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 degradation.

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 was.

[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 pains.

[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 prevent it.

[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 that."

[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 sufficient.