Saturday, February 13, 2021

Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

About halfway through the book, I realized I couldn't quite tell if Anne Brontë was writing Agnes Grey to be an unreliable narrator or a self-insert character - which is a rare predicament for a reader. Agnes (like Brontë) is the daughter of a poor church pastor, who upon turning eighteen years old, stubbornly and bravely decides to become a governess despite very little experience with children or education. She fails rather abysmally in her first job, but absolves herself of all responsibility since the parents refuse to allow her to discipline the children in any way. Her next position is largely the same; the children are inconsiderate and unruly, the parents are superficial. Agnes is unable to teach the children much of anything, but she is so passive, in an ever-suffering martyr sort of way, and so convinced in the correctness of her own rigid way of thinking, that this is hardly surprising.

For example, in the following passages, Agnes relates her first impressions of the Murrays.

Master Charles was his mother’s peculiar darling. He was little more than a year younger than John, but much smaller, paler, and less active and robust; a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow, only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods: not simply to hide his faults, but, in mere malicious wantonness, to bring odium upon others. In fact, Master Charles was a very great nuisance to me: it was a trial of patience to live with him peaceably; to watch over him was worse; and to teach him, or pretend to teach him, was inconceivable. At ten years old, he could not read correctly the easiest line in the simplest book; and as, according to his mother’s principle, he was to be told every word, before he had time to hesitate or examine its orthography, and never even to be informed, as a stimulant to exertion, that other boys were more forward than he, it is not surprising that he made but little progress during the two years I had charge of his education.


If some of my pupils chose to walk [to church] and take me with them, it was well for me; for otherwise my position in the carriage was to be crushed into the corner farthest from the open window, and with my back to the horses: a position which invariably made me sick; and if I were not actually obliged to leave the church in the middle of the service, my devotions were disturbed with a feeling of languor and sickliness, and the tormenting fear of its becoming worse: and a depressing headache was generally my companion throughout the day, which would otherwise have been one of welcome rest, and holy, calm enjoyment.

“It’s very odd, Miss Grey, that the carriage should always make you sick: it never makes me,” remarked Miss Matilda,

“Nor me either,” said her sister; “but I dare say it would, if I sat where she does—such a nasty, horrid place, Miss Grey; I wonder how you can bear it!”

“I am obliged to bear it, since no choice is left me,”—I might have answered; but in tenderness for their feelings I only replied,—“Oh! it is but a short way, and if I am not sick in church, I don’t mind it.”


But, with time and patience, matters began to be slightly ameliorated: slowly, it is true, and almost imperceptibly; but I got rid of my male pupils (that was no trifling advantage), and the girls, as I intimated before concerning one of them, became a little less insolent, and began to show some symptoms of esteem.

Passages like these had me nearly convinced that Agnes Grey was a genius character study about a naïve, judgemental, self-conscious young woman completely lacking in spine or introspection, who thought she was giving accurate and unbiased character studies of her pupils. However, for this to be the case, the story would have needed to become about Agnes, and her journey in how she perceives the world.

The novel instead was really about Rosalie Murray, a cruel coquette so cartoonishly evil that the author needed to lampshade the ridiculousness of the character:

Had I seen [her conduct] depicted in a novel, I should have thought it unnatural; had I heard it described by others, I should have deemed it a mistake or an exaggeration; but when I saw it with my own eyes, and suffered from it too, 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, and grudge the smallest morsel to a starving brother.

The main plot tension arises from Rosalie attempting to make Agnes' crush fall in love with herself instead, her main source of recreation before she marries the wealthy but unpleasant Mr. Ashby. Despite Rosalie cruelly inventing work for Agnes to perform to keep her away from Mr. Weston and other forms of exploitation and emotional torture, Agnes strives to convince Rosalie not to rush into marriage and to instead consider marrying for love and mutual admiration of character. The plot essentially resolves with Rosalie being unhappy in her marriage and regretfully confiding to Agnes that she should have heeded Agnes' advice. Agnes marries Mr. Weston and undergoes no character growth, having never made any mistakes or admitted to any character flaws.

