Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

This largely autobiographical novel was first published in 1847, the same year that Anne's sisters published the better known Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, though it's thought this was the first to be written. 

A business investment goes wrong, putting pressure on the already limited means of the Grey family. To help her parents, Agnes takes a job as a governess for a wealthy lot. Her first, young charges are unruly and cruel: at one point, Agnes kills some wild birds rather than allow them to be tortured. The wayward behaviour is blamed on Agnes and she is dismissed, but she has the resolve to try again. Her second position is as governess to older children, who are no less spoilt or unruly. One is playing off various suitors, enjoying the attention and the chance to turn them down. This contrasts with Agnes, who modestly admire the virtues of a young parson...

It's a less dramatic book than those by Brontë's sisters, or Anne's own The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In those books, first impressions are often deceptive, and we only uncover a person's true character in time. Here, things are much more as they appear - the good are always meek and modest and good, the bad seem unlikely to ever find redemption. That lack of twists may come from the fact that this isn't a heightened, gothic fiction but grounded in real experience: it is thought that the novel is based on Anne's own diaries.

The violence, the threat, the powerlessness, all feel horribly real. There's also no climactic event - a fire or a storm or whatever - to bring about reckonings for all involved. Towards the end, Agnes speaks to another woman trapped in her own awful life and can only advise her to weather it as best she is able. There is no escape.

Agnes gets a happy ending but the author quickly passes over marriage and children, it being outside her own lived experience. For all she mentions further challenges, it's where the book slips into fantasy - poignantly, given that the model for Agnes's husband is thought to be a curate Anne knew who died the year her book was published.
"We have had trials, and we know that we must have them again; but we bear them well together, and endeavour to fortify ourselves and each other against the final separation—that greatest of all afflictions to the survivor. But, if we keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown, surely that too may be borne..."

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