Anne Brontë was the youngest member of the Brontë literary family. And arguably the least well known? I mean most people will know of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre but may not have heard of Agnes Grey – perhaps they may have heard of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, at least if they watched that episode of Downton Abbey!
Agnes Grey is a relatively short (just 251 pages) story of a young woman who begins work as a governess after her family falls into financial ruin. It’s very autobiographical, based on Anne’s own experiences working as a governess at age 19 – and apparently features people she knew and worked for.
Agnes Grey’s first position is with a family of absolutely horrid spoilt children. One of the boys even enjoys torturing birds, and is even encouraged by an uncle (shudder). The second position, where she mostly teaches the daughters, is still an uneasy and difficult one. The older daughter is determined to bat her eyes at every available (or even those who are married) men she meets, including the curate, the sweet and kind Mr Weston, whom Agnes has grown fond of.
Life as a governess sounds absolutely dreadful. Hired to teach and care for these children, they were obviously educated and at least considered respectable enough. Yet Agnes is treated like she “ceased to be visible”.
I liked how determined Agnes is to:
“go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, besides exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mamma and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed.”
And how her mother married for love, forfeiting her fortune to marry a parson, and still determined, later on when the family’s financials are in greater trouble, not to depend on any money from her wealthy father.
Agnes Grey was a quick read for a classic, with a straightforward narrative, a very proper protagonist and a fascinating and honest look into what life as a governess in the 1840s really was like (especially when compared to Jane Eyre).
It also has the simplest of endings, perfect for this book:
And now I think I have said sufficient.