George Moore (essay date 1924)

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SOURCE: "Chapter XVII," in Conversations in Ebury Street, Chatto & Windus, 1969, pp. 211-23.

[In the following excerpt of a literary conversation originally published in 1924, Moore calls Agnes Grey "the most perfect prose narrative in English literature" and goes on to describe the story.]

… If Anne had written nothing but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I should not have been able to predict the high place she would have taken in English letters. All I should have been able to say is: An inspiration that comes and goes like a dream. But, her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature.
The most perfect prose narrative in English literature, and overlooked for fifty-old years!
The blindness of criticism should not surprise one as well acquainted with the history of literature as you are. You have noticed, no doubt, that I avoid whenever I can the word fiction, for the word has become degraded by association with circulating libraries and has come to mean novels that sell for six months and are never heard of afterwards. Agnes Grey is a prose narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress. I need not remind you, Gosse, that, it's more difficult to write a simple story than a complicated one. The arrival of Agnes at the house of her employer (she is the new governess) opens the story, and the first sentences, the eating of a beefsteak is among the first, convince us that we are with a quick, witty mind, capable of appreciating all she hears and sees; and when Agnes begins to tell us of her charges and their vulgar parents, we know that we are reading a master-piece. Nothing short of genius could have set them before us so plainly and yet with restraint—even the incident of the little boy who tears a bird's nest out of some bushes and fixes fish hooks into the beaks of the young birds so that he may drag them about the stableyard. Agnes's reprimands, too, are low in tone, yet sufficient to bring her into conflict with the little boy's mother, who thinks that her son's amusement should not be interfered with. The story was written, probably, when Anne Brontë was but two or three and twenty, and it is the one story in English literature in which style, characters and subject are in perfect keeping. In writing it Anne's eyes were always upon the story itself and not upon her readers; a thought does not seem to have come into her mind that a reader would like a little more drama, a little more comedy, that a picnic or a ball would provide entertainment. Whilst writing about Agnes Grey's first set of pupils she had in mind Agnes's second set, and was careful that the first situation should lead up to the second. Agnes is not dismissed, nor does she even, as well as I remember, leave for any definite reason. The house had become disagreeable to her and she leaves, rests for a while at home, and hearing of a situation in which she would have the charge of two growing girls, she accepts it, and the reader is relieved to find Agnes, whom he has begun to appreciate, among less harsh surroundings. One of her pupils is about to pass out of the schoolroom into the world; the other is a sort of tomboy who likes kittens and puppies, and the society of the stable-yard and harness-room better than that of the drawing-room, her hour not having yet come. At the end of the first term, a term of six months or a year, Agnes Grey goes home, and after a short holiday she returns to her pupils, very tired, for the journey has been a long one. But whilst Agnes has been resting at home Miss Murray has been to her first ball, and Agnes must really come to the schoolroom at once to hear all about it. And so absorbed is Miss Murray in herself, in her dress, in her partners, in the flowers that were given to her, in the words that were spoken to her during the dances and the sitting-out in quiet corners, that she fails to perceive how inappropriate the occasion is for the telling of her successes. Agnes Grey gives all the attention she can give to her pupil, but is too tired to respond, and Miss Murray, feeling, no doubt, that Agnes thinks she is exaggerating her successes, insists still further: As for me, Miss Grey—I'm so sorry you didn't see me! I was charming—wasn't I, Matilda? And the younger sister, who has not been to the ball, answers:


The word lights up the narrative like a ray of light cast by Ruysdael into the middle of a landscape.

I am afraid you writers of prose narratives appreciate other people's narratives only when you find your own qualities in them.
What you say is most unjust. You have read a great deal of poetry, but your appreciations of poetry are not limited to the exact qualities you possess yourself. Why, therefore, should you think that I cannot appreciate anything that is not part of my own possession?
I don't think it's quite the same thing… . But tell me what becomes of the governess.
She makes the acquaintance of a curate and visits the alms-houses with him, and here Anne rises to greater heights in patter than Jane Austen, for Jane's patter is drawing-room patter, whilst Anne's patter is in Yorkshire jargon. I don't know if you will acquiesce in my belief that the language of the fields is more beautiful than that of the town, and that the cottage supplies better stuff for art than the drawing-room.
Not better than the palace. Shakespeare—
Wouldn't it be just as well to leave Shakespeare out of this argument?
You haven't told me yet what becomes of Agnes Grey?
She leaves her situation and goes, I think, to recover her health by the sea, and meeting on the esplanade the parson with whom she visited the almshouses—he has gone there for his vacation—
The end of the walk is an engagement!
And why shouldn't it be? The simple is never commonplace.
The commonplace is yesterday's artifices, and I will admit that I have often wondered why criticism should have raised up thrones for Charlotte and Emily, leaving Anne in the kitchen.
A sort of literary Cinderella.
A blindness of fifty years of which you have no cause to complain, since it has called you to fulfil the part of the fairy godmother.
Critics follow a scent like hounds, and I am not certain that it wasn't Charlotte who first started them on their depreciation of Anne. I cannot give chapter and verse here, but in one of her introductions she certainly apologises for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, pleading extenuating circumstances: Anne's youth, her sickness, her inexperience of life. Three phthisis-stricken sisters living on a Yorkshire moor, and all three writing novels, were first-rate copy, and Charlotte's little depreciations of the dead were a great help, for three sisters of equal genius might strain the credulity of the readers of the evening newspapers. Such insight as would enable the journalist to pick out the right one would be asking too much of journalism.
Could you have picked out the right?
Not at the time of the publication of Anne's books, but fifty years is a long while to wait. My case against Charlotte does not end with an implicit defamation of her sister, for in her novel Villette she is guilty of the most bare-faced plagiarism. We may rob the dead, but not the just departed, and of all the poor dead sister hardly yet cold in her coffin. Like her sisters, Charlotte wrote well, but she did not write out of the imaginations of her mind, and, the first volume of Villette being almost an autobiography, her talent rises all the while; but the story needed in the second volume a girl representative of her sex, something more than a tracing of Charlotte's own youth, and so it came to pass that Charlotte found herself constrained to lay hands on Miss Murray, which she could do easily, a mere change of name being enough to hide the theft, for nobody had read Agnes Grey.
Love is said to be blind, but if all that you say is true, criticism is even blinder, for though many charges have been brought against Charlotte, plagiarism is not one of them.
The critics of the Brontës were interested more in Charlotte's flirtation with the schoolmaster in Belgium, which, if it were true, mattered very little, and if it were not, didn't matter at all. But you, Gosse, should not have allowed Charlotte to climb the wall by means of somebody else's ladder and then to kick it away.
As I have not read Agnes Grey must take your remarks on trust, but I will read the story.
I wish you would, and write an article about Anne, for then the truth would become known.
Why not write it yourself? The story is true to you, and to me it is only a partial truth.
Were I to write it, it would be looked upon as one of my paradoxes, or a desire to tread upon somebody's corns. But as soon as you begin to read, the story will possess you and you will long to reveal the true Charlotte and her patrons, the dinner at the publishers, and the dinner at Thackeray's, a dozen pompous men standing before the fire, their coat-tails lifted, their eyes fixed on the timid girl who had discovered bigamy and written it out all by herself. The nostrils of the twentieth century like not the smell of these broken victuals, and yet—
And yet the lake darkens and the loiterers along the waterside have disappeared; probably gone home to supper, every one. I'll let you out at the farther gate.


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Agnes Grey

Anne Brontë

The following entry presents criticism of Brontë' s novel Agnes Grey (1847). For a discussion of Brontë's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 4.

Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey, was originally published under her pseudonym Acton Bell in 1847 and details the life of a governess in mid-Victorian England. Many critics take its main subject and title character to be a literary projection of Brontë herself, citing numerous parallels between Brontë's life and that of her fictional creation. Scholars are careful, however, to acknowledge that Agnes Grey is a work of imaginative fiction that addresses social concerns, including the at times degrading treatment of governesses, the consequences of the Victorian cult of domesticity, and Brontë's critique of burgeoning materialism and declining morality in mid-nineteenth-century Britain. To a large degree overshadowed by her sister Charlotte's Jane Eyre—a similar work that was published before Anne's novel, but composed after it—Agnes Grey has been considered somewhat artistically inferior to, and has certainly enjoyed a great deal less popularity than, Charlotte's novel. Nevertheless, twentieth-century critics have deemed Agnes Grey an important work of Victorian realism that demonstrates Brontë's humor, perceptive eye for detail, talent for storytelling, and unmistakable taste for the unconventional.

