Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë, or as she is often treated in Victorian lit, the Lesser Brontë, wrote just two novels during her life, prior to dying of tuberculosis at 29 years of age. (Just eight months after her brother Branwell and just five months after her sister Emily. 1848-1849 was not a great time for Charlotte Brontë.) However, to shrug at Anne’s limited number of publications is much like referring to Emily Brontë as a “one hit wonder” – a designation I actually witnessed in a poorly considered Goodreads article last year. (Pretty sure you can’t be called a one hit wonder if the reason you only had one hit is because you DIED shortly afterward.) Speaking as a 28-year-old, if I had already written two books as emotional, insightful, humorous, and satisfying as Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by this time in my life, I think I’d call it one hell of a win and then die, not happily, but with a certain amount of resigned acceptance knowing that my work would live on for hundreds of years beyond me.

Anne Brontë’s relative obscurity compared to her two older sisters is something which frustrates and baffles me whenever I read her writing. Of course, much of this obscurity is due to Charlotte preventing the re-publication of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall following Anne’s death, a course of action which remains unexplained. But even with that in mind, I am still baffled at her status as a “second tier” Victorian novelist. I find her novels easy reading in comparison to many of her contemporaries’ tomes (I say as a dedicated reader of Victorian literature), full of wry observations, elegant social commentary, engaging characters, and laugh-out-loud situations. Their continued obscurity, all while much more ponderous and plodding novels continue to hog the lime light, is a horrible state of affairs. (And yes, much love to Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens, but there’s something to be said for a novel which doesn’t make you wait 100 pages for the plot to show up.)

Although Agnes Grey is a smaller book than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, both in size and scope, it is no less artfully written. Much of the book draws heavily on Anne Brontë’s personal experiences working as a governess, although much of the narrative is fiction. The novel begins with sudden financial devastation for Agnes Grey’s family after the merchant’s ship in which her father had invested the majority of their money was lost at sea during a storm. Even though Agnes’ parents and older sister attempt to keep her insulated from their attempts to earn money to pay off their sizable debts, Agnes is determined to contribute her own fair share to the family’s finances. Thus, she ventures out into the greater world, away from her home and the loving support of her family for the first time, and heads off to her first post as a governess.

Agnes Grey doesn’t have a highly dramatic and intricately wound plot with twists and turns in every chapter, but also it doesn’t need it. The book’s main purpose is to show the extremely limited options Victorian women faced when it came to becoming financially independent while also remaining “respectable,” as well as the specific trials governesses had to go through as a result of their unique position in the middle- to upper-class Victorian home as neither servant nor family. During the book, Agnes is employed by two different families, the first of which was directly lifted from Anne Brontë’s own memories of her first governess post with the newly upper-class snobs from hell. Agnes Grey paints an outrageous and horrifyingly accurate portrait of many educated but penniless young women during the Victorian era who turned to the job of governess for the sake of a living wage: cut off from the support of their friends and family, displaced to unfamiliar surroundings, and faced with the Sisyphean task of imparting knowledge and good manners to children who, following their parents’ example, allowed these women to hold no real authority.

Although much of Agnes Grey can make you feel inclined to shove the next 6-year-old you see into a pond on Agnes’ behalf, there are plenty of hilarious moments interspersed with our main character’s many trials, most of them delivered with Anne Brontë’s typical blink-and-you-miss-it sarcasm. There is also a charming romance plot that intertwines with Agnes’ journey to self-sufficiency and financial stability, if you are keen on that sort of thing. Overall, the book is a lovely piece of work, and a wonderful read if you are interested in the lives of Victorian governesses but would also like a fun story along with your historical info. Additionally, it makes a nice, light introduction to Anne Brontë if you’d like to start with something shorter before committing to the lengthier masterpiece that is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

(Note: While I usually make a point of not referring to authors by their first names (seeing as how they are not my friends), a certain challenge presents itself when trying to discuss all three Brontë sisters in the same post. Please give me some understanding here, thank you.)

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