Classics Club Spin: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë – a quieter Brontë novel but still a gripping read

Anne Brontë is probably the lesser read of the three Brontë sisters, with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights constantly turning up on our screens, reimagined for new generations of viewers. The characters of Mr Rochester and Heathcliffe, in many ways more anti-heroes than heroes, are impossible to forget, to say nothing of the dramatic reversals of fortune that make the stories so enthralling, the stirring settings, the passion.

We have a more restrained story here with Agnes Grey, the eponymous character based on Anne Brontë’s own experiences as a governess. Agnes is only nineteen when her father, a country parson, loses a small fortune to speculation. Thanks to her mother’s careful management, there is no pressure for the family to do anything other than hunker down and budget carefully to get them through. But Agnes is a plucky young thing and sees this as an opportunity to help her family out and see something of life. She decides to be a governess and sets off for Wellwood and the Bloomfield family.

Her first placement is a rude awakening. The Bloomfield parents are disengaged and unloving, the four children running their nurse ragged. Little Tom Bloomfield is arrogant and cruel, particularly to any wild animals he comes across. Agnes is supposed to teach Tom and his sisters Mary Ann and Fanny, but is ignored by her charges. She’s not allowed to punish them either. She soon realises that she earns no respect from above stairs, nor any support from the the staff below. It’s a lonely life, but she’s determined to give it her best. To her chagrin, Agnes is dismissed after two terms for incompetence.

Her second post is not a lot better. Horton Lodge is the home of the Murrays, who have two teenage daughters, Rosalie and Matilda and their younger brothers John and Charles, all terribly indulged, the youngest boy too lazy to learn anything. Matilda who has learnt to swear from her father, does anything to escape the schoolroom for the stables. Things become easier when the boys are sent off to school, their parents realising Agnes is unable to teach them. It doesn’t matter so much for the girls, it seems, so long as they develop good manners that will stand them well in society.

I sometimes felt degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities; and sometimes, I thought myself a precious fool for caring so much about them, and feared I must be sadly wanting in Christian humility, or that charity which sufferereth long and is kind…

Poor Agnes. She’s intelligent, but so young to have to deal with the conniving of her arrogant charges. While in Agnes we see the plight of an impoverished gentlewoman and the lack of options for earning a living, well-to-do young ladies don’t seem to fare much better. Rosalie at eighteen is soon to be married off and her mother has her sights set on a local baronet, without consideration for her daughter’s happiness. Rosalie responds by flirting like mad with all the eligible males in the area, including the curate Agnes has fallen for. It shows Rosalie up as capricious and spiteful, but you can’t entirely blame her.

Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is considered the stronger of the two novels she produced during her short life. I read somewhere it was the first really feminist novel, dealing with a woman who escapes her drunken, abusive husband – it caused quite a furore at the time. But this novel about a young woman’s struggles to make a life for herself is still interesting. I found it an engaging read and quite zoomed through the pages to see if things would improve for Agnes.

I am endlessly fascinated by the Brontë’s, and was happy to pick this up when it turned out to be the book selected for my Classics Club Spin challenge. (I had to read number 2 on my list). Head over to The Classics Club if you want to take up the spin challenge too.

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