Plot and Major Characters

The younger of two daughters of an Anglican clergyman, Agnes Grey spends her early years living modestly but comfortably in the north of mid-nineteenth-century England. When Agnes is still a young adult, however, her somewhat imprudent father, Richard Grey—seeking to strengthen the family finances through speculative investment—loses his capital following a maritime disaster that sinks his friend's merchants ships. Eager to assist the newly impoverished household in whatever way she can, Agnes determines to become a governess, despite the initial disapproval of her parents. Naively optimistic, she takes a position in the household of the upperclass Bloomfields. Hired by the discompassionate Mrs. Bloomfield, Agnes is charged with the care and instruction of her four children, whom she soon discovers are ill-mannered, undisciplined, even cruel. Unable to control or educate the Bloomfield brood—on one

occasion she finds it necessary to kill a nest of birds to prevent the youngest boy, Tom, from torturing them—Agnes is shortly given notice. She soon locates a new governess position, gaining employment with the Murray family of Horton Lodge. Treated with little respect by her aristocratic employers, Agnes discovers that her new pupils—Charles, John, Matilda, and Rosalie, who range in age from nine to sixteen—are only a slight improvement over their unprincipled predecessors. Confronted with these troubles, Agnes encounters Edward Weston, the new curate in Horton, and swiftly falls in love with the simple, sincere, and unassuming young cleric. Meanwhile, the Murray boys depart for school, leaving her in charge of only Matilda and Rosalie. Time passes and the materialistic and flirtatious Rosalie, now eighteen, leaves Agnes's care. Several months later, Rosalie marries Sir Thomas Ashby, a wealthy and influential man whom she does not love. Meanwhile, Agnes's father dies and her mother decides to establish a school in the seaside town of A——. From this moment, Agnes spends only six more weeks in Horton, then bids farewell to Mr. Weston and joins her mother in A——. Approximately one year later, she receives a letter from her former student Rosalie inviting her to Ashby Park. When she arrives, Agnes greets a cynical Lady Ashby, now a mother and clearly struggling in a bad marriage. Several days after her return to A——, Agnes encounters Edward Weston walking along the beach. He has secured a position as vicar in a nearby parish. Soon after, the two marry and have children of their own.

Major Themes

One of several "governess novels" written and published in the mid-1800s, Agnes Grey falls into the tradition of the female bildungsroman, or novel of development, and thus dramatizes the theme of innocence and youthfulness passing into experience. Unlike many such works of the same era, however, Agnes Grey is thought by critics to treat certain subjects absent from, or only vaguely sketched, in the woman's bildungsroman. Various scholars observe in the novel a critique of mid-Victorian social attitudes, especially as they relate to morality, childrearing, the treatment of women, the surging tide of materialism, and the hypocritical cult of domesticity. Agnes's numerous confrontations with the recalcitrant children she is hired to educate are said to condemn the domestic deficiencies of the British upper classes—personified in the idle, cold, materialistic, and largely disinterested parents of the Murray and Bloomfield children. Commentators have also seen in Agnes Grey a clever depiction of the feminine struggle to acquire independence and a voice in the affairs of a society that relegates women to domestic functions.

Critical Reception

Many scholars believe the novel that was to become Agnes Grey was originally entitled Passages in the Life of an Individual (a work in progress referred to by Brontë in her correspondence), and it has been assumed since the time of its publication to be autobiographical in character. Although the novel was significantly drawn from material in Brontë's own life and is marred to a degree by moral didacticism, Agnes Grey has earned the respect of literary critics as an important work of fiction, but none have quite equaled George Moore's 1924 assessment of the novel as "the most perfect narrative in English literature." Later critics of Agnes Grey have done much to undo the influence of Brontë's elder sister, Charlotte, whose condescending and apologetic attitude toward Anne's literary talent set a precedent for much subsequent criticism. Thus, in the contemporary era, commentators have lauded Agnes Grey for the simple brilliance of its narrative technique as well as for its unadorned style, psychological clarity, and insightful observations on the nature of Victorian society.

Will T. Hale (essay date 1929)

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SOURCE: "Anne Brontë: Her Life and Writings," in Indiana University Studies, Vol. XVI, No. 83, March, 1929, pp. 3-44.

[In the following excerpt, Hale suggests that Agnes Grey is primarily an autobiographical work and that it is of interest to the scholar of the mid-Victorian novel and for the insights it provides into the mind of Brontë herself.]

Agnes Grey is the barest sort of story, without color and without humor. Unlighted by the least play of fancy, it presents a bald, literal chronicle of events as drab as life itself. It has no improbabilities, no flights of the imagination, no romance. It is realism in the literal sense of the word, life as it actually is, without exaggeration and without adornment. It is just the sort of realism that William Dean Howells asserted that he wrote when he called Dickens' novels romances. Produced at the same time (1846) as The Professor, it seems to have been inspired by the same theory of the novel as Charlotte had in conceiving her first work, which was rejected by six publishers in succession because it lacked thrilling excitement and startling incident. That the young sister should have been influenced by the older seems only natural when one recalls the habit of the Brontë girls to discuss the composition of their stories every night before going to bed as they paced up and down the floor together.

Like Charlotte's other novel, Jane Eyre, it is a domestic novel of humanitarian purpose, and sets forth the ills and humiliations of a governess' life. Both sisters had suffered grievously while serving as governesses, and these works of theirs show how bitterly the remembrances rankled in their breasts. Agnes Grey almost literally describes Anne's own experiences at Mrs. Ingham's and the Robinsons' , evidently with the purpose of informing the public as to the treatment accorded young women who had to make their living by going out to teach. Aside from this didactic purpose and the author's declared aim to instruct the reader,108 the book contains none of the usual paraphernalia of the novel of instruction: it never preaches, and proclaims no doctrines.

Autobiographical in the main, beyond a doubt, it is, as Charlotte has declared, "the mirror of the mind of the writer."109 Agnes is Anne in every respect. One sees the strict seclusion in which Anne was brought up, the way the older members of the family dominated her, her going forth, young and inexperienced, into a harsh world, her grief at leaving home and her homesickness while away, the vulgarity and rudeness to which she was exposed, the meanness and hardness of her life as governess, and the terrible agony of a young heart deprived of youth's young dream of love. Only on the last page Agnes does find the love that Anne was never to know; but in the fruition of Agnes' hopes, one can see the terrible frustration of poor Anne. Almost without reserve she exposes her baffled heart, fulfilling more truly than she realized her promise in the first chapter to "candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend."110 No more pathetic document can be found than this chronicle of the wild hunger of a blighted human heart robbed of its natural destiny.

Telling for the most part Anne's own story, the novel naturally has no real plot. Agnes goes out as governess in an ill-bred family of impossible children, changes her position after a short time, falls in love with Edward Weston, the curate, and, after some slight difficulties, marries him in the end and has three children, Edward, Agnes, and little Mary. This is all that happens. The characterization, too, is but slight. Described in a sort of catalog method upon their introduction, the different characters make but a dim impression upon the mind and live only while one is reading the novel. It is impossible to visualize them. The dialog, also, adds nothing to the verisimilitude. Unnatural and stilted, it is as lifeless and colorless as the rest of the story. No children ever talked as the youngsters do in this book.111 The earmarks of the governess are over it all.

