“I could only conclude that excessive vanity, like drunkenness, hardens the heart,enslaves the faculties, and perverts the feelings, and that dogs are not the only creatures which, when gorged to the throat, will yet gloat over what they cannot devour.” – Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey
The (to us) least well known Brontë sister (that most tragic family of English literature: of six children born to Reverend Patrick and Maria Brontë, none lived to reach the age of 40), wrote two novels, one wildly popular in her lifetime (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) and the novel of which I write here, Agnes Grey. She also contributed poetry to the volume that was the Brontë sisters’ first “real” publication, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, (the male pseudonyms used, as was common in the 19th century, to conceal the fact that the authors were “ladies” who were not considered “sensible” enough to pursue a serious artistic/intellectual pursuit such as writing literature). Anne’s nom de plume, “Acton Bell” (the first letter of each male name corresponds to the first letter of the author’s real name,. i.e., “Currer” = Charlotte and “Ellis” = Emily as “Acton” = Anne. Of course, the first letter of the shared last name, “B,” corresponds to the family name Brontë) was also the name used for the author when Agnes Grey was first published in 1847.
If you’ve paid any attention to my 2013 Reading List (which I doubt – Why are we all so busy, anyway? Wasn’t technology supposed to give us all oodles of free time to do things we love? But it seems we’re forever distracted by – oh, there’s my mobile, can you hang on a few…?), you’ve noted that Agnes Grey isn’t the next book in that reading list. I’ll get to that book next week. I was in a used book store and spotted a copy of this Anne Brontë novel on the shelves and bought it immediately. I’d long wanted to complete my “Brontë trifecta” by reading something by Anne Brontë. Even before I’d finished the Fred Chappell book of poems from last week, I started Agnes Grey.
I wrote my master’s thesis on Jane Austen’s novels, as I’ve noted before, and have often looked at the other Brontë sisters’ novels (Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre) as Romantic reactions against Austen’s “little bit of ivory”: Austen explores the lives of women in roles other than as brides, wives – or “old maids” – as well as critiquing the social behaviors – both “correctness” and faux pas galore – of her time. The Brontë sisters’ heroines fight against (or are destroyed by, like Cathy Earnshaw Linton) the unfair conventions that control women’s lives.
Not so with Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey. While, yes, the novel is the story of the younger daughter of a curate in reduced circumstances who tries to help her family by working as a governess, it is in this sole feature – working as a governess – that the novel bears any similarity to elder sister Charlotte’s magnum opus, Jane Eyre. Agnes, the titular character, takes on governess posts voluntarily to help her loving, tight-knit family. The father, a well-meaning man, is as weak, foolish, and ineffectual as Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice or Mr. Woodhouse in Emma. But, like those men in Austen’s novels, he is well loved by his wife and daughters (Agnes and her sister Mary bear at least a passing resemblance to Jane and Elizabeth Bennett from P&P while Mrs. Grey is a more idealized version of Mrs. Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility).
But the bulk of the novel recounts Agnes’s struggles to be a “good” governess among “bad” employers – and their spoiled, largely unteachable children. Her first appointment is a disaster – she is dismissed from her post for her inability to make progress in educating children whose parents undermine her authority at every turn. The rest of the book recounts for the most part her “survival” among a family (the Murrays) whose lack of propriety and self-governance reminds one of the Bertrams in Austen’s Mansfield Park. The mother is “tolerant” of her lack of progress with her daughters Rosalie and Matilda (unruly sons have been sent away to boarding school) because she is aware – if only mildly disturned by – her daughters’ foibles. She “indulges” Agnes more as a companion (and possibly role model) for her daughters than as a governess.
And in this role Agnes shines. Her incisive comments on the behavior of Rosalie and Matilda Weston show at times the biting wit of Elizabeth Bennett (see the opening quote), at times the tentative disapproval of Fanny Price, as in this moment when the elder daughter, Rosalie Murray, flirts unconscionably with the object of Agnes’ affection, Mr. Weston, a curate like her father: “It might be owing to my own stupidity, my want of tact and assurance; but I felt myself wronged.”
For, as in an Austen novel, there is a “Mr. Right.” It is this same Mr. Weston, a sensible, correct behaving man of discretion and discernment. Agnes’s initial reaction to him is much like Fanny Price’s to Edmund Bertram or Catherine Moreland’s uncertain reactions to the attentions of Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey – she at first cannot believe herself the possible object of the affections of one she “admires and esteems.” Later, she can only think of the attraction as one-sided: her diffidence and modesty will not let her believe that, though she has fallen in love with Mr. Weston, he might return those feelings towards her.
At the novel’s end Agnes escapes the Murrays and joins her mother, now a widow, in running a school. It is there in a seaside town that Mr. Weston finds her again, having, like George Knightley with Emma Woodhouse, planned for a future with Agnes that is happier (though, to give Brontë her ground as a bit of a prig, a highly serious and moral future full of “improvements” in the practice of faith) than any she could have ever imagined.
It’s an absolutely Austenian ending to a novel by a Brontë.
XPOST: THE NEW SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN