I admit that when I first started Agnes Grey, I was a bit disappointed by its simplicity. I had just come off reading Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and was expecting that Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey would be just as intense. Alas, it is not – and the way Anne Brontë ends the book confirms the idea:
“And now I think I have said sufficient.”
But Agnes Grey, I think, is deceptively simple. It’s a short book – under 200 pages – that zips along from scene to scene. There’s no true plot and no rising action; rather, Agnes Grey is like a slice of life.
The story revolves around Agnes Grey, a deeply Christian young woman whose father loses most of his money after a bad business decision. In order to help the family, Agnes decides to work as a governess and gain some independence along the way. Little does she know that working as a governess is no easy job. Although there’s a dash of romance along the way, Agnes Grey focuses less on this melodrama, choosing instead to act as social commentary.
Agnes Grey is known as a book that realistically explores what it was like to be a governess in the Victorian Era. By comparison, Jane Eyre makes working a governess sound interesting: the governess is higher than the other servants, educated, and treated fairly well. Agnes Grey flips this picture; in it, the governess is distinct from (but not above) the other servants and is treated poorly by both her employers and her wards. The children of Agnes’s first job are disrespectful and mischievous, while the teenagers of her second job are haughty.
Thus, Agnes finds herself an outsider: neither truly a servant, nor one of the family. Agnes deals with her situation with virtue and empathy – and a dose of sarcasm. For example, when one of the servants alerts her urgently that the ladies are awaiting her, Agnes sidenotes:
“Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess!!!”
Nevertheless, after learning the hard way with her first position, Agnes deals with her treatment quietly and maturely, saving her cheeky observations for herself. As such, there isn’t much action in Agnes Grey, but something simmers just below the surface.
While reading Agnes Grey, I could see why it didn’t cause much stir when it was published – compared with the hubbub surrounding Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in which the plots explode with drama. Unlike the latter two, which both operate in a world heightened Gothic melodrama, Agnes Grey feels like real life. Anne Brontë’s writing style in Agnes Grey isn’t as artsy as her sisters’; rather, it reflects the story she tells in her novel: straightforward, ironic, and, most importantly, real. In fact, Agnes Grey begins as such:
“‘All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.’”
After finishing Agnes Grey, the question for me is as follows: what did the book teach me? It is something monumental or a “dry, shrivelled kernel”? At this point, I almost feel as though I’m still processing Agnes Grey and its feigned simplicity. Agnes Grey deals with a lot more than meets the eye: issues of faith, morality, isolation, family, etc. But perhaps what I found most intriguing about it is its portrait of rich Victorian families for whom Agnes works having similar problems to many rich families of today. If we take Agnes Grey as a generally accurate portrait of these families, clearly, modernity hasn’t brought about these problems. And that’s more than a “dry, shrivelled kernel” to chew on.
If you’ve read Agnes Grey, did you also find it deceptively simple? How does it compare to other Brontë novels you’ve read?
This was the Book #7 off my Classics Club list. To see the rest of it, click here.