The narrative is permeated, also, with Anne's mid-Victorian evangelical religious conceptions. Since her father's sympathies were with what at that time was known as the Evangelical group in the English Church, it was only natural that her ideas should have been of the same cast.112 This group, which was closest in points of doctrine to the dissenters, was essentially "Low Church" in its attitude towards the ceremonies and symbols of the Church, and in theology was decidedly Calvinistic. Thruout the story Agnes Grey's thinking is dominated by such conceptions, and her whole attitude of mind is colored by them.113 When the unhappy girl, for example, is enjoying the prospect of going to church, where she will have the pleasure of seeing her lover preach, at once she is disturbed by "the secret reproaches of my conscience, which would too often whisper that I was deceiving my own self, and mocking God with the service of a heart more bent upon the creature than the Creator."114 Again, when she thinks of her future life without her lover and is naturally distressed over the prospect, she takes herself to task thus: "It was wrong to be so joyless, so desponding; I should have made God my friend, and to do His will the pleasure and business of my life; but faith was weak, and passion was too strong."115 Then, when she feels that she would rather die than live without her lover, she checks herself thus: "Should I shrink from work that God has set before me, because it was not fitted to my taste? Did not He know best what I should do, and where I ought to labour? and should I long to quit His service before I had finished my task, and expect to enter into His rest without having laboured to earn it? 'No; by His help I will arise and address myself to my appointed duty. If happiness in this world is not for me, I will endeavour to promote the welfare of those around me, and my reward shall be hereafter.'"116 And when at last she has got her lover, and certainly ought to be satisfied, she declares that her purpose is to "keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again, and sin and sorrow are unknown … and … endeavour to live to the glory of Him who has scattered so many blessings in our path."117

Hand in hand with this mid-Victorian evangelicalism goes the mid-century's fondness for tears. These flow copiously from page to page upon the slightest provocation; indeed, they were the only luxury the poor governess had. Abundant as they are, they always seem to be voluntary, however, and strictly under her control, to be called forth when she wanted them. For instance, when she thought of leaving her sister to go away to be a governess, she buried her face in her hands, "and they were presently bathed in tears."118 And as she drove away, she drew her veil over her face, "and then, but not till then, burst into a flood of tears."119 Years later, when she feared that Rosalie Murray was going to take her lover from her, she wanted to cry, but had to postpone her tears until after dinner: "Right glad was I to get into the house, and find myself alone once more in my own room. My first impulse was to sink into the chair beside the bed; and laying my head on the pillow, to seek relief in a passionate burst of tears; there was an imperative craving for such an indulgence; but alas! I must restrain and swallow back my feelings still," for the dinner bell was ringing.120 And some time afterward, when she thought that she was hearing her lover preach for the last time, she confesses to the reader, "I was often on the point of melting into tears during the sermon—the last I was to hear from him" and when it was over, she continues, "I longed to seek the retirement of my own room, or some sequestered nook in the grounds, that I might deliver myself up to my feelings—to weep my last farewell, and lament my false hopes and vain delusions." But when he suddenly addressed her, she boasts, "I was very much startled; and had I been hysterically inclined, I certainly should have committed myself in some way then. Thank God, I was not."121 After all that he has been thru, the reader, too, says, "Thank God," from the bottom of his heart.

With such characteristics as have been pointed out, this novel has what value today? Very little except for the scholar who is studying the period or tracing the development of the mid-Victorian novel. For him, however, it has much that is interesting and valuable. In the first place, as a type of the mid-Victorian novel written by a woman, it reveals certain distinctive qualities. It follows the trend of the age in its emphasis upon the emotions, its humanitarian purpose, and its interest in the lower classes.112 Based largely upon the quiet, prosaic experiences of a governess, it lacks excitement of any kind, and what interest it has lies in the revelations of the heroine's personality and her mild adventures of the heart. For herself she has revealed with a good deal of verisimilitude. Everywhere in the book her gentle, charming personality makes itself felt. Transcribing the minute details of a governess' life, however, with literal exactitude and no imagination, the narrative approximates reporting rather than an artistic presentation of life. And yet it does seem real. It has all the actuality of a transcript from Anne's own life. The most probable passages are those that the author drew from her own experience; the least probable are those she manufactured, such as the love scenes. But the whole story includes only the smallest segment of human affairs, shows no knowledge of the developments of the time in scientific achievement or appliances, gives no hint of the material progress of the outside world, and presents no philosophy of life.

In the second place, the scholar of the period will be interested in the picture it paints of the manners and morals in the mid-Victorian English village. It furnishes a vivid insight into the life of a governess at this time and a true, tho circumscribed, view of a woman of the middle class living the inhibited life so common to the female members of the mid-Victorian household.

Lastly, its greatest value, perhaps, will lie in the light it throws upon the mind and character of the author. For it unmistakably reveals much of her inner self: her hatred of the life of a governess, her fondness for children,123 her evangelical ideas, her lack of a sense of humor, her tenderness of heart, and her suppressed, frustrated life. Twenty-seven tho she was when she published this novel, and a woman so far in the twenties in this era was long on her way toward spinsterhood, so little had she seen of the actual world and so much had she lived her life within her own self, she seems like an unsophisticated child revealing things about herself she should not tell. What could be more charming and more child-like than Agnes' agreement with herself not to think so much about her lover?—"So said I in my heart; and from that hour I only permitted my thoughts to wander to Edward Weston—or at least to dwell upon him now and then—as a treat for rare occasions."124 What could be more touching than her confessions to the reader of her love for him?—"He had not breathed a word of love, or dropped one hint of tenderness or affection, and yet I had been supremely happy. To be near him, to hear him talk as he did talk; and to feel that he thought me worthy to be so spoken to— capable of understanding and duly appreciating such discourse—was enough."125 What could be more womanly and more mid-Victorian?


108 Cf. Agnes Grey (The World's Classics), p. 1: "All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge."

109 [Clement K. Shorter, Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle, 1896,] p. 162.

110 P. 1. Cf. p. 113: "I began this book with the intention of concealing nothing; that those who liked might have the benefit of perusing a fellow-creature's heart: but we have some thoughts that all the angels in heaven are welcome to behold, but not our brother men—not even the best and kindest among them."

111 Cf. pp. 19-20, 46.

112 Charlotte's and Emily's pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic bias was strongly evident during their stay in Belgium. Cf. [Mrs. Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë, edited by Clement K. Shorter (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1901),] pp. 243-4.

113 Cf. Agnes Grey, pp. 83-4.

114Ibid., p. 139.

115Ibid., p. 153.

116Agnes Grey, p. 177.

117Ibid., p. 207.

118Ibid., p. 12.

119Ibid., p. 12.

120Ibid., p. 138.

121Agnes Grey, pp. 172-3.

122 Cf. pp. 86-107, etc.

123Agnes Grey, p. 9.

124Ibid., pp. 177-8.

125Ibid., pp. 171-2.

Susan Brooke (essay date 1965)

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SOURCE: "Anne Brontë at Blake Hall: An Episode of Courage and Insight," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1965, pp. 239-50.

[In the following essay, Brooke describes Brontë's experiences as a governess at Blake Hall and the influence they may have had on Agnes Grey.]

Blake Hall was my grandmother's old home, so that memories of the house go back to the earliest days of my childhood. For us children it was a place where wonderful Christmas parties were presided over by a genial great uncle and aunt and, like all houses which have been inhabited by the same family for several generations, it was also exciting because of the past associations which clung around its fabric.

There were stories which took one back to the Napoleonic wars, the Luddite risings and other strange happenings of the nineteenth century, but perhaps what interested us most was the fact that Anne Brontë had been governess to our grandmother's eldest sister and brother. When some of the Brontë novels were read to us they seemed to reveal further glimpses of a background that was already partly familiar, and even the characters in Wuthering Heights, Shirley, and Jane Eyre, appeared in some peculiar way to belong to the world of Blake Hall, so that it was often rather difficult to remember whether a story came from one of the novels or from reminiscences we had overheard. Later on, however, when we read books about the Brontës, we were surprised to learn that some writers assumed this background to be almost, if not entirely, imaginary, while people like Mr. Bloomfield (not to mention Heathclift and Rochester) were supposed to have no parallels in the world of ordinary life.

In reality, of course, the Brontës were acute observers of the West Riding scene, and their descriptions of people are alive with local colour. They all knew the Mirfield neighbourhood where Blake Hall was situated, and, although the provincial society which they delineated has vanished without leaving many records, it is important to emphasise that it once had a perfectly objective existence, incredible though this may seem to people brought up in different traditions.

