls. Vain
and Machiavellian, she concocts schemes designed to break men's hearts. Her intentions are painfully obvious to
Agnes, who tries fruitlessly to talk sense to Miss Murray. However, it is all theoretical until Rosalie decides to
target the new curate, Mr. Weston, who has inspired tender feelings in Agnes.
While she conducts her governess duties in a forthright way and tells the
children exactly what she thinks, Agnes displays far subtler signs as her feelings toward Mr. Weston swell. She
becomes concerned with her appearance; feels crestfallen when she fails to encounter him while walking around the
countryside; and is struck with jealousy when Rosalie tries to charm the object of her affection.
Will poor smitten Agnes ever catch the attentions —let alone affections — of
Mr. Weston? Will Rosalie trap, or be trapped by, one of her gentleman targets? Surely you don't think I will reveal
those answers here!
Short and sweet. Although not all outcomes in this
story are happy ones, Agnes Grey is a generally uplifting novel. That's true both of the subject matter
and of Anne's beautifully wrought, often understated prose, which can make the reader smile even when the
protagonist is facing tribulations. It's an easy read compared to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but I
recommend it just as highly.
While trying to pick out quotations to feature here, I found myself
copying entire pages. Only with difficulty could I trim my list down to the passages you see below.
[Agnes, summing up awful events that echoed the loss of Anne's own
siblings:] Of six children, my sister Mary and myself were the only two that survived the perils of infancy
and early childhood.
[Recognizing her sheltered childhood:] True, I was near
nineteen, but, thanks to my retired life, and the protecting care of my mother and sister, I well knew that many a
girl of fifteen, or under, was gifted with a more womanly address, and great ease and self-possession, than I
[A burst of naive optimism that it must have pained Anne to
write:] How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to
act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and
something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food
and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mama and Mary that I was not quite the
helpless, thoughtless being they supposed. And then, how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of
children! … To train the tender plants, and watch their buds unfolding day by day!
[The sad truth being revealed to Agnes:] … Mrs. Bloomfield
further enlightened me on the subject of her children’s dispositions and acquirements, and on what they were to
learn, and how they were to be managed, and cautioned me to mention their defects to no one but herself. My mother
had warned me before, to mention them as little as possible to her, for people did not like to be told of
their children’s faults, and so I concluded I was to keep silence on them altogether.
[Her awful realization about her duties:] The name of
governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me; my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a
wild, unbroken colt.
[But she is determined to press on ... :] Patience, Firmness,
and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.
[... even in the face of great resistance:] The task of
instruction was as arduous for the body as the mind. I had to run after my pupils, to catch them, to carry, or drag
them to the table, and often forcibly to hold them there, till the lesson was done.
[The author, explaining why she wrote far fewer criticisms than she
might have:] I have not enumerated half the vexatious propensities of my pupils, or half the troubles
resulting from my heavy responsibilities, for fear of trespassing too much upon the reader’s patience, as perhaps,
I have already done; but my design, in writing the few last pages, was not to amuse, but to benefit those whom it
might concern: he that has no interest in such matters will doubtless have skipped them over with a cursory glance,
and perhaps, a malediction against the prolixity of the writer; but if a parent has, therefrom, gathered any useful
hint, or an unfortunate governess received thereby the slightest benefit, I am well rewarded for my
[Sharply and wittily skewering a nasty relative of her
employers:] He was a thick-set, strongly built man, but he had found some means of compressing his waist into
a remarkably small compass, and that, together with the unnatural stiffness of his form, showed that the
lofty-minded, manly Mr Robson, the scorner of the female sex, was not above the foppery of stays. He seldom deigned
to notice me; and, when he did, it was with a certain supercilious insolence of tone and manner that convinced me
he was no gentleman, though it was intended to have a contrary effect.
[On the first family's mother's reaction to her children's bad
behavior:] Mrs Bloomfield had the sense to be shocked and annoyed at all this, but she had not sense to
[A nice illustration of how well Anne's words paint pictures:]
It was with a strange feeling of desolation, mingled with a strong sense of the novelty of my situation, and a
joyless kind of curiosity concerning what was yet unknown, that I awoke the next morning; feeling like one whirled
away by enchantment, and suddenly dropped from the clouds into a remote and unknown land, widely and completely
isolated from all he had ever seen or known before; or like a thistle-seed borne on the wind to some strange nook
of uncongenial soil, where it must lie long enough before it can take root and germinate, extracting nourishment
from what appears so alien to its nature: if, indeed, it ever can.
[Bemoaning the attitude of the second family's mother:] For
the girls she seemed anxious only to render them as superficially attractive and showily accomplished as they could
possibly be made, without present trouble or discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly — to study and
strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no
exercise of authority on mine.
[That attitude is reflected in her daughters:] [A]ltogether
you could not hesitate to pronounce her a very lovely girl. I wish I could say as much for mind and disposition as
I can for her form and face.
[The daughter's typical level of respect for others:] "Miss
Grey, do put away that dull, stupid letter, and listen to me! I’m sure my talk must be far more amusing than
[Agnes's quiet despair at her circumstances:] Never a new idea
or stirring thought came to me from without; and such as rose within me were, for the most part, miserably crushed
at once, or doomed to sicken or fade away, because they could not see the light. ... Already, I seemed to feel my
intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting; and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions
should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk, at
last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life.
[The reader begins to understand how large of a role Mr. Weston is
playing in Agnes's life:] It struck me, first, as very odd, that just as I was thinking about Mr. Weston he
should come up and accost me; but afterwards, on due reflection, I thought there was nothing odd about it, unless
it were the fact of his speaking to me; for on such a morning and so near his own abode, it was natural enough that
he should be about; and as for my thinking of him, I had been doing that, with little intermission, ever since we
set out on our journey; so there was nothing remarkable in that.
[More signs of her mind's workings:] As I am in the way of
confessions I may as well acknowledge that, about this time, I paid more attention to dress than ever I had done
before. This is not saying much—for hitherto I had been a little neglectful in that particular; but now, also, it
was no uncommon thing to spend as much as two minutes in the contemplation of my own image in the glass; though I
never could derive any consolation from such a study.
[Continuing in that theme, with an observation that could be
compared to Jane Eyre's views on beauty and that ends with a surprising
twist:] It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about
it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.
So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and
proper, no doubt; but are such assertions supported by actual experience?
[Agnes's feelings toward Mr. Weston gain worrisome power:] I
knew my strength was declining, my appetite had failed, and I was grown listless and desponding;—and if, indeed, he
could never care for me, and I could never see him more—if I was forbidden to minister to his happiness—forbidden,
for ever, to taste the joys of love, to bless, and to be blessed—then, life must be a burden, and if my heavenly
Father would call me away, I should be glad to rest.
[Another simply lovely passage:] The shadow of this wall soon
took possession of the whole of the ground as far as I could see, forcing the golden sunlight to retreat inch by
inch, and at last take refuge in the very tops of the trees. Ere long, even they were left in shadow—the shadow of
the distant hills, or of the earth itself; and, in sympathy for the busy citizens of the rookery, I regretted to
see their habitation, so lately bathed in glorious light, reduced to the sombre, work-a-day hue of the lower world,
or of my own world within.
[Agnes's conclusion, and my own:] And now I think I have said