Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056
Written around 1846, Agnes Grey expresses ideas on women and their capacity for a life based on reason similar to those of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Its feminism predates that of the novels by Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, yet only recently has it come to be recognized as a notable achievement, distinguished for its pervasive realism, its significant themes, and its innovative literary techniques.
The work of Anne Brontë, long dismissed as insipid compared to that of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, is in fact simply different in kind from theirs. In Agnes Grey, Brontë eschews sensational events and strong passions in favor of a restrained portrayal of actual life. The opening sentence, “All true histories contain instruction,” suggests both her goal and her method: a demonstration, through sustained realism, of the heroine’s spiritual and moral growth. Drawing heavily on her own experiences, Brontë convincingly presents the governess’ s life and the factors that often made it unbearable. She takes for her heroine and hero ordinary people struggling to cope in difficult situations. Numerous details of travel, weather, food, customs—all the circumstances of Victorian life—increase the verisimilitude.
The underlying theme, that women are rational beings who should be accorded the means and opportunities for independence and fulfillment, is expressed primarily in Agnes’s life story. Seeking employment, Agnes accepts the only occupation available to middle-class women, and she embarks on her career as a governess exhilarated by the prospect not merely of earning money but also of broadening her horizons. Her excited optimism, however, is naïve, based on ignorance of the world. The novel concerns her education and growth toward maturity. Despite her trials as a governess, she perseveres, determined to adopt a logical, rational approach to her unruly charges. She enlarges her understanding of human nature, making shrewd character evaluations and learning to penetrate hypocrisy. Although she suffers many humiliations, she gains self-assurance, and, at certain points, she openly challenges authority.
At Horton Lodge, she makes further progress toward understanding others and learning to control herself. Her consistent attempts to inculcate firm moral principles in her charges eventually win her some measure of respect. Moreover, even in situations that emphasize her social inferiority, she remains cognizant of her own worth and moral superiority. Love for Mr. Weston does not diminish her self-control and judgment. Pained as she is by Rosalie’s flirtation with him, she never loses her composure in public; she steadily attempts to view her situation with reason and objectivity.
Finally, at the school she establishes with her mother, she achieves a position in which she is a decision maker instead of a subordinate. Here, while she does not overcome what appears to be a hopeless love, she gains command of her feelings and experiences an upsurge of energy, physical well-being, and a sense of freedom. It is a confident, self-reliant woman who strolls along the sands at the dawn of a new day and unexpectedly meets Mr. Weston. Their declaration of love, denuded of glamour and the trappings of romance, is the prelude to a union that is an equal partnership, founded on sincere feelings, mutual respect, and shared moral principles.
These feminist themes are reinforced by the other female portraits. Agnes’s mother is an accomplished woman, possessed of spirit and energy. She defies her parents in her marriage, and she defies convention in her determination to support herself after her husband’s death. She is the opposite of the gentle but ineffective Mr. Grey, and if she has a fault, it is that of trying to control too much in the home, a fault occasioned by the narrow sphere in which she is forced to exercise her considerable organizational abilities.
By contrast, Mrs. Murray and Rosalie reveal the emptiness and misery experienced by women who have no meaningful activity. Mrs. Murray’s life is centered on parties, fashion, and unfortunate matchmaking for her daughters. Rosalie is the victim of such a lifestyle. Not trained or disciplined, she is guided by her ambitious mother into a bitterly unhappy marriage to Sir Thomas Ashby, and when Agnes visits her at Ashby Park, Rosalie’s situation underlines the advantages that the poorer, but more purposeful, woman possesses.
A secondary theme concerns the corrupting effects of the economic system. The novel presents different gradations of wealth, ranging from the Bloomfields, who acquire their money from trade, to the Murrays, who represent the country gentry, to the Ashbys, who belong to the titled aristocracy. At all levels, the pernicious consequences of the leisured life of the moneyed classes are shown. The cruelty and viciousness of Mr. Robson and Tom Bloomfield are only the most obvious instance. Mr. Bloomfield’s snobbery, the Murray daughters’ mockery of the cottagers, Mr. Hatfield’s ingratiating ways with the rich and neglect of his poorer parishioners, and Sir Thomas Ashby’s dissipation are all the result of an economic system that fosters idleness, self-indulgence, and lack of good judgment.
Brontë’s innovations, however, extend beyond themes to narrative technique. The first-person female narration recounts experiences and opinions very close to the author’s own. While author and female narrator are not identical, the link between them establishes an entirely female perspective enhanced by direct address to the “Reader.” This original manipulation of female point of view adds authenticity and conviction.
Equally significant is the style. Lucid and restrained, the style never draws attention to itself but presents persons and events with an air of controlled objectivity. The cool, unimpassioned voice of the female narrator is perfectly adapted to the theme of a woman’s rational nature. Yet, the quiet tone is enlivened by a mild and sometimes comic irony. Agnes is skilled in deflating human affectation and gently mocking human foibles. Typical is her quiet response to Rosalie’s query about whether her sister’s husband is rich, handsome, and young: “Only middling,” comes the calm reply.
In comparison with most Victorian novels, Agnes Grey is subdued. However, if it lacks the dramatic, it also avoids the melodramatic, the sensational, and the sentimental. In its sober way, it gives a telling picture of women in Victorian England and utilizes a technique and style consonant with that subject. It deserves recognition as a significant contribution to nineteenth century feminism.