In fact it seems as if the only social phenomenon which eluded the analysis of the Brontë sisters was the contemporary class system, with its ever-changing economic background. At this period ladies were not supposed to know anything about business affairs—indeed they were trained to turn a blind eye to most masculine activities. This attitude might not have had any significant effect on novels dealing with drawing-room life in the more old-fashioned parts of England, but the Brontës happened to live among people whose absorbing passion was the acquisition of wealth, and who were subject to all kinds of violent tensions caused by the success or failure of their speculations. It is possible that the impression of fantasy which surrounds some of their male characters is connected with the mystery of their working life. These men seem to drift into their homes from some unknown hinterland to which we hold no clues, whereas their prototypes were all deeply involved in financial schemes of one kind or another and often came back suffering from nervous irritation after hours of exhausting work, trying out new machinery or initiating some risky trading project. What must have seemed irrational or peculiar in their behaviour becomes more understandable now when we realise that the chief concerns of their life were never discussed or even mentioned in front of women.

As children we were supplied with a rich background of local knowledge, so that we could make our own interpretations where guidance was lacking, and against this vivid tapestry of historical fact the Brontë novels appeared more real than they would have done without it. Thus our acquaintance with Blake Hall and its former occupants enabled us to appreciate the strange character of Mr. Bloomfield in Agnes Grey. In fact, in some curious way we seemed to know more about him than the governess, so that on certain occasions we felt like giving her a desperate warning: "Look out—don't you see how he'll catch you out next time."

These governess heroines appealed to us intensely, but we could imagine the fury that their naive behaviour would arouse in their employers; for they were innocent lambs who not only lived among tigers, but dared to criticise the tigers' standards of morality, so that at every moment they appeared to be inviting their own destruction.

Like her sisters, Anne Brontë was meticulously exact in her observations, although they tended to be restricted to a narrower range of experience. The problems of family life and the bringing up of children were particularly interesting to her, and in Agnes Grey she showed what happened when a governess' s views on these matters clashed with those of the parents. For anyone who knew the background there could be no doubt that her experiences at Blake Hall were woven into this book, but since this fact has never been clearly acknowledged it seems worth while recapitulating some of the evidence on this point.

Anne went to Blake Hall in April, 1839. She was then aged nineteen, and this was her first situation as a governess. Charlotte described her departure in a letter to Ellen Nussey written on April 15th:

Poor child! She left us last Monday; no one went with her: it was her own wish that she might be allowed to go alone, as she thought she could manage better and summon more courage if thrown entirely upon her own resources. We have had one letter from her since she went. She expresses herself very well satisfied and says that Mrs. Ingham is extremely kind; the two eldest children alone are under her care, the rest are confined to the nursery, with which and its occupants she has nothing to do.

It is noticeable that nothing was said about the master of the house, either in this letter or in later ones. The reasons for reticence on this point become understandable in the light of further knowledge. The family at Blake Hall was eventually to become a large one, but at this period only five of the thirteen children had been born. Their names in order of precedence were: Cunliffe (b. 1832), Mary (b. 1834), Martha (b. 1836), Emily (b. 1837), and the baby Harriet (b. 1838) who only survived a year.

The lack of parental discipline which Anne found such a disturbing feature of the children's upbringing was characteristic of many Yorkshire households at this period, for among the newly-enriched families of the West Riding there had been a certain reaction against the stricter code of an earlier generation; and those who aspired to any position in the countryside were particularly anxious to avoid the stigma of middle class manners. Boys were frequently over-indulged by their parents and if they teased or bullied their sisters it was merely considered a sign of manliness.

On the other hand girls were usually brought up to feel that they were of little value compared with their brothers, and had no claim to equal treatment. Female rebellions could be quelled more easily when the girls were young, but among intelligent children there was often a lingering feeling of revolt against what seemed an inexplicable injustice. It is significant that the first observations made by Agnes Grey were connected with this point. The two elder children in the story had just received their new governess when the following conversation took place:

"Oh Tom, what a darling you are!" exclaimed his mother. "Come and kiss dear mamma; and then won't you show Miss Grey your schoolroom and your nice new books?"

"I won't kiss you mamma; but I will show Miss Grey my schoolroom and my new books."

"And my schoolroom, and my books, Tom," said Mary Anne. "They're mine too."

"They're mine," replied he decisively. "Come along Miss Grey, I'll escort you."

Similar conversations recur throughout the whole of Miss Grey's narrative, and it is clear that Tom was being brought up to be a little bully who considered himself far more important than his sisters, while Mary Anne was reacting with violent resentment against an attitude which she already felt to be intolerably unfair.

For anyone who knew the family at Blake Hall it must have been obvious that there was a close resemblance between the young Inghams and the Bloomfields in Agnes Grey. Their ages corresponded exactly and their psychological tendencies seem to have been precisely similar. In fact there can be little doubt that Agnes Grey contains an accurate description of Anne's first experience as a governess. In order to perceive the affinity between the fictional children and the real ones, it is only necessary to compare the salient features of the household portrayed in the novel with the known characteristics of family life at Blake Hall, as described in the Brontë correspondence and in the reminiscences of the family.

Perhaps one of the most significant incidents in the novel is the account of the bird trap which was justified on the grounds that the birds were doing harm in the garden. Nothing brings out more clearly the difference between Anne Brontë and her employers. When the boy Tom had exhibited his trap to the governess, the following conversation took place:

"Why do you catch them?"

"Papa says they do harm."

"And what do you do with them when you catch them?"

"Different things. Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next I mean to roast alive."

The boy then went on to defend his activities on the grounds that they had been sanctioned by his father:

"Last summer he gave me a nest of young sparrows and saw me pulling off their legs and wings and heads, and never said anything except that they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers: Uncle Robson was there too, and he laughed and said I was a fine boy."

The next time that Uncle Robson came on a visit he found fresh opportunity of teasing the governess, and at last she was faced with the choice between ignoring what was happening or displeasing the adults and their favourite child. Needless to say, there was no hesitation on the part of Anne Brontë's heroine, and on perceiving that some young birds were about to be tortured by her pupil, she dropped a stone on the intended victims, crushing them dead beneath it.

For acting in this independent manner the governess received a chilly reprimand from her mistress:

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

Soon after this incident the governess was told that her services would not be required after midsummer. Mrs. Bloomfield assured her that her character and general conduct were unexceptionable, but the children had made so little progress that Mr. Bloomfield and she "felt it their duty to seek some other mode of instruction." This notice was given at a time when Agnes had begun to congratulate herself that at last she had instilled something into her pupils' heads. "I wished to say something in my own justification," she wrote afterwards, "but in attempting to speak I felt my voice falter; and rather than testify any emotion or suffer the tears to overflow that were already gathering in my eyes, I chose to keep silence and bear all like a selfconvicted criminal."

It was obvious that the new governess with her passionate idealism and hatred of cruelty had aroused intense resentment both in the head of the family and in his friend Uncle Robson. A governess was expected to be intellectually subservient; to express opinions of any kind was a breach of etiquette, and to utter sentiments which ran counter to those of her employers was an unpardonable offence.

There can be little doubt that the feelings experienced by Agnes Grey were those of Anne Brontë when she left Blake Hall after a sojourn of only two terms. But fortunately there was no lack of sympathy in the family at Haworth. After Anne lost her post Charlotte wrote to Ellen Nussey on January 24, 1840:

You could never live in an unruly violent family of modem children such for instance as those at Blake Hall. Anne is not to return. Mrs. Ingham is a placid mild woman; but as for the children it was one struggle of life-wearing exertion to keep them in anything like decent order. I am miserable when I dwell on the necessity of spending my life as a governess. The chief requisite for that station seems to be the power of taking things easily as they come, and of making oneself comfortable and at home wherever one may chance to be—qualities in which all our family are singularly deficient.

