Anne Brontë’s semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey is not what I expected from a novel by one of the Brontë sisters. It is a much simpler, less atmospheric novel than the other four I have read by these women, and in many instances feels more like a novel by Jane Austen, though I think it lacks Austen’s witty dialogue and clever observations.

Like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey revolves around a young woman employed as a governess, who later goes on to start a small school for girls. However, neither family that Agnes works for provides her with the same excitement that Jane finds at Thornfield with the brooding Mr. Rochester. Although Anne Brontë eventually provides a love interest for Agnes, the novel focuses primarily on the difficulties she finds in her work—obnoxious pupils, ignorant parents, the contempt with which the rich treat the lower classes, and the challenge of staying true to herself in a world where so much goes against her values.

This novel lacks the powerful gothic elements of the most famous Brontë novels, or even of the other lesser-known ones. The novel does offer some sharp, honest observations about life as a governess and especially about the selfishness and snobbery frequently found among the 19th century upper classes. Having worked as a governess herself, Anne Brontë, according to her sister Charlotte, believed that “none but those who had been in the position of governess could ever realize the dark side of ‘respectable’ human nature.” She is certainly not afraid to share some of her realizations with the reader, though having read plenty of other 19th century novels that dealt with social class issues, nothing I read in Agnes Grey shocked me. I also believe that this novel does not allow as excellent an opportunity for insights into gender, religion, and other social themes as other Brontë novels do, including Anne’s second and final novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. While it would probably be useful for anyone wanting to know more about 19th century governesses, I doubt Agnes Grey would hold up well against a substantial literary criticism.

Agnes Grey is shorter than the other Brontë novels I have read, but while it is a pleasant enough read, I found it rather slow. There is little passion or drama found here, and the protagonist does not change very much over the course of the novel. Her stories about her pupils and the trouble they cause her also get rather repetitive, and there is not much variety, creativity, or humor in how Anne Brontë tells them. I did not need quite so many reminders that the Bloomfield children were cruel and deceitful or that Rosalie Murray was materialistic and vain. There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but there is not anything extraordinary about it either. As I mentioned earlier, the class conflict sometimes leads the novel to take on the feel of one of Jane Austen’s works, and it feels even more like Austen after Agnes meets and falls in love with Mr. Weston. However, Anne Brontë lacks Jane Austen’s gift for crafting witty prose and memorable characters, so it is a rather pale imitation. Funnily enough, though, Brontë also brings her novel to an uncharacteristically hasty conclusion—a habit I noticed in the three Austen novels I have read, and one that I cannot help but find a little annoying.

Agnes Grey is by no means a bad novel, and there is definitely value here for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of 19th century women. However, it is not as memorable as other works by the Brontës—even Villette, which I did not enjoy reading but found incredibly insightful and worthy of discussion. It is worthwhile for fans of the Brontës or 19th century literature in general, but do not expect to get as much out of it as you did other novels from the same era. 

Advertisements