This book is about a young woman who decides to become a governess and finds the job a lot tougher than she had anticipated. The children refuse to listen to her, their parents blame her for their offspring’s terrible behaviour, and she finds herself increasingly frustrated by the thanklessness of her work.
I’m the same age now as Anne Brontë was when she wrote this book and as an English teacher, a lot of Agnes’s troubles hit home for me. Some struggles are timeless, it seems.
Agnes Grey draws on Brontë’s own experiences as a governess, and it’s easy to see the parallels between her own life and that of her protagonist. The two families Agnes works for over the course of the book resemble the households Brontë herself was employed by, and there is no doubt that many of the events that unfold were at the very least heavily inspired by her own experiences. The part where Agnes decides to strangle a group of birds to save them from torture at the hand of one of the children? That actually happened. At times Brontë’s own desperation is so clearly reflected in the prose that you cannot help but smile at how angry she gets:
[Though] I had many spare minutes during the day, I seldom could look upon an hour as entirely my own; since where everything was left to the caprices of Miss Matilda and her sister, there could be no order or regularity. Whatever occupation I chose, when not actually busied about them or their concerns, I had, as it were, to keep my loins girded, my shoes on my feet, and my staff in my hand; for not to be immediately forthcoming when called for, was regarded as a grave and inexcusable offence; not only by my pupils and their mother, but by the very servant who came in breathless haste to call me, exclaiming, “You’re to go to the schoolroom directly, mum – the young ladies is WAITING!!” Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess!!!
Like Agnes, Brontë found it impossible to control her disobedient and often cruel students, had great difficulty teaching them much of anything, and was dismissed in the end for not being a capable teacher. Both Agnes and Brontë manage to befriend the two daughters of their new employers, but decide to hand in their notice anyway. After six years, Brontë left her teaching position to pursue writing, and Agnes, too, leaves her post to find a happier life elsewhere.
However, there is one notable difference: Agnes ends up getting married whereas Brontë was never so much as proposed to. There is plenty of speculation that the love interest of her protagonist, Edward Weston, was based on the curate of Brontë’s father, a man she may (or may not) have been in love with. Since there is very little evidence to go on we can only guess on this front, but either way, it is clear that she wanted her heroine to have as happy an ending as possible.
This is the first book Brontë had ever written, and it shows; it is a far less polished work than its successor, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (review here). The ending in particular feels messy and abrupt. Agnes Grey is also criticised for being too preachy, and Agnes is certainly a very moral and religious character who keeps to the moral high ground at all times. However, I would argue that the novel is not so much about her as it is about her employers and what the way they treat her says about them.Agnes is subjected to downright cruel behaviour over and over again, and her employers never feel like they are in the wrong. Since the position of the governess is far beneath their own in the social hierarchy, they can pretty much treat her as horribly as they please. By showing how this fundamentally good woman is degraded on a daily basis in a way that she clearly does not deserve, Brontë is making a point about oppression and class differences. Note how those same children are also cruel to animals and toy with the emotions of their peers without any regard for the harm they do; there is clearly a toxic pattern at work here.
Despite its flaws, I would argue that Agnes Grey is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the position of the governess or the Victorian era in general. Brontë still had some growing to do as a writer, but in this book, we can already see that she had something to say and would not gloss over the nastier side of human nature to please her critics. Yes, this novel is far from subtle at times, but Brontë had a point to make and by God, she was going to make sure that you got it. In the end, after all the misery she has put her heroine through, it is immensely gratifying to see Agnes finally look up and say: