Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey (1847)

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Last year I read all the Jane Austen novels I hadn’t read yet. This year I wanted to do the same with the Brontë novels. Agnes Grey was one of those I hadn’t read yet. Unfortunately starting my project with this book wasn’t a good choice. I found it so dark, I don’t think I’ll pick up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall any day soon, nor Villette or Shirley. Don’t get me wrong, I did expect a bleak story as I knew the book was based on Anne Brontës experience as a governess; an experience that was so negative that it led to her writing of Agnes Grey, hoping it would raise awareness and maybe help change a few things for future governesses. The description of the loneliness and social isolation of a governess were bound to be depressing but what really got to me are the many instances of cruelty against animals. I didn’t see that coming and really struggled through this novel. All the negative characters in this book—children and grownups alike— share a common trait— they see themselves as superior. If they think they are superior to other human beings, how much more must they feel superior to animals? Descriptions of torturing birds, hitting and kicking cats and dogs abound, and turned reading this novel into a nightmare. There’s even an instance in which Agnes, who loves animals, crushes a bird’s nest, to save the small birds from being tortured. Awful!

The book begins with the description of Agnes Grey’s childhood. Unlike most other Brontë heroines, she has a happy childhood and loving parents. They are not very rich but live comfortably until the day when her father loses everything due to an unfortunate investment. There is no urgent need for the two Grey girls to work, but Agnes would like to help her parents financially and decides to become a governess. Thanks to a reference from an acquaintance, she soon finds employment, although she’s only 19 years old and doesn’t have a lot of qualifications.

Her first employment is with the Bloomfields. Agnes knows it will be hard to live far away from her family and that she won’t be able to see them more than once a year. She is sure that her time away will not be easy but she didn’t expect she would be so miserable. Not only is she treated like a servant, but the children of the family are monstrous. They kick and scream and rebel. They are so badly behaved, only a very strong hand would be able to tame them. At the same time they are spoilt and Agnes isn’t even allowed to raise her voice, let alone punish them. She is shocked. She didn’t even knew that children could be like this. One boy in particular is very nasty and enjoys torturing small animals.

After a year she leaves the Bloomfield family and finds new employment with the Murrays. The children are slightly better behaved. There are four of them, two boys and two girls. Luckily the boys are sent away and Agnes does only have to teach the two girls. They are not interested in learning anything and treat Agnes just like their parents: condescending and as if she was a slave. One of the girls is a nasty piece of work. She’s very beautiful and uses her looks to manipulate and flirt. It’s her biggest joy to refuse and humiliate the men who fall in love with her. When she becomes aware that Agnes is interested in the curate Mr Weston, she tries to seduce him as well.

I can understand that people at the time were shocked when they read the book. I wasn’t shocked about Agnes’ treatment, because I knew that governesses had a hard life, due to their awkward situation. They come from the same class as their employers but they have no money and are forced to work. Because they have to work they are seen as inferior, at the same time they are not accepted by the servants because their social class and education places them above. It’s hard to imagine how lonely and helpless these women must have felt.

What shocked me as a modern reader is not so much that they didn’t accept Agnes as one of their own, but how mean and nasty those children were. How spoilt and misbehaved. They were as cruel and mean to Agnes as they were to their animals. They made her suffer on purpose, played tricks on her, disobeyed constantly, had no interest in anything.

If this was what poor Anne Brontë had to endure it’s quite appalling. I don’t know why any parents would have put up with such behaviour. These children have not the tiniest feeling for good and bad, no morals at all. They know what’s socially acceptable, and act accordingly, but only as long as it brings them some benefit or other.

What I found  most disturbing are the scenes among the destitute and the poor. Many rich girls and women did (and still do) charity work. The Murray girls are no exception. They visit the poor, bring things and money but they are never good or kind. They have been taught to give but they do so condescendingly, while Agnes spends time with them, reads for them or just sits and chats with them.

The end felt a bit like wish fulfilment. In a way you could say that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

I can see why Agnes Grey isn’t as famous as Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Nor why it is not as well-known as Villette and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I found it interesting but dry and shocking. It’s not very descriptive and the character’s voice lacked life. I suspect, should I go on with my Brontë project, that this will remain my least favourite of their novels.

Have you read Agnes Grey? What did you think of it?

27 thoughts on “Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey (1847)

  1. This is a Bronte I haven’t read and frankly I think I would struggle with it – I can’t deal with animal cruelty at all….

    • I knew that people think THe Tenant of Wildfell hall is dark but nobody ever mentioned how dark this one is. And those descriptions – they are so graphic. I frankly wish I had read Villette or Shirley instead.

  2. Caroline: I think that many people are surprised by how dark this novel is. I’ve known people who couldn’t finish the Tenant of WH either, and that explains in a way why Jane Eyre seems to be the fall back Bronte Sister novel.

    • I didn’t remember Emma’s review. I didn’t expect it to be this dark, I’ve never really saw it mentioned much.
      I have high expectations for Villette though.
      I liked both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. They are very different. I found they are both better writers.

    • I did absoluetyl not remeber I read a review before. Oh well not surprising. This hasn’t been a good year.
      A total bore. that’s what I meant when I wrote I didn’t like the voice.
      I’m sure The Tenat is better but after this . . . Not that keen. I have to go back and re-read your review.