Undoubtedly Charlotte was correct in her diagnosis. Having the temperaments of artists, the Brontës were highly critical and perfectionist, but these qualities were the reverse of those required for managing small children or finding pleasure in their company. Morever it is obvious from Agnes Grey that Anne had little affection for children of this type and no sympathy whatever for the ideas of their parents. Like her sisters she saw the darker side of domestic life in greater detail than the brighter aspects, and was able to sense the psychological undercurrents which have a more decisive influence over the fate of individuals than their conscious thoughts.

Although there can be no doubt that the description of Wellwood House contains many memories of Blake Hall, there seems to have been a certain reluctance to recognise this fact. For instance in one edition of Agnes Grey there is a photograph of Blake Hall with the words "Horton Lodge" below it. It can be stated quite definitely that there is no reason to accept this identification. The Murrays of Horton Lodge, who figure in the second half of the book, had no resemblance to the Inghams in their appearances, ages, or ideas, and from the descriptive passages it is evident that their home was situated in a more rural part of Yorksire, probably nearer Knaresborough.

No one could have differed more from the jovial blustering Mr. Murray "with scarlet cheeks and crimson nose," than the serious long-faced owner of Blake Hall, who seems to have been rather thinly disguised as Mr. Bloomfield. It would probably be fair to say that Joshua Ingham had some, if not all, of Mr. Bloomfield's peculiarities, the chief difference being that he was more of a gentleman—in the conventional sense—than Anne Brontë's character would suggest. A keen churchman and a zealous magistrate, he was respected by men of his own type, and in appearance he was a fine featured man, although not strikingly handsome like his younger brother Sir James. Many of his character traits appear to have been faithfully observed, including his irritable temper and curious wish to inflict punishments. In this connection it is significant that one of his daughters, Frances, used to tell how she had been terrified of her father as a child. One day at a time when she thought no one was about she was admiring her corkscrew ringlets in a mirror when her father caught sight of her through an open door and striding into the bedroom cut off all her hair "as a punishment for vanity." On another occasion the same daughter was so frightened to see her father standing motionless at the top of a dark flight of stairs, that she fell and injured her back. Similarly the children in Agnes Grey were said to live in "habitual fear of their father's peevish temper." Often the governess saw him watching her pupils from his window, or stealthily following them through the grounds and coming upon them when they least suspected he was around.

In this type of household the father was sometimes deliberately frightening to women as well as to children, for among certain West Riding families a harsh repression of all tenderness had left behind it a contempt for what were considered feminine values and a tendency to jeer at any woman who attempted to raise herself above the coarse standards of sporting society. Such treatment was not confined to the governess—although she was apt to embody something that was particularly disliked. The squire of Blake Hall had an aunt called Hannah Taylor, who remembered all her life the occasion on which she had asked her brother-in-law (the father of Joshua) to move some of his recumbent dogs away from the fire so that she could get herself warm. Without more ado she was hoisted off her feet and deposited behind the open fireplace, where she was told she could stay until she learnt to mind her own business.

The background which produced this type of behaviour was one in which social life revolved around masculine sports and amusements. There was no equivalent of the feminine society described by Jane Austen, and women had to adapt themselves to a life that was often lonely and crude. Families which had been fanatically puritan in the seventeenth century continued to produce shrewd but narrow-minded and close-fisted men who expected women to have a high standard of household management without any leanings towards independence of culture.

The Brontës became so familiar with the tyrant-bully type of Yorkshireman that they reproduced some of his features in nearly all their male characters, and in the case of Charlotte there seems to have been a kind of half-grudging admiration for this type of hero. Perhaps this fixation was one of the reasons why the Brontë novels received so much criticism from people who were ignorant of the West Riding and its social history. The exact description of sadistic behaviour inside the family circle was to many readers so unpalatable that it was taken to imply a morbid imagination, whereas in reality the novels were based on the keenest observation. Anne Brontë's account of conversations and situations is so true to type that it could only have been made possible by careful notes written in odd moments.

People who take the view that Anne relied on her imagination for the scenes in Agnes Grey appear to forget that we have other sources of information about the families she described. For instance the prosaic journals of Miss Weeton contain similar accounts of family life in the north of England during the earlier half of the nineteenth century.

Ernest Raymond writes that he finds it hard to accept Agnes Grey as a true picture of life at Blake Hall, because the children are too bad for belief and the parents too cruel. He points out that Anne referred to the kindness she received at Blake Hall, but does not appear to notice that Anne simply mentioned the kindness of Mrs. Ingham in her letters. She said nothing whatever about Mr. Ingham, and this is comprehensible in the light of what we know from other sources. There is no reason to suppose that Anne thought them both alike in their characters and in fact the reverse seems to have been the case.

In order to understand the people described it is necessary to know something about their historical background. The Ingham forebears had lived in the Calder valley between Halifax and Wakefield for hundreds of years, and all their links were with puritan families of the same type, many of them having traditions of fighting for the Parliamentary side in the Civil War. The records of Oliver Heywood show that some members of the family were ardent Nonconformists, the Blake Hall branch being descended from an Ossett family which was connected with Heywood's religious circle in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Certain individuals in the family continued in the Nonconformist tradition, but those who prospered became orthodox members of the Anglican church and forgot their puritan origins.

As merchants, bankers and coal-owners some of the Inghams accumulated fortunes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but unlike many families of a similar type they had little ambition to move up the social ladder. For neighbours they preferred the sporting squirearchy, although something prevented them from ever really belonging to it. Occasionally the family produced men of outstanding talent, their ability being usually expressed in such subjects as finance, law and commerce.

Before going to Blake Hall, Anne Brontë had not been entirely ignorant about the family history. Benjamin Ingham, the friend of Charles Wesley, had been a frequent visitor to Haworth in the eighteenth century, and the memory of his long preaching journeys throughout the Pennines still lingered there, while among educated evangelicals the name was inseparably connected with those of Count Zinzendorf, Lady Huntingdon, Henry Venn, and other leaders of the eighteenth century revival. Perhaps these hallowed associations had some influence on the Rev. Patrick Brontë when he decided to let his daughter take up the post at Blake Hall. If so, he must have been sadly disillusioned by her experience.

Mrs. Ingham was described by Charlotte Brontë as "a placid mild woman," and it seems likely that she was unable to assert herself when it came to preventing cruelty or keeping order among her children. It is also possible that at this particular time she was worried about the baby Harriet who died in 1839. In any case she had probably resigned herself to seeing many things which she did not like, realising that it was unwise to oppose the ideas of sporting countrymen. Her own family, the Cunliffes, also had their roots in the wild Pennine region of the Lancashire-Yorkshire borderland, and like the Inghams they had moved down into the more rewarding parts of the West Riding. Her father, Ellis Cunliffe (later Cunliffe-Lister) was M.P. for Bradford and one of her brothers was the eccentric mechanical genius who became the first Lord Masham. She had several other brothers and it is possible that one of these had some of Uncle Robson's characteristics.

Among the minor characters in Agnes Grey, the kind but fussy grandmother might be an impression of Joshua Ingham's mother. A miniature at Blake Hall showed this lady as a handsome old woman in a lace mantilla. She came of a family long established at Batley, the Taylors of Purlwell Hall—another dynasty of puritanical origin. Her husband's mania for hunting and gambling had caused her considerable anxiety. She wanted her sons to be successful in their careers, but realised that there was an unpredictable element in her husband's family—a wild uncontrollable streak that might come out in the future as it had in the past. It was during her lifetime that a beautiful dinner service decorated with hunting scenes was put out of sight. Her younger son became an eminent judge, but was unsympathetic towards his nephews. One of these, William Ingham, who later won fame as an explorer in New Guinea, asked his uncle to use his influence with the Colonial Office on his behalf, but Sir James did not think it worth helping one who had failed in his Oxford examinations. The bitterness of this fact was strongly felt after the young man's death at the hands of cannibals. [See note 2.]

It seems clear that the wild behaviour of the Blake Hall children was not in any way exaggerated, since stories told by members of the family resembled those recounted by the governess in Agnes Grey. Although it may seem incredible that a couple of children aged seven and five could reduce a girl of nineteen to tears, it was related that the young Inghams were able to do this on more than one occasion. No doubt Anne was partly to blame for what happened, but any young woman who had to conform to the conditions described in Agnes Grey might have found it difficult to keep order among her charges.

