I started to re-read Agnes Grey last week on Charlotte’s birthday anniversary. It’s probably the Bronte novel I have read least, though I’m not sure why. Reading it again Anne’s ability as a writer is so apparent. It’s not Jane Eyre, what is? But it is a remarkably clear and shocking account of the life, work and limitations of a Victorian governess.
Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman. Her mother was an aristocratic daughter who chose him for love and sacrificed her fortune and relations as a consequence. Agnes and her sister are educated by their mother and are accomplished in all that that means in the Victorian era. They speak French and German, draw, play the piano and are well read and versed in Latin. However, their father is reckless with his meagre finances and they are forced to find work. Agnes sister is able to earn money from her painting (a woman artist) and Agnes chooses to find work as a governess. There is no gothic atmosphere over theBloomfield’s house where Agnes is first placed. Instead, Anne Bronte writes a gritty description of attempting to educate children with no authority or discipline permitted, the parents reserving these rights to themselves but never exercising them. Like teachers in the modern age, Agnes is expected to improve young minds with no resources to support her work. The depictions of the children are realistic. They have tantrums, are vicious to each other and often brutal to other living creatures. The description of John’s treatment of baby birds is particularly unpleasant reading. Agnes has to keep going and live the life she has, not the one she wishes for. Her next situation is a little better in terms of her students, though she is ignored and treated as inferior by all she encounters. Agnes only finds friendship when acting out works of charity amongst the poor and infirm.
The story does have brighter points and Agnes does find a friend, in the local curate, and eventual happiness as she establishes her own school.
What really struck me was the fresh style Anne Bronte deploys as a writer and her realism which would not be out of place in a novel written fifty years later. She has always been overshadowed by her sisters and it is argued that she is only read now because of their success. I disagree with this, I think Anne Bronte’s day is yet to come and I hope as her 200th anniversary approaches readers discover her work as a writer, not just as a tragic character in the Bronte story.