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....
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