My grandmother used to tell how one morning a parcel of native cloaks arrived at Blake Hall from South America, whereupon the children donned these flapping scarlet garments and dashed out into the park, screaming that they were devils and would not return to do their lessons. Having no means of exerting any influence over her pupils, Anne went off in tears to Mrs. Ingham. This incident was probably one of a series of similar happenings, and reminds us of the scene in Agnes Grey when the children ran out into the snowcovered grounds in their slippers, and pranced about in front of the drawing room windows. Needless to say, in both cases the mother's sympathy was all on the side of her offspring, the governess being regarded as both ineffectual and over-severe. In her old age Mrs. Ingham told one of her grandchildren that she had once employed a very unsuitable governess called Miss Brontë who had actually tied the two children to a table leg in order to get on with her own writing. On entering the schoolroom the mother had been met by this horrifying sight and, of course, the governess had been suitably reprimanded.

No doubt the trials of the environment were made worse by Anne's inexperience and loneliness. Be that as it may, where she saw cruelty and discrimination others remembered a sporting family with a particular interest in animals of every kind—both wild and domestic. The place was so full of birds and beasts that people said it was like a "regular Noah's Ark." Many stories were told about the domestic pets; for instance it was recorded that one of the parrots developed a kind of second sight during the Crimean War, and suddenly swinging on its perch cried out "poor Cunliffe" over and over again. Subsequent inquiry showed that the eldest son was in special danger at that particular moment.

After Joshua Ingham's death his widow went to live at Torquay with her two elder daughters who remained unmarried. The younger girls, who were more adaptable than their sisters, all obtained more or less suitable mates, although in my grandmother's case it was said that she had married beneath her, for her husband was a West Riding manufacturer, and mid-Victorian snobbery drew a particularly heavy line between those who owned coal mines and those who manufactured cloth, the latter being regarded as totally unacceptable even in the outer fringes of country society. After her marriage several of her relations never spoke to her again, but fortunately this was not felt to be a great deprivation.

Mary, who had been Anne Brontë's pupil, lived longer than her brothers and sisters, and died in 1922. As a girl she had been the family beauty, having inherited the swarthy good looks of some of her ancestors, but it was rumoured that her chance of marriage had been ruined by another member of the family who had mislaid a letter in which she had accepted an important proposal. She remained a rather eccentric spinster with unorthodox views on several subjects, and annoyed her relations by calling herself Miss Ingham-Cunliffe. She was never mentioned to us as children and we knew nothing of her existence. It was a pity that she was unable to join the new forces of emancipation which were opening up opportunities for women, but it is tempting to imagine that some seeds of revolt had been sown by Anne Brontë in those far away days of the nineteenth century.

Although the Ingham children were extremely brave and adventurous, their footsteps were often dogged by some tragic fatality, which may not have been wholly disconnected with the way they were brought up. In their home life there could have been no greater contrast than that between the Brontë children and those of Blake Hall. In the former case there was great hardship and tragedy, but the world of imagination flourished and the light of genius transformed the humble circumstances of parsonage life. At Blake Hall, on the other hand, action was considered far more important than thought. There was little admiration for talent and ambition was stifled unless it expressed itself in conventional forms. The tone of provincial society in Yorkshire was taken from various distinguished old families, without much judgment. As a result there existed a widespread and vulgar type of snobbery in which individuals lost their personality and initiative. No Brontë could dream of preparing children to enter this type of world, yet it was what most parents wanted above everything else.

When thinking of the old days in the house which no longer exists, one cannot help feeling that Anne Brontë was one of the few people who saw that all was not well with the children's upbringing. She had the courage to warn the parents without fearing for her own position, whereas many governesses would have taken the easier way described by Charlotte of saying nothing and making themselves as comfortable as possible. Far from being over-imaginative, she had the perception and foresight that might have helped to avert more than one tragedy, and could have prepared a happier pattern for the future. The main things she lacked were encouragement, support, and experience. These were denied her by the nature of the environment, mainly because she refused to compromise with what she considered cruelty and injustice.

Bibliography: Ingham Family

Robert S. Whittaker: The Whitakers of Hesley and Palermo.

This book is privately printed, but obtainable in the British Museum and some other libraries. It contains the only detailed pedigrees of the Inghams and related families. Although it is mainly concerned with the elder branch (Leeds and Palermo) it has many references to the Yorkshire background in general.

Irene D. Neu: "An English Businessman in Sicily, 1806-1861," Business History Review of America, Vol. XXI, Number 4: Winter, 1957.

This article has detailed references to Yorkshire sources for the history of the family. For other economic activities see local histories of West Riding towns.

Religion: For Presbyterian background see Heywood's Diaries. For religious activities of B. Ingham and oth ers, see Christianity in Yorkshire, edited Popham; Wesley's Journal; Dictionary of National Biography, and other sources.


1 The Blake Hall Upbringing:

In some respects the general atmosphere resembled that of certain Irish houses of the same period, but, of course, the sense of humour was absent. Joshua Ingham would not allow any of his daughters to enter a shop, but a draper drove out from Huddersfield occasionally, with certain frugal necessities. A dancing master with a fiddle also called and the girls used to dance for nearly a whole day at a time. Later they drove over to the York balls. Aunt Hannah Taylor, who was an evangelical with an old feud against her High Church nephew Joshua, used to express her disapproval of this worldliness by leaving religious tracts at Blake Hall, which the daughters were forbidden to read. There were very few new clothes, but the daughters had to brush their hair for nearly an hour every day (without, however, taking any interest in the result). They were not expected to lace their own boots, but neither were they allowed female luxuries like hand mirrors or perfume. In an establishment where the vital interests were horse-breeding and similar affairs, none of the inmates had much interest in the industrial life growing up outside their gates.

2 W. B. Ingham, 1850-1878:

William Ingham (one of the younger sons of Joshua and Mary) exhibited some of the best characteristics of the Blake Hall upbringing. A long article in The Times for August 24th, 1929, describing some of his adventures in New Guinea, including a famous fight with a 13-ft. alligator, was followed by many letters of appreciation. Stewart Cox of the Royal Geographical Society wrote: "We had been together in the same house at Malvern College from 1865 to 1869 and as his fag I worshipped him. He made the alligator pay for killing his servant just as he gave a big bully who damaged his fag all he deserved… ." After his death, a town in Queensland was named "Ingham."

3 Blake Hall as a home:

Despite its somewhat austere exterior, Blake Hall was a home with its own type of Yorkshire hospitality. In structure the house was high and narrow, the front part being dated 1774, and the older parts going back to the seventeenth century. Everything was very well looked after; the furniture, brass and silver work gleamed in the cosy interior, where there were old oak chests, crimson carpets and lovely pieces of blue china. The ground floor sitting room had oak bookcases filled with brown leather volumes and figures of Chelsea china. There was also a cupboard where special toys were kept, including a peacock which wound up and spread its tail. A small door with an embroidered velvet curtain over it led into the garden. The chairs were covered with plain red cretonne.

The dining room had a simplicity and charm that reminded one of a Caldicott illustration. There were no curtains—only oak shutters—and the china cupboard was filled with a dessert service decorated with hunting scenes. There were old portraits on the walls, and a stormy landscape near the window. A parrot meditated by the fireplace or addressed a few words to the rosy-cheeked manservant who had known the house for nearly fifty years. At the foot of the stairs was a study called "the magistrate's room," lined with black carved oak dating back to the seventeenth century.

Upstairs there was a drawing room with Dresden china candle brackets and miniatures on a small table. Here there was a huge fireplace with blue tiles, curtains of gold brocade and chairs covered with the finest "petit point" embroidery. At the back of the house beyond the stables and laundry there was a large tithe barn and a charming black and white building called "the old Rectory" which had a flagged garden. Here Joshua Ingham's mother lived for some time after her husband's death.

(Note 3 is based on reminiscences by Mrs. B. Gundreda Brooke.)

Further Reading

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Bentley, Phyllis. The Brontë Sisters. Harlow, Essex: Longman Group Ltd., 1971 (Reprint), 42p.

