Agnes Grey – Anne Brontë (1847)

Having read some of the Brontë sisters’ work and consistently getting them confused with each other, I decided to read the youngest sister, Anne, who wrote Agnes Grey (1847) and the extremely shocking (for the time) Tenant of Wildfell Hill. (In fact, Tenant was soooo shocking that one of her elder sisters refused it to be re-published believing it not to be a good representation of the family).

Agnes Grey is written arguably as a bildungsroman in many ways – it’s a reflective look of younger years from the perspective of an older person, and all from the personal pronoun “I”. Written as it was smack dab in the middle of Victorian times, it fits their style: extremely loquacious, sermonizing, ridiculously melodramatic. But despite these flaws, I still enjoyed the read and was sucked into both the plot, the numerous characters involved and the usual twisting strategies of what to do with Victorian daughters as they aged out of the school room.

Brontë proves to have a pretty good sense of humor sprinkled throughout the book, and easily describes the thought processes of a young adult in the throes of growing up. (Anne wrote this first novel when she was in her mid-twenties and it was based heavily on her own experiences as a governess just a few years before. It is easy to see some of this freshness of experience in how she relates the character’s own experience of working in wealthy families.)

So, yes, Agnes Grey is wordy and verbose and heavy-handed. However, when you align the writing of the novel with the life experience of Anne and her sisters, it’s hard to argue that she could have written otherwise, really. They were all children of a poor Irish clergyman (originally called Brunty*) and lived out on the moors of Yorkshire getting home-schooled and being autodidactic. Anne got a couple of years at a boarding school, and then aged 19 (similar age to the governess in Agnes Grey, methinks), she went to work as a governess. If Agnes Grey is anything to go by, it seems that that experience wasn’t too happy overall.

Her parents were pretty reproductively active, and popped out a kid every year between 1815 and 1818, with a year off until another at 1820. This can’t have made life easy on a clergyman’s salary, plus imagine trying to wonder how to get all four of the girls married when the family is isolated out on the moors. (Plus the son wasn’t that great a help either, being an alcoholic womanizer for most of his life.) Their mum died in 1821, so her (the mother’s) sister moved in to help, but it doesn’t seem to have been too happy an arrangement for them all. (Nothing brutal is reported, but it doesn’t seem to have been done with love.)

In the summer of 1845, the Brontë sisters were at a loss for income – they had few to no options so, deciding to write under male pseudonyms (Charlotte/Currer Bell, Emily/Ellis Bell, and Anne/Acton Bell), they self-published their first collection of poems.  Although not a success, the three sisters each went ahead and wrote a novel of their own: Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (Agnes Grey) were both published whilst Charlotte’s first was rejected. (Her second, Jane Eyre, was of course more of a success.)

Anne’s feelings about authorship and gender are explained further here:

“I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man.”[

Despite the success of their writings, the Brontës as a family were not to continue in good health – brother Branwell abused alcohol and had an affair with the wife of an employer of both he and Anne, leading to unemployment for both of them. He died unexpectedly in 1848. Two of the girls died quite quickly after that of various ailments – Emily first, and then Anne.

It seems to have been rather a hard-knock life for the Brontë sisters (through no fault of their own), and I’m curious now to learn more about their family life and social history of the time…. (More for the TBR pile.)

Good read overall – it’s a shame this volume tends to be overlooked in favor of her older sisters’ writing. It’s perhaps not as strong as some of their books, but it’s a good old-fashioned read if that’s what you’re looking for.

*Her father changed his name from a very Irish one to the more Anglicized Brunty when he went to Cambridge University to study theology. His father had grown up in poverty and married a woman from a comfortable background to live a life of lower-middle class – perhaps.  (Shades of Agnes Grey plot emerging again.)

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