Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Agnes Grey Quietly Makes Her Mark

Agnes Grey was a lovely, sweet novel to start out my New Year's reading. I find it hard to imagine that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey were all published during the same year, 1847. It's almost inconceivable to think that three siblings could produce such enduring classics during their (all too short) lives.

Anne Bronte was the youngest of the three Bronte sisters and died in 1849, around the age of 29. I can't help but wonder what other masterpieces could these sisters have produced had they lived longer?

Being Anne Bronte's first novel of two, and having only read her sisters, I began with Agnes Grey. Said to be largely based on Anne's own experiences as a governess, this story is deceptive in its simplicity. Bronte's crisp, clear and realistic narrative about life as a governess amongst the country gentry is quite different from the gothic and suspenseful stories of her sisters. Is this why Anne Bronte is so often overlooked? Ghosts are not traversing the foggy moors, and crazed women have not been locked away in dusty attic apartments. These were the Bronte books of my high school and university memories.

Agnes Grey really grew on me as the chapters flew by. For those that shy away from Victorian literature due to its verbose and sometimes unfamiliar vernacular, I suggest you give this story a try.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of parents who married against the norms of society. Her father was a poor minister and her mother descended from a more superior lineage. Mrs. Grey was subsequently disowned on marrying Mr. Grey. They lived happily for many years until the minister made a disastrous investment which threw the family into financial despair. Agnes decides to prove her worth and usefulness to her family by accepting a post as a governess for the Bloomfield family. She is rudely awakened to the reality of the class system and social distinctiveness of Victorian England and to the challenges of caring for gentry children. She despairs over her personal invisibility and the lack of moral character of her young charges (Indeed young Tom Bloomfield is a budding sociopath - how skillfully did Bronte sketch this character - the torture of the birds and the adults' acceptance of such - the indulgence of a young boy without remorse- the self-absorbed narcissist Rosalie - a pampered product of her era - a fabulous character you hoped got her just desserts in the end).

Agnes Grey is also a romance, albeit a sedentary, slowly paced one. Agnes pines away (quite modestly, quite respectfully) for Edward Weston and finds herself ill equipped to compete with the beautiful and incorrigible (think Mean Girls, think Heathers) Rosalie Murray. Will she prevail?

Oh, they have robbed me of the hope
My spirit held so dear;
They will not let me hear that voice
My soul delights to hear.

They will not let me see that face
I so delight to see;
And they have taken all thy smiles,
And all thy love from me.

Well, let them seize on all they can;
One treasure still is mine;
A heart that loves to think on thee,
And feels the worth of thine.

from Chapter XVII "Confessions"

Flowers in this story were symbolic of the beauty, remembrance and home. Edward helps Agnes retrieve some primroses which she cherishes for the remainder of her days. He later brings her bluebells as he remembers that they are dear to her as well. I quite like this beautiful poem by Anne Bronte. You can listen to the audio version of it below.

I cannot put Agnes Grey in the same league as Jane Eyre, perhaps my all time favourite book. This story is very well written and deserves to be read for its own merit.


Laura's Reviews said...

I agree! Jane Eyre is my favorite, but I really like Agnes Grey. It is a great novel of life as a governess . . . without a mad woman in the attic. :-)

Your link is broken on the All About the Bronte's Page. If you repost it, I'll erase the old one! Thanks!

Post a Comment