Mentions Agnes Grey 's "quiet piety" and "cool eye for domestic hypocrisy."

Eagleton, Terry. "Anne Brontë." In Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës, pp. 122-38. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Offers a Marxist analysis of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Eagleton contends that both novels "pivot on a simple binary opposition between immoral gentry and righteous protagonist."

Edgerley, C. Mabel. "Anne Brontë." Transactions and Other Publications of the Brontë Society IX (1965): 173-80.

Biographical sketch that describes some of the details of the writing of Agnes Grey.

Harrison, Ada, and Derek Stanford. "Anne Brontë as Novelist." In Anne Brontë: Her Life and Work, pp. 221-46. London: Methuen, 1959.

Briefly assesses the style of Brontë's Agnes Grey, particularly in relation to The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Prentis, Barbara. "The Self and the World." In The Brontë Sisters and George Eliot: A Unity of Difference, pp. 67-86. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Observes that in Agnes Grey Brontë moves beyond autobiography to social criticism.

Additional coverage of Baillie's life and career is contained in the following source published by Gale Research: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 21.

Inga-Stina Ewbank (essay date 1966)

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SOURCE: "Anne Brontë: The Woman Writer as Moralist," in Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Female Novelists, Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 49-85.

[In the following excerpt, Ewbank comments on the unadorned style of Agnes Grey then contrasts the work with several other "governess novels" of the same period in order to discover the uniqueness of its theme.]

'All true histories contain instruction.' Thus the first sentence of Agnes Grey, and here we have the link between the intention of the novel and the technique Anne Brontë used in writing it. There is no attempt to make the sugar hide the pill: in the first paragraph we are told that the book 'might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others' . A few chapters later, the purpose is whetted, as we are reminded that 'my design, in writing the last few pages, was not to amuse, but to benefit those whom it might concern'. Those concerned are further defined:

if a parent has, therefrom, gathered any useful hint, or an unfortunate governess received thereby the slightest benefit, I am well rewarded for my pains.

From these statements of what would seem to be a narrowly didactic, even pedagogic intention, Agnes Grey would appear to belong in that tradition of instructive fiction which includes books like Miss Edgeworth's Parent's Assistant or Mrs. Hofland's Ellen, The Teacher. It does certainly owe something to that tradition, but very far from everything. To Anne Brontë, being a governess had been, in Keats's phrase, a kind of soul-making; and so the 'instruction' in Agnes Grey goes much further than merely telling parents how to manage their children and governesses how to handle their pupils and make the best of their lot. The 'instruction' lies in the 'true history' of Agnes Grey as a whole.

There is no reason to suspect that Anne shared Miss Stodart's suspicion of fiction qua fiction. We know that she contributed to the Gondal legends and that she found pleasure in reading novels. Yet, for the purposes of instruction, truth is more impressive than fiction— hence her insistence on Agnes Grey being a genuine autobiography. As a 'true' fictitious autobiography her novel is formally a straight descendant of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (absurd as the comparison with the latter might seem); but in its essential subject— the growth and development of a woman's mind—it is more deeply related to the Romantic tradition of autobiography. Autobiographical form had re-entered the novel via the Bildungsroman; in Bulwer Lytton's Pelham, for example, it provides some kind of unity and meaning in what would otherwise be merely a set of episodes. But, to my knowledge, no novel of the period is as emphatic as Agnes Grey in stressing the 'truth' of its fiction. So anxious is Anne Brontë for her reader to suspend his disbelief that she makes her characters refer to the actual novel form: 'Had I seen it depicted in a novel', says Agnes Grey about some particularly shameful conduct of one of her pupils, 'I should have thought it unnatural.'

It is, I think, this desire for 'true fiction' which has determined the narrative technique and style of Agnes Grey. Both are utterly plain and simple— with the strength as well as the weaknesses of those attributes. The narrative structure follows a simple chronological pattern: Agnes Grey, to help the family finances, takes first one position as a governess and then, having been unjustly discharged for incompetence after less than a year, another, which she keeps for a couple of years. While in her second situation, she falls in love with the curate of the parish, Edward Weston. Before she is sure of his feelings, she loses her father, and she and her mother set up a small school in a seaside town called A—. Mr. Weston, who now has his own parish not far from A—, seeks her out, woos and—obviously without any difficulty—wins her. This is told, as by Agnes some years after her marriage, in a consistent first-person narrative, with no recourse to letters or diaries, and—chiefly—in short, simple sentences.

The weakness in this method lies in Anne's occasional failure to perceive how very thin is the borderline between plainness and dullness. In her anxiety to picture life that is drab, she sometimes produces art that is dull. The story drags with repetitiveness as Agnes moves from the miseries of the Bloomfield school-room to those of the Murrays', and the dispassionateness of the style at times verges on boredom. We see, however, that the author herself is aware of the dangers of uncompromising verisimilitude:

As I cannot, like Dogberry, find it in my heart to bestow all my tediousness upon the reader, I will not go on to bore him with a minute detail of all the discoveries and proceedings of this and the following day.(Chapter VII)

The strength of her technique lies above all in its being functional—that is, in the directness of effect. There is nothing to intervene between the reader and the concerns of the novel, no glamorising (this extends to the heroine herself, who is plain and unassuming in appearance), no striving for spectacular effects, no spurious excitement. There is not even a pathetic deathbed, though with the death of Agnes's father the opportunity was there, and few mid-nineteenth-century novelists would have let it pass.1 There is nothing, in fact, to detract from the reader's growing understanding of how relentlessly drab is a governess's existence.

Practically no use is made of setting and natural scenery. Again, this must have been deliberate, for some of her poems—notably the 'Lines Composed in a Wood on a Windy Day'—show that she was responsive to nature and enjoyed describing its various aspects. But a snowy landscape to a governess is only something which she should try to prevent the children from rolling about in; and parks—however beautiful—are places in which she takes instructive walks with her reluctant pupils. When descriptions of nature do occur in Agnes Grey, it is for particular purposes. There is a moving account at the end of the first chapter, of Agnes looking back on her home as she leaves it for the first time:

We crossed the valley, and began to ascend the opposite hill. As we were toiling up, I looked back again: there was the village spire, and the old grey parsonage beyond it, basking in a slanting beam of sunshine—it was but a sickly ray, but the village and surrounding hills were all in sombre shade, and I hailed the wandering beam as a propitious omen to my home. With clasped hands, I fervently implored a blessing on its inhabitants, and hastily turned away; for I saw the sunshine was departing; and I carefully avoided another glance, lest I should see it in gloomy shadow like the rest of the landscape.

The landscape here is used only for its obvious symbolical meaning to Agnes. The much more extended descriptions of sea and beach in the final chapters serve a similar function. The reunion with Mr. Weston on the beach at sunrise, and his sunset proposal, mean an end not only to the 'drab-coloured' governess-existence but also to the darkness and despair of a lonely and hopeless-seeming pilgrimage:

I shall never forget that glorious Summer evening, and always remember with delight that steep hill, and the edge of the precipice where we stood together watching the splendid sun-set mirrored in the restless world of waters at our feet—with hearts filled with gratitude to Heaven, and happiness, and love—almost too full for speech.

External nature and internal emotion meet and fuse into one experience for Agnes Grey, much as they do for Wordsworth on the top of Snowdon in The Prelude.

The plainness of the style involves a great restraint in the use of metaphorical language. Feelings are generally conveyed directly, by a single adjective—'happy' , or 'sad', or 'exasperated' —or not at all. Mostly she just relates the bare facts of an episode and lets the emotions remain implicit. The exceptions to this tend to be somewhat self-conscious, as when she wants to describe Agnes's sense of up-rootedness on arriving in a new family:

I awoke the next morning feeling like one whirled away by enchantment, and suddenly dropped from the clouds into a remote and unknown land … ; or like a thistle-seed bore on the wind to some strange nook of uncongenial soil, where it must lie long enough before it can take root and germinate, extracting nourishment from what appears so alien to its nature, if, indeed, it ever can.

