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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

Mrs. Grey, a squire’s daughter, offends her family by getting married only for love to a poor parson in the north of England. She bears him six children, but only two, Mary and Agnes, survive. Nevertheless, the Greys are happy with their humble, educated, pious life in their small house...

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Mrs. Grey, a squire’s daughter, offends her family by getting married only for love to a poor parson in the north of England. She bears him six children, but only two, Mary and Agnes, survive. Nevertheless, the Greys are happy with their humble, educated, pious life in their small house and garden. Mr. Grey, never wholly at his ease because his wife was forced to give up carriages and fine clothes in order to marry him, attempts to improve their fortunes by speculating and investing his patrimony in a merchant’s sea voyage. However, the vessel is wrecked, everything is lost, and the Greys are soon left penniless. In addition, Mr. Grey’s health, never robust, begins to fail perceptibly under the strain of his guilt for bringing his family close to ruin. Mary and Agnes, reared in the sheltered atmosphere of a clergyman’s household, have spent their time reading, studying, and working in the garden. When the family situation becomes desperate, however, Mary tries to sell her drawings to help with the household expenses, and Agnes, the younger daughter, decides to become a governess.

Overcoming the qualms her family feels at the idea of her leaving home, Agnes finds employment and, on a bleak and windy autumn day, arrives at Wellwood, the home of the Bloomfield family. She is received coldly by Mrs. Bloomfield and told that her charges, especially Tom, a seven-year-old boy, are noble and splendid children. She soon finds that the reverse is true. Tom is an arrogant and disobedient little monster whose particular delight is to pull the legs and wings off young sparrows. Mary Ann, his six-year-old sister, is given to temper tantrums and refuses to do her lessons. The children are frightened of their father, a peevish and stern disciplinarian, and the father, in turn, blames Agnes when the children frequently get out of control.

Agnes finds it impossible to teach the children anything because all her efforts to discipline them are undermined by Mrs. Bloomfield, who believes that her angels are always right. Even four-year-old Fanny lies consistently and is fond of spitting in people’s faces. For a time, Agnes is heartened by Mr. Bloomfield’s mother’s visit, but the pious old lady turns out to be a hypocrite who sympathizes with Agnes verbally and then turns on her behind her back.

Matters become a great deal worse with the visit of Uncle Robson, Mrs. Bloomfield’s brother, who encourages young Tom to torture small animals. One day, after he collects a whole brood of young birds for Tom to torture, Agnes crushes them with a large stone, choosing to kill them quickly rather than to see them suffer a slow, cruel death. The family thinks she deprived Tom of his normal, spirited pleasure. Shortly after this incident, she is told that her services are no longer required; the Bloomfields believe that she did not discipline the children properly or teach them very much.

Agnes spends a few months with her family at home before taking up her next post. She finds the Murrays, the owners of Horton Lodge, more sophisticated, wealthier, and less bleak and cruel than the owners of Wellwood; but they are still hardly the happy, pious, warm family that Agnes hoped to encounter. Her older charge, Rosalie, is sixteen years old, very pretty, and interested only in flirting and in eventually making the most suitable marriage possible; her younger charge, Matilda, fourteen years old, is interested only in horses and stables. Although they treat her with politeness, neither girl has any respect for the learning and piety that Agnes offers. If Agnes’s work is less unpleasant than it was at Wellwood, it is equally futile.

After living at Horton Lodge for nearly a year, Agnes returns home for a month for her sister’s wedding. During this time, the Murrays give Rosalie a debutante ball, after which she exercises her charms on the young men at Horton. When Agnes returns, she is shocked to find Rosalie flirting with all the men and summarizing the marital possibilities of each with a hardened and materialistic eye. In the meantime, a new curate comes to Horton. Edward Weston is a sober and sincere churchman, neither climbing nor pompous like the rector, Mr. Hatfield. Mr. Weston and Agnes, attracted to each other, find many opportunities to meet in their sympathetic visits to Nancy Brown, an old widow who is almost blind. At first, Rosalie finds Mr. Weston both dogmatic and dull, but Agnes finds him representative of the true piety and goodness that she believes are the qualities of a clergyman. Rosalie, continuing to play the coquette, first conquers the unctuous rector, Mr. Hatfield, and then after he proposes and is quickly rejected, she turns her charms on Mr. Weston. Although Agnes is fiercely jealous of Rosalie’s flirtation, she never really acknowledges her own growing love. Finally, Rosalie accepts Sir Thomas Ashby; his home, Ashby Park, and his fortune are the largest in the vicinity of Horton.

Shortly after Rosalie’s marriage, before Agnes has the opportunity to see much of Mr. Weston, she is called home by the death of her father. She and her mother decide to start a school for young ladies in the fashionable watering place of A——. Although Agnes returns to Horton Lodge for another month, she does not see Mr. Weston before she resignedly leaves to rejoin her mother. Although the school begins to prosper after a few months, Agnes still seems weary and depressed, and she welcomes an invitation from Rosalie, now Lady Ashby, to visit Ashby Park. She finds Rosalie disappointed in her marriage to a grumbling, boorish man who ignores her and who, after a honeymoon on the Continent, forbids her the frivolous pleasures of London and European society. Agnes also learns from Rosalie that Mr. Weston left Horton a short time before.

A few days after Agnes returns to her mother and the school, she is walking along the waterfront one morning when she unexpectedly encounters Mr. Weston. He secured a position as a minister in a nearby village. He promptly begins calling on Agnes and her mother, who soon comes to hold him in high esteem. One day, while walking with Agnes to the top of a high hill, Mr. Weston proposes marriage. As husband, father, clergyman, and manager of a limited income, he is in later years the perfect mate for virtuous and worthy Agnes.

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