Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect.
Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother had married him out of love, against the wishes of her wealthy family. When Mr. Grey loses his meagre savings in a disastrous investment, the family plunges into debt and Agnes decides to help them out by working as a governess.
She is soon offered a position in the Bloomfield’s household, a well-off middle-class family. However, her expectations about her job and herself are soon shattered: she finds herself overworked, underpaid, and responsible for two utterly spoilt, badly-behaved children. The eldest boy, in particular, is keen on torturing small animals and abusing his sister. Treated like a servant, Agnes is held accountable for the children’s shortcomings, even though she is given no authority over them.
Dismissed from the Bloomfield’s home, our protagonist finds a second post with a wealthier family, the Murrays. Despite her new aristocratic surroundings, her position is no better than the first. Agnes finds herself in charge of two spoilt teenage girls – Rosalie, a precocious femme-fatale; and Matilda, a coarse tomboy. Ignored by her employers and bullied by her two wilful, self-centred pupils, Agnes’ only solace is her friendship with Edward Weston, the new village curate.
The strength of your novel, for me, lies in its sharp depiction of class distinctions and the position of women in Victorian society. Yours is a book full of anger: we have here a protagonist who, for wanting “to go out into the world; to act for herself; to exercise her unused faculties; to try her own unknown powers”, has her strong will smashed against the rash reality of her class and gender powerlessness. Trapped halfway between servants and employers, Agnes’ position as governess is very precarious: she is “like one deaf and dumb who could neither speak nor be spoken to”. Mr. Weston is the only one who treats her like a person.
It feels almost like women and animals, frequently abused in the story, are placed at the same level, as inferior specimens. Tom is encouraged by his family in his fits of torturing of small animals and bullying his sister: girls and birds are just defenceless objects to be explored and abused by him. You seem to have drawn a parallel between the scenes where animals are tortured and those where Agnes is submitted to a degrading treatment. And the upper-class girls, Matilda and Rosalie, are just as cruel as Tom: Matilda delights in letting her dog attack a hare, and, by emulating the roughness and cruelty of the men around her, she resists the pressure to behave like a lady – as well as the pressure to be behave as an inferior; Rosalie, on the other hand, compensates for that pressure by using her beauty as her only weapon against men – she tortures her wedding suitors as if they were her preys. Matilda and Rosalie struggle in vain to remain above their perceived inferiority as women, and you sharply depict the way they are led to accept their position – and the way they comply with their own oppression.
The only difference between the Murray girls and Agnes, besides social class, is the fact that our protagonist refuses to fight back: she does not take part in the abuse, and remains stolid. If on the outside she is self-effacing and kind, on the inside she is burning with anger over the unfairness of the situation. And Agnes anger is the book’s precious gem.
However, the novel’s main shortcoming, for me, is the fact that you were not able to depict sustained anger without turning it into self-righteousness and moralizing. It feels like you are trying to manage, without success, a double-pointed sword: to denounce women’s oppression by creating a protagonist who never resists such oppression and, because of that, can finally find her salvation in the form of a kind-hearted man.
Although written as a coming-of-age novel, there is no self-discovery, no spiritual journey and no genuine character development in your book. We don’t have a heroine who is built by the test she must face; there is no final blossoming here. Instead, we have a protagonist who, from the beginning, has nothing to learn. When she leaves her parent’s sheltered home and goes to face the dangers of the outside world, she is already fully developed. As a governess, Agnes is frequently threatened by new moral dangers, but she has a fixed identity, and never changes her mind: the trials she endures leave no trace in her. She is, from the beginning, infallible, and those trials serve the sole point of re-affirming and proving her infallibility to the reader.
Instead of a satire of social class, we have here the championing of the middle-class’ moral superiority. The gentility – and the middle-class who aspires to it – is depicted as irrevocably ruined. Money has corrupted the Bloomfields and the Murrays; beauty and class have corrupted Rosalie; the aspiration to masculine behaviour has corrupted Matilda. Agnes and Mr. Weston remain, in their humility and shared acceptance of class differences, the only incorruptible characters: they are the axis around which the novel’s moral judgement revolves. Moreover, passivity, duty and sobriety are drawn as the most important female virtues, made to seem universal rather than bound to class, place and time. Agnes has nothing to learn, because she must be depicted as a faultless character; and she cannot teach anything, because her pupils, by her birth and social station, have been corrupted from the start.
Rather than the complex, coiling movement of blossoming promised by the coming-of-age novel, we are left with a protagonist who acts like a cat running after its own tail. If it is true that Agnes’ vital anger moves us all through the book, it is also true that, in the end, we are left with the worse side of her anger: resignation, impotence, and an aftertaste of barely hidden bitterness.
“The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine, or than any one can who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking.” ― Anne Brontë,
“What a fool you must be,” said my head to my heart, or my sterner to my softer self.” ― Anne Brontë,
“I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise.” ― Anne Brontë,
“The human heart is like india-rubber; a little swells it, but a great deal will not burst it. If “little more than nothing will disturb it, little less than all things will suffice” to break it. As in the outer members of our frame, there is a vital power inherent in itself that strengthens it against external violence. Every blow that shakes it will serve to harden it against a future stroke; as constant labour thickens the skin of the hand, and strengthens its muscles instead of wasting them away: so that a day of arduous toil, that might excoriate a lady’s palm, would make no sensible impression on that of a hardy ploughman.” ― Anne Brontë,
“But our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment.” ― Anne Brontë,
About the book
- Penguin Classics, 1988, 251 p. Goodreads
- Oxford University Press, 2010, 174 p. Goodreads
- Modern Library, 2003, 240 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1847
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- This book was read for The Classics Club & Victober