To truly enjoy reading literary classics you have to be transported back to a place and time that’s very different from our own. In Anne Brontë’s time, single women had very few career choices. Among the available ones open to an educated single woman were governessing and writing.
Anne Brontë was one of six children, and one of the three Brontë sisters who were superb writers – the other two being Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Emily (Wuthering Heights). Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is a tale of the experiences of a governess. The story is somewhat autobiographical because Brontë was a governess and had a very bad experience with her first employer but fared better with the second. We previously reviewed another of Anne Brontë’s book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Agnes Grey’s father, Richard Gray, was a clergyman, and her mother Alice, was from a wealthy family, who disinherited her when she refused to yield to her father and marry a man from her own social circle. Of the six children that Richard Grey and his wife had, only two, Agnes and Mary about five years older, survived beyond infancy and early childhood.
Mrs Grey loved her husband and family, and was very devoted to them. She never missed the luxuries that she gave up because she was loved and very happy. Richard Grey on the other hand felt guilty for what his wife had given up for him and was always seeking ways to make up for it which led to the family’s financial ruin. A friend who was a successful merchant suggested a way for Grey to double his private property. “The small patrimony was speedily sold, and the whole of its price was deposited in the hands of the friendly merchant; who as promptly proceeded to ship his cargo and prepare for his voyage.”
While the merchant was away, because of the expected windfall, Grey spent like there was no tomorrow even though his wife cautioned him. As luck would have it, the merchant perished along with the cargo. Agnes looked at their situation, thought of ways that she could help her family financially, but she kept most of her ideas to herself, fearing they would think her frivolous.
Grey responded in a human way and was bitter and disappointed, even though as a clergy, we would expect him to respond in a more God-like way. “My mother thought only of consoling my father, and paying our debts and retrenching our expenditure by every available means; but my father was completely overwhelmed by the calamity: health, strength, and spirits sank beneath the blow, and he never wholly recovered them. In vain my mother strove to cheer him, by appealing to his piety, to his courage, to his affection for herself and us…”
Agnes approached her mother with her idea of becoming a governess knowing that if she could convince her mother, she would advocate on her behalf to get her father’s support. Agnes was qualified to be a governess because she was very educated. Her parents homeschooled her, and except for Latin which her father taught her, her mother was in charge of her education. After securing her parents approval, her mother sent out discreet enquires to secure a governess position for her. One of Agnes’ aunt recommended a family who she thought would be suitable. Agnes set off for the first time away from home.
Many people often have double personas, the one they present to the world, and their true persona at home. Agnes found herself working for a cold and cruel family. The children were not disciplined and they ran wild. The previous governess tried to discipline them and was demoted to being in the nursery. The little boy Tom would torture/kill animals for the fun of it because that’s what his father and uncle did.
“‘But Tom,’ said I, ‘I shall not allow you to torture those birds. They must either be killed at once or carried back to the place where you took them from, that the old birds may continue to feed them.’
‘But you don’t know where that is, Madam: it’s only me and Uncle Robson that knows that.’
‘But if you don’t tell me, I shall kill them myself – much as I hate it.’
‘You daren’t. You daren’t touch them for your life! because you know Papa and Mamma, and Uncle Robson, would be angry. Ha, ha! I’ve caught you there, Miss!’”
None of the children listened to her. They knew how to play the game because they behaved when they were in the presence of their father because he was very stern. And the mother was very indulgent. Though Agnes was away from home and missed her family dearly, she remembered the way she was brought up and behaved in that manner. She was far too tolerant. The children’s behaviour deteriorated and the parents blamed it on Agnes, discharging her close to a year after they had hired her.
Agnes’ family welcomed her home and she remained there for a few months but was determined to try again. She was not convinced that all families would be like the previous one. Once again, Agnes convinced her mother to assist her in finding another governess position. This time, her mother recommended that they place an ad with their terms – she included what she was qualified to teach: music, singing, drawing, French, Latin and German.
This time Agnes was hired by the family of Mr. Murray, of Horton Lodge, which was even farther away from home. The family was more affluent than the previous one. And the children were older. The children were very difficult, but better than the previous ones. The boys were sent to school, and the girls were homeschooled.
You get a glimpse of what life was like. In those days, many affluent people had children and left the child rearing to others, usually a governess. And many of these children were accustomed to having their own way and they sometimes developed a sense of entitlement. Agnes remained with them for a few years and you see Matilda (14 years) and Rosalie (16) growing up. Mrs. Murray instructed Agnes to use the title Mister and Master when addressing the children.
When Rosalie got to the age when she was being wooed, she would string the men along and made them think that she cared for them. It was actually quite cruel and she had fun doing it. The only man who didn’t bend to her will was Mr. Weston, the vicar’s assistant. Agnes liked Mr. Weston and she thought he had an interest in her. Matilda and Rosalie would conspire so that Agnes wouldn’t run into Weston and they would tell tales about her.
Mrs Murray accepted a suitor who was wealthy for her daughter, though there were rumours that he wasn’t a nice person. Rosalie married Sir Thomas Ashby for status and for wealth, and it turned out that shortly after they had been married, she grew to detest him. Life could very well be paying her back for the cruelty she had shown to her other suitors for stringing them along.
Richard Grey died, so Agnes went home to stay with her mom, since Mary had married. Alice Grey did not want to be a burden to any of her children, she wanted her independence. She and Agnes founded a school, they worked very well together, and the institution did well. But Agnes’ heart ached because she had fallen in love with Weston. Fate was kind to her, and they were subsequently reconnected.
The story of Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte teaches us how to behave with dignity even when we are not treated fairly or with respect. Agnes had a code of conduct which he adhered to at all times.
- Be resilient: Bounce back from challenges and setbacks.
- Don’t spend what you do not have.
- Honour your talents and demand what you are worth.
- Persistence pays.
- Don’t judge all, because of the actions of a few.
What I am finding as I read through the classics is that it is very slow going and with many of them, the story moves at the speed of molasses. I recommend Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, but it’s not a book that you can whip through quite easily, you have to think about what you are reading so you can enjoy and digest.
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Author Bio: Avil Beckford, an expert interviewer, entrepreneur and published author is passionate about books and professional development, and that’s why she founded The Invisible Mentor and the Virtual Literary World Tour to give you your ideal mentors virtually in the palm of your hands by offering book reviews and book summaries, biographies of wise people and interviews of successful people.
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