And this is why, having now finished the novel, I feel instead Agnes is a self-insert character -- a way for Brontë to put forth her opinion on the mistreatment of governesses, the moral depravity of the aristocracy, and the flaws of society more broadly. 

The book was not without a few well-put social critiques. For example, I liked this reflection on how we view beauty:

A little girl loves her bird—Why? Because it lives and feels; because it is helpless and harmless? A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt a toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes. If a woman is fair and amiable, she is praised for both qualities, but especially the former, by the bulk of mankind: if, on the other hand, she is disagreeable in person and character, her plainness is commonly inveighed against as her greatest crime, because, to common observers, it gives the greatest offence; while, if she is plain and good, provided she is a person of retired manners and secluded life, no one ever knows of her goodness, except her immediate connections. Others, on the contrary, are disposed to form unfavourable opinions of her mind, and disposition, if it be but to excuse themselves for their instinctive dislike of one so unfavoured by nature; and vice versâ with her whose angel form conceals a vicious heart, or sheds a false, deceitful charm over defects and foibles that would not be tolerated in another.

But I found it rather pales in comparison to Jane Austen's similar social critiques. Where Austen is just as pointed in her critiques of the aristocracy, I get the sense that she can love people while poking fun at their flaws. Austen's Emma is somewhat like Rosalie in viewing romance as a game, and marriage as a strategy. Although Austen describes Emma as "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like," she crafts a layered, sympathetic but flawed character. In contrast, Brontë, or at the very least Agnes, appears to allow for two camps of people: the unlovable and irredeemable morally depraved, and the admirable and unchanging piously perfect. Perhaps more than any other Austen heroine, Agnes is like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price. But even Fanny earns her happy ending by standing up to authority, whereas Agnes stumbles upon her happy ending by passively yet piously floating through life, writing in her diary about how some people are just awful, and taking a well-timed walk on a beach.

Austen's dialogue is crafted beautifully with layers of subtext. Brontë doesn't seem to trust her readers to pick up on nuance and narrates character dynamics plainly:

After a short pause in the conversation, Mr. Weston made some remark addressed particularly to me, as referring to something we had been talking of before; but before I could answer, Miss Murray replied to the observation and enlarged upon it: he rejoined; and, from thence to the close of the interview, she engrossed him entirely to herself. 

The most interesting part about Agnes Grey is the central role than animals play - unusual, I think, for books of this time. Brontë discusses briefly the right animals have to being treated humanely, and characters are explored through the way they treat animals. For example, Tom Bloomsfield excitedly details his plan to roast birds alive. Agnes takes pity on these birds and kills them mercifully, but is chided for it by Mrs Bloomfield:

“I am sorry, Miss Grey, you should think it necessary to interfere with Master Bloomfield’s amusements; he was very much distressed about your destroying the birds.”

“When Master Bloomfield’s amusements consist in injuring sentient creatures,” I answered, “I think it my duty to interfere.”

“You seemed to have forgotten,” said she, calmly, “that the creatures were all created for our convenience.”

I thought that doctrine admitted some doubt, but merely replied—“If they were, we have no right to torment them for our amusement.”

“I think,” said she, “a child’s amusement is scarcely to be weighed against the welfare of a soulless brute.”

“But, for the child’s own sake, it ought not to be encouraged to have such amusements,” answered I, as meekly as I could, to make up for such unusual pertinacity. “‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.’”

“Oh! of course; but that refers to our conduct towards each other.”

“‘The merciful man shows mercy to his beast,’” I ventured to add.

“I think you have not shown much mercy,” replied she, with a short, bitter laugh; “killing the poor birds by wholesale in that shocking manner, and putting the dear boy to such misery for a mere whim.”

Rosalie adopts a puppy, but neglects it when it turns out to be more work than expected. Mr Weston and Agnes are, of course, perfect dog owners and much beloved by their dog Snap.

Overall, however, I think Agnes Grey is moralizing and dated and not really worth reading in the twenty-first century.

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