  3. Wonderful review, Caroline. Sorry to know that you didn’t like ‘Agnes Grey’ as much as you had hoped to. From your review, it does sound quite dark. The scenes describing animals being tortured must be very hard to read. The only Bronte book I have read is ‘Wuthering Heights’ and I had mixed feelings about it. I read an abridged version of ‘Jane Eyre’ when I was in elementary school – that doesn’t count I think. It is a book that I hope to read again in the original. There is one thing that I keep remembering when I think about Brontes – Anne (A), Branwell (the brother – B), Charlotte (C) and Emily (E) – ABCE. I was hoping that there would be a Bronte with a first name starting with a ‘D’ but unfortunately there is no one.

    All the best with your Bronte project. Hope you enjoy the next Bronte book that you choose to read.

    • Thanks, Vishy.
      No, it wasn’t what I had expected. I think I’ll stick to books about the Brontës before tackling another novel.
      ABCE – 🙂 Hadn’t heard of that.

  4. It’s years since I read this and can’t remember it very well. But do read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall it is fantastic! I liked Shirley very much too though also years since I read it. Villette is brilliant but not an easy read and quite long. I have bern meaning to re-read Agnes Grey for ages your review actually makes me want to even more.

    • The translation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was serialized in the most important Swiss newspaper (NZZ) ten years ago. I read a few chapters and loved it, always meant to read it. Now I wish I’d picked it first.
      I’m very curious to hear your eactions, should you re-read Agnes Grey. Thanks for the heads up regarding Shirley. I might read that next followed by The Tenant and the Villette.

  5. Villette is so sad…I think you may indeed need time between the two. But, I love reading all the works of one author (whenever it is one gets to them).

    I have decided to read Buddenbrooks for your German Lit Challenge. Having read nothing by Thomas Mann ever, I suppose he’s the guy for me to tackle next. 🙂

    • Another sad one! Not for now then.
      I’m still tempted by The Magic Mountain. I have read a lot of his books but not Buddenbrooks nor Zauberberg.
      I think he is mybe the most importnat German writer. Big words, I know, but I feel that way. I’m looking forward to your reveiew.

  6. Like Karen, this is a Bronte novel I haven’t read, and I too would struggle with the cruelty here. Villette is good although I recall finding it an emotionally draining read, so I think you’re right to leave that one for another time.

    • The worst in this case here is that it’s not even very well written. It’s just not up there with other classics.
      You found Villette draining as well? That has to wait then.

  7. This book sounds dark and disturbing to say the least.

    I am glad that you mentioned the animal cruelty as this would prevent me from reading this book.

    As we know, in terms of the general cruelty exhibited by the characters, sadly such things do exist, even among some children.

    • I hope, unlike me, you’ll remember this should you ever think to read it. If I hadn’t forgotten Emma’s review, I would have skipped this novel.
      Sadly, it does exist. It’s so awful.

  8. I’ve only read Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, both of which I thought were superb. But somehow, that’s me done with the Brontes. I never felt the urge to read the others. I can quite see why Agnes Grey would discourage you from reading any more (and fair enough, there are plenty of classic novels out there), but do keep The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in mind for one day. It is a very, very gripping novel and I can’t recall any instances of animal cruelty (just humans being ordinarily cruel to one another).

    • I loved Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and always thought I might like The Tenant of Widfell Hall. If you liked it and it’s one of Violet’s favourites, I’ll read it eventually but might skip the other Charlotte Brontë novels.
      Maybe not just right now though. I’m still recovering.

  9. I have read Shirley–I liked it but I find most of the works of the Brontes a little hard going. Not to say they aren’t completely worth all the effort, as they are, but I do think you need to be in the right mood for them. And I am not sure I could read one right after the other. I have heard Agnes Grey is hard going, so I am not surprised by your reaction, though I am also surprised to hear about the animal cruelty–though given the Victorian mindset, I suppose it follows. I’m struggling with a Hardy novel at the moment….

    • I’m not going to read another one right now and I’m still a bit annoyed I forgot Emma reviewed it and pointed out the elemenst of animal cruelty. I even commenetd on her post saying that that alone would keep me from reading it. How daft is that? Anyway. I don’t think you’d enjoy this one bit. I wanted to read a Hardy novel this year. It would be my first but your commentputs me off a bit. Which one are you reading? I seem to remember you mentioned it.

  10. I think it would be a good idea for you to avoid the remaining Bronte novels for now, because the ones you mentioned are all quite tough reads, in one way or another. Tenant is one of my favourite books but it does have some disturbing content.

    I’m sorry you found reading AG such a horrible experience. AB loved animls so much that she was probably as horrified as you are about cruelty to them. AG is quite autobiographical, so she probably did witness most of what she wrote and was powerless to do anything about it. Ghastly.

    • Thanks for the warning. I guess the other novels will have to wait.
      I suppose what made this more horrible is knowing it was based on things she experienced. It made me sick. And to think how powerless she was.

  11. Anne is the only one of the Bronte sisters that I haven’t read. Based on your description, I’m not sure that I would have liked this one. Cruelty to animals doesn’t sit well with me.

    • If you haven’t read her but want to try her – I’d say you’d rather pick The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I guess that cruel people have a tendency to be cruel to animals (as well). But like you, I don’t want to read about it.

  12. Pingback: Brontë Factions | Scribblings

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