24 November 2009


Reading Diary: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
(NOTE: This is now a Book Review Party entry.)

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.

Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge.

I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself.

Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture; and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.

So begins the history--it is not allowed to be "just" a tale--of woman who used to work as a governess.

It seems impossible to appreciate the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters (who shall, to the imaginably great chagrin of the latter, always be thrown together in literary circles) without understanding the figure of the governess. This position was practically the only one available to a genteel, educated young woman who needed to work outside her home. It is the one real shadow hanging over Austen's Pride and Prejudice, the only fate left to the Bennett girls, should they prove unable to find husbands before their father dies. It is the stark canvas of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre upon which she depicted her title character in grand, Gothic brushstrokes. And it is even in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, as the "burden" carried by one of the March girls, who (I guess) was too Protestant to refer to it as a "cross."

There is much to be said about "governess literature"--so much that I'm currently drafting a future post about it! I saw many of my own experiences as an after-school tutor reflected in Anne's experiences as a governess, and some of her naughtier pupils reminded me very much of my own. I think I could make a good case for my own Tutor Tales falling squarely in the tradition of "governess literature" (which was--and still is--mostly autobiographical) . . . but I guess I should save all that for the future post?

Hmmmm. It doesn't say much about this novel that I'm more fascinated by the context than by the book itself, does it? So let me get to the book now . . .

Agnes Grey reminds me why one Bronte biographer described Anne as "the other one." Her novel seems to be riding on the successes of Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights. Anne does have Agnes voice down perfectly--but I suspect that is because it also happens to be her own voice, and the episodes in Agnes' life are all based on incidents from her own. Anne did work as a governess for several years, and she makes her agenda behind writing of such a life in great detail very clear:

I have not enumerated half the vexatious propensities of my pupils, or half the troubles resulting from my heavy responsibilities, for fear of trespassing too much upon the reader's patience; as, perhaps, I have already done; but my design, in writing the last few pages, was not to amuse, but to benefit those whom it might concern: he that has no interest in such matters will doubtless have skipped them over with a cursory glance and, perhaps, a malediction against the proxility of the writer; but if a parent has, therefrom, gathered any useful hint, or an unfortunate governess received thereby the slightest benefit, I am well rewarded for my pains.

We can certainly imagine what kind of governess she herself must have been, if her primary objective was to instruct rather than to amuse!

Where another writer would satirise, Anne moralises. For good or ill, some of the best written passages in the novel are the sermons--whether those Agnes gives her pupils or those the curate Mr. Weston gives the parishioners. Agnes Grey is a dozen religious tracts held together by the form of the novel. (This strain has made me wonder whether the protagonist's name is meant as the foremost parable. Agnes Grey: the grey lamb?)

Then there is Anne's propensity to tell rather than to show. When she has Anne write something like, "I have omitted to give a detail of [Mr. Weston's] words, from a notion that they would not interest the reader as they did me, and not because I had forgotten them," she turns her into an infuriatingly inadequate narrator. For of course we want to know what Mr. Weston says that makes her fall more deeply in love with him. We want to know it a million times more than we cared to hear the little extemporaneous sermon he preaches to one of the cottagers, the text of which got the royal treatment. Then there's the fact that Agnes with her pupils is just another tiresome governess, while Agnes with Mr. Weston is . . . someone else entirely.

. . . The footman was waiting, with an open umbrella, to escort Miss Murray through the churchyard. I was about to follow, but Mr. Weston had an umbrella too, and offered me the benefit of its shelter, for it was raining heavily.

"No, thank you, I don't mind the rain," I said. I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise.

"But you don't
like it, I suppose?--an umbrella will do you no harm at any rate," he replied, with a smile that showed he was not offended; as a man of worse temper or less penetration would have been at such a refusal of his aid.

I could not deny the truth of his assertion, and so went with him to the carriage; he even offered me his hand on getting in: an unnecessary piece of civility, but I accepted that too, for fear of giving offence. One glance he gave, one little smile at parting--it was but for a moment; but therein I read, or thought I read, a meaning that kindled in my heart a brighter flame of hope than had ever yet arisen.

There! Wasn't that lovely? Wasn't Agnes lovely? The sad part is that she isn't like that very often.

So though we're clearly supposed to sympathise with her when one of her employers criticises her very personality--

"If you would try to amuse Miss Matilda yourself a little more, I think she would not be driven to seek amusement in the companionship of dogs, and horses, and grooms, so much as she is; and if you would be a little more cheerful and conversible with Miss Murray, she would not so often go wandering in the fields with a book in her hand. However, I do not want to vex you . . . Do pray, try not to be so touchy,--there's no speaking to you else . . ."

. . . We might have to admit that the lady has a point. The self-effacing governess is no fun to anyone, least of all to herself, and must have more than two-dimensions if she is to work as a character in a novel. Agnes manages to meet this last requirement--but just barely.


Image Sources: a) Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, b) The Governess by Emily Mary Osborn


antiaphrodite said...

I haven't read Agnes Grey yet, but Jane Eyre is one of my favoritest books ever!

Oh, and IIRC, in Little Women, when Amy lives with their aunt, she and one of the maids strike up some sort of friendship. The maid I think is Catholic, and depicted rather fairly. I'm not sure where my copy of the book is right now...

antiaphrodite said...

Hah! And I'm up in the Top 5!!

Enbrethiliel said...


I also love Jane Eyre! It's one of the few books I know backwards and forwards, and yet find something new in whenever I reread it. I'm planning to write about it a little more in that aforementioned future post.

Yes, you're right about Aunt March's maid in Little Women. If I remember correctly as well, her name is Estelle, and she gives Amy a rosary, which Amy loves but does not use. Then she went to France and adored it there . . . Of all the March girls, Amy would have been the most logical Catholic convert.

antiaphrodite said...

It's one of the few books I know backwards and forwards, and yet find something new in whenever I reread it.

Me too! And I also understand it better than I did the last time. (I hope :-P ) I could go on about it!

I've found the book. And you're right, of course. I appreciate how Estelle is portrayed as a good woman helping Amy in her prayers.

Enbrethiliel said...


On the other hand, the little Irish children don't fare so well. Then again, their religion is never counted as a point against them. It's more likely that Alcott didn't care for the culture clash between these new immigrants and the settled families of New England.

antiaphrodite said...

It's more likely that Alcott didn't care for the culture clash between these new immigrants and the settled families of New England.

Probably; Estelle is Catholic and French, and other than telling "odd stories about her life in France" not much seems to be made of that in the book. --As far as I can tell.

Jillian said...

Great review. I loved this book, and Anne, as a literary realist and feminist -- but it's great seeing perspective on this work.

I LOVED Jane Eyre and Little Women!! And I'm a tutor too. Small world. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


Thanks, Jillian! =)

An Alcott and Bronte reader and a tutor, too?! It's definitely nice to meet you. =D