Reflections on a classic: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Agnes Grey was the debut novel of Anne Bronte, first published in 1847, and republished in a second edition in 1850. When her father falls into debt, Agnes takes up work as a governess for the English gentry, despite the misgivings of her family, and the story thus follows her experiences. The novel is inspired by Anne’s own experiences as a governess and there is much within the story that gave me pause to reflect.

Themes of oppression, isolation, and abuse of governesses within the families of the English gentry were key themes throughout this novel. Also, there was particular consideration to the fair treatment of animals, all creatures great and small, along with empathy for the poor, sick, and infirm. To me, this novel was layered with intent. On the surface, we see Agnes operating as a governess, her charges within her first family absolute little horrors, with nothing but condemnation offered to her by the parents. Her second family was made up of older children, slightly less horrendously behaved, but still significantly entitled and rude, the parents equally so. There are many instances of humour, the sort of sharp wit that is resonate with Austen’s works, but beneath this layer was one of despair, that Agnes should be treated so unfairly, and isolation, as the governess is beneath the family but above the servants, and on call all the time, thus preventing her from making friends and having her own social circle.

We do see, despite the entitlement of the children, the heavy influence a good governess had on a family. As one of her charges marries and moves away and begins her own family, she reaches out to Agnes, begging her to come and live with her so that she can exert her good influence upon the next generation. Fortunately, fate had more in store for Agnes Grey. The only thing that occasionally had me glossing over was the tendency towards passages of spirituality and scripture, although I put this down to both the era and the fact that Agnes Grey was a clergyman’s daughter. There was a bit of waffling through some of Agnes’s visits to people within the community who she had a great deal of empathy for, more in the sense of these scenes just having too much information and going for a tad too long. Otherwise, I very much enjoyed Agnes Grey and agree with the overall view that it is a highly underrated piece of Victorian literature.

I read Anne Bronte’s only other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, when I was in my twenties (so, a long time ago) and loved it. I’m definitely due for a reread. I did want to read this one first though, and I’m still a bit shocked that it’s taken me this long to read Anne Bronte’s first novel, given how much I loved her second. She remains my favourite Bronte sister, her writing is sharper, more gritty, more realistic, less romantic and fluffy, and decidedly more feminist than that of her sisters’, in my opinion. I’m very glad I took the time out to read this. Highly recommended.

12 thoughts on “Reflections on a classic: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

  1. This is a terrific review, Theresa, I like the way you’ve read it through a contemporary lens without dissolving its 19th century concerns.
    I’m like you: I read “the classics” when I first began serious reading β€” and I thought I’d read them all. I know, it’s hard to believe in these days when the internet tells us everything and our idea of the classics has expanded to include those from outside the anglosphere. But the canon, in my day, was what was in the shops and the library, and if it wasn’t there I didn’t know it existed, so I didn’t discover Agnes Grey until Wordsworth started publishing neglected classics and priced them cheaply because there was no copyright. And I agree, it’s my favourite too.
    (I must have washed over the bits that washed over you too, I don’t remember them at all!)

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I think you’re right.
        And then there was Gutenberg and the Kindle, and we could download all the obscure ones that we liked.
        Just today Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed a short story by Hemingway, one I’d never heard of. How lucky we are!
        If only we had the extra hours in the day to read ’em all, eh? Maybe those gatekeepers were onto something when they selected a significant few rather than leave it to us to choose from so much that’s available.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s years since I read this so I don’t remember the religious elements but I’m sure that I would have glossed over them just as you did.
    The position of the governess is a really interesting one to consider. Not part of the family yet a step above most of the servants, she was in a difficult situation. Anne’s sister Charlotte captured the situation perfectly in Jane Eyre in. scene where she has Jane the governess sitting on the sidelines when Rochester has his guests over for the weekend. They make some horrible comments about governesses and poor Jane has to hear them all

    Liked by 1 person

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