Book Review: Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte
My previous review was of Ketan Bhagat’s ‘Child/God’, and in writing it, I had to deal with the fact that the author is the younger brother of India’s most-beloved writer, viz. Chetan Bhagat.
In writing a review of Agnes Grey, I realise the Anne Bronte’s status is not entirely different. Of course, while I could comfortably say that the younger Mr Bhagat’s work is substantially different – in a positive way – from his elder brothers’, the same cannot be said of Anne’s work.
Not that this is a fair comparison. As lovers of Victorian literature will be well aware, Anne Bronte is the younger sister of Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte.
Let those names sink in for a bit.
In cricketing terms, this is like being the youngest brother of a family where the elder siblings are Sunil Gavaskar and Viv Richards. Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, she wrote Shirley, and she wrote a few other novels that I will get around to reading eventually, I am sure. Emily wrote Wuthering Heights, and all I will say about that masterpiece is that every reading of it (there have been about ten, I am sure) has been thoroughly enjoyable, educational and humbling. (You can read a post I wrote about Wuthering Heights here, though I warn you it is a long read.)
So you see the difficulty in dealing with Agnes Grey on its own terms. But a fine book it is, sweet and beautifully-written, its merits standing on their own even before the works of the authors’ sisters.
Agnes Grey deals with the life of the titular character, the younger daughter of a country parson who is forced to take up employment as a governess when her father loses the already-small family fortune in a business speculation.
Her first situation is with the Bloomfields, a family that has made its money from trade, and where the adults have an inflated view of their worth, while the children themselves are cruel and arrogant. After a year of tribulations with the Bloomfields, Agnes is dismissed and shortly after, finds employment with the Murray family, who are of a higher social station than her previous employers, but not the more gentle for all that. Mr Murray is a typical hunting, roistering, foul-mouthed county squire, while Mrs Murray is a typical status-conscious mother. The two daughters placed in Agnes’ charge present a contrast. Rosalie is well-mannered but shallow, a beauty who craves male attention and full of superficial desires and tastes. Matilda is a tomboy, preferring horses and hunting, more honest than her sister but less tractable. Agnes tries to bring a moral centre for the elder and to bring discipline to the younger, but her efforts bear little fruit.
We are taken through the career of Rosalie Murray, her ‘conquests’ and her failures, with Agnes’ position – not quite a servant, not quite a lady – and honest good nature a sharp contrast to the self-importance and artifice of the Murrays.
Eventually we have the introduction of a potential love interest for Agnes, Rosalie setting herself up as her rival, the course of true love, in true Shakespearean fashion, never running smoothly – these are all staples of the literature of the period, and the story reaches a conclusion that will make any reader give a little sigh at the end – of contentment tinged with a pang of regret.
|Emily Shanks: The Governess|
In absolute terms, as well as in contrast to her sisters’ work, the characters in Agnes Grey are a little one-dimensional. The titular character is perpetually wronged but manages to keep her spirits high, her self-pity hangs heavy over the narrative thread of the story and she does constantly present herself as a paragon of virtue.
Rosalie Murray though, is more than just a coquette. She is someone whose head is turned by her own beauty and fails to – or refuses to - understand any virtue beyond that superficial and immediate pleasure. How many Rosalie’s do we come across as we ourselves plough through life? Men and women born to all the advantages of form, family and funds, who still choose to live their lives devoted to instant gratification, content to form superficial attachments, seeking validation always in the attention of the opposite sex? People we love in our own way, as Agnes does love Rosalie, but can only hope come to an end happier than hers.
Among the other characters, Anne’s portrayal of the Bloomfield children stands out as well. No charming cherubs here. Master Bloomfield is a lazy, cruel, arrogant little tyrant, fully aware of how much he is doted upon. His sister Mary is unintelligent and stubborn, no less troublesome in her own right.
The other persons – various members of the social classes – are also well-portrayed, and though this is a story where romance plays it’s part, the relationships between women are paramount, between Agnes and her mother, between her and Mrs Bloomfield, and later with Rosalie and Matilda.
In a word – lovely. Anne Bronte’s prose is beautiful without being self-conscious, her crafting of sentences and scenes clearly well-evolved. There’s a sense of love for the language that shines through, and compensates for the story’s lack of a complex storyline.
What Agnes Grey also does, is give the reader a look at a time and class of society that is perhaps easy to relate to for some of us. The Grey family are the well-bred poor class of its time. Educated well, refined in sensibility, virtuous by nature, but constrained to subject themselves to their intellectual inferiors for the sake of making a living. Agnes does not have a rags-to-riches story at all, there is no metaphorical Disney-princess ending. Rather, the book draws upon Anne Bronte’s own experiences, expounding the virtues of quiet perseverance and sincere virtuousness – as well as the hollowness of physical beauty and material possessions. Does it slip into being preachy at times? I like to think not, though the individual reader would draw his or her own conclusions about that.
What it is, however, is decidedly a portrayal of a woman who seeks to make her own way in the world, not seeking a man, not wanting anything more than what she considers her own merits. Despite the romantic sub-plot, Agnes Grey is a novel that could stand modern feminist scrutiny, with a quite realistic view of society and the people that form a part of it.
Agnes Grey is a lovely little work in its own right, fully worthy of standing alongside the books of its period. Anne Bronte’s own Tenant of Wildfell Hall is definitely a more powerful work, but for a relatively light read, Agnes Grey is well worthy of bearing the last name of its author.