She finds, in fact, that she has been led into a parable of Agnes's situation rather than an analysis of feeling; and so she breaks off: 'But this gives no proper idea of my feelings at all.'

A similar kind of restraint is exercised when it comes to passing comments on the attitudes, actions or behaviour of people other than Agnes. One of the sources of strength in the novel is the author's ability to bring out, and evaluate, people's character without any buttonholing or superfluous comments. Agnes communicates the news of her sister's impending marriage to her pupil, Miss Murray, like this:

'Who is she to be married to?'

'To Mr. Richardson, the Vicar of a neighbouring parish.'

'Is he rich?'

'No—only comfortable.'

'Is he handsome?'

'No—only decent.'


'No—only middling.'

'O Mercy! what a wretch! What sort of a house is it?'

'A quiet little vicarage, with an ivy-clad porch, an old-fashioned garden, and—'

'O stop!—you'll make me sick. How can she bear it?'

'I expect she'll not only be able to bear it, but to be very happy. You did not ask me if Mr. Richardson were a good, wise or amiable man; I could have answered yes to all these questions… .'

'And will she go about in a plain shawl, and a large straw bonnet, carrying tracts and bone soup to her husband's poor parishioners?'

'I'm not so clear about that, but I dare say she will do her best to make them comfortable in body and mind, in accordance with our mother's example.'

With great economy of means and a perfect selection of details, she achieves a genuine effect of two people talking and of two diametrically opposed standards of value up against each other. It is the craft of the realistic novelist and the Morality play writer in one.

Descriptions of outward appearance are generally kept down to a thumb-nail sketch. It is conduct that counts, observed in realistic minutiae. In our first meeting with Mr. Bloomfield we get both appearance and revealingly selected details of behaviour:

He had a large mouth, pale, dingy complexion, milky blue eyes, and hair the colour of a hempen cord. There was a roast leg of mutton before him: he helped Mrs Bloomfield, the children, and me [we notice the order of precedence!], desiring me to cut up the children's meat; then, after twisting about the mutton in various directions, and eyeing it from different points, he pronounced it not fit to be eaten and called for the cold beef.

The realism is spiced with a sardonic kind of humour here, just as her tongue is in her cheek in the dialogue between Agnes and Miss Murray. One imagines what Dickens would have made out of lunch with the Bloomfields. Anne Brontë's technique, unlike Dickens's, is that of understatement: after Mr. Bloomfield has, volubly, found fault with the beef, too, and with the arrangements made for that evening's dinner, she only allows herself to say that Agnes is

very glad to get out of the room with my pupils; for I never felt so ashamed and uncomfortable in my life, for anything that was not my own fault.

The same dry realism, and absence of emotional commentary, can be seen in the description of the Bloomfield children's behaviour. Instead of the conventional miniature adults of much early Victorian fiction, we have here children that would not be out of place in a modem Child Guidance Clinic, kicking and spitting and defying authority in all possible ways.

Because of the prevailing reticence, the rare outburst and the rare metaphor get a peculiarly stinging power, as for example in Agnes's disgust at Rosalie Murray's conduct during her engagement. The young lady is having her last fling, desperately flirting with any available man, and making malicious attempts at stealing Mr. Weston. This provokes Agnes to the point of saying:

I could only conclude 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;

—an image which suggests that Anne could 'write up'a feeling if she wanted to, but that—in the cause of 'true fiction'—she was deliberately writing down.

Sentimentality, then, is completely absent from Agnes Grey. There are fewer tears in this novel than in any other mid-nineteenth-century novel that I have read. Exaggerated sentiment, so the author seems to have reasoned, would only set up a smoke-screen between the reader and the novel; it would falsify the human condition that the novel is about. It is to that human condition that we must now turn our attention.

Agnes Grey is a novel by a governess about a governess. To understand the way that the governess theme is handled here, it is, I think, helpful to compare it with some other novelists'handling of the same theme.2 Apart from Jane Eyre … at least four novels in the decade or so before Agnes Grey had dealt at some length with the governess problem: Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt (1835);3 Lady Blessington's The Governess (1839)—its heroine, somewhat confusingly in this context, named Clara Mordaunt; Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook (1839); and Elizabeth Miss ing Sewell's Amy Herbert (1844). With the governesses in all these novels Agnes Grey shares certain basic features. They are all young ladies in straitened circumstances, used to better things, but forced to earn their living among people who are often socially, and nearly always morally and intellectually, inferior to themselves. The course of events which forces Lady Blessington's Clara Mordaunt to become a governess is typical:

Clara Mordaunt was the only child and orphan of a merchant, whose unsuccessful speculations had led to bankruptcy and—suicide. Brought up in affluence,

large sums had been expended in her education, and being gifted with great natural abilities, her proficiency satisfied, not only her doting father, but surprised the professors who instructed her.

The father of Miss Martineau's governess, Maria Young, died and she herself became a semi-invalid in an accident; Miss Sewell's Emily Morton 'lost her father and mother both in one month'; and Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt was deprived of father and mother 'whilst yet in my tender infancy'. Agnes Grey differs from these young ladies in having, at least for the best part of the novel, both her parents alive. But her father is a poor clergyman who has lost his small private fortune in a shipwreck (the only melodramatic touch in the novel), and her mother is the daughter of a country squire who cut her off without a penny when she insisted on marrying Mr. Grey—thus providing Agnes with the requisite background of poverty and gentility combined. This background is not only effective for novel purposes: it also reflects an actual social condition of the period.4 That condition was acutely, but cruelly, set out by Miss Rigby in reviewing Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair together with the Governesses'Benevolent Institution Report for 1847:

We need the imprudencies, extravagancies, mistakes, or crimes of a certain number of fathers, to sow that seed from which we reap the harvest of governesses.5

The 'there but for the grace of God'attitude which Miss Rigby's comment suggests is perceptible behind all the four governess novels mentioned. One difference in the work of Anne Brontë, writing her novel when finally back at the parsonage after years of homesickness and humiliation, is the feeling that there, despite the grace of God, had she been.

The real definition of a governess, in the English sense, is a being who is our equal in birth, manners, and education, but our inferior in worldly wealth,

Miss Rigby goes on to say. As an almost inevitable consequence of the social position of the governess, the theme of social humiliation pervades all these novels. Clara Mordaunt is told by one of her pupils that 'Mamma [who is herself hardly a lady] said that governesses were never ladies, but merely useful to teach young people how to behave as ladies'.

Emily Morton is first introduced to us in an embarrassing scene where—despite the 'delicate features and sweet expression of the peculiarly lady-like young girl'—she undergoes the indignity of being confused with the lady's maid; and the author seems to take a masochistic pleasure in letting her suffer constant slights, consciously and unconsciously given, in a house of noble young ladies, in comparison with whom the Ingram ladies in Jane Eyre are models of tact and consideration. Agnes Grey is very much in this tradition, when on her arrival in a new family she has to wait to see her employer:

I did not see her till eleven o'clock on the morning after my arrival, when she honoured me with a visit, just as my mother might step into the kitchen to see a new servant girl—yet not so, either, for my mother would have seen her immediately after her arrival, and not waited till the next day; and, moreover, she would have addressed her in a more kind and friendly manner.

The implications of the comparison with her mother's treatment of a servant need hardly be commented on. Even her pupils never forget that she is 'a hireling and a poor curate's daughter'; no visitor to the family ever condescends to speak to her; no one gives her her due as a lady. Agnes Grey tries hard, despite constant insults and innuendoes, to 'subdue every resentful impulse, suppress every sensitive shrinking, and go on perseveringly doing my best'. Yet, there is more rebelliousness in her than in the conventional novelist's governess, as appears, for example, when she has to walk back from church with her pupils and their friends:

It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for, in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic.

Here the similarities between Agnes Grey and at least three of the other four novels end. For, while the social position and the indignities of these governesses are very similar, the uses made of that position and those indignities for the purposes of the novel are very different. In both Deerbrook and Amy Herbert, the governesses are slightly out of the focus of the plot. They serve more as catalysts than as active agents. Maria Young, in a novel where the interest is already dispersed between two heroines and two heroes, is passive as far as plot goes, and shows no trace of character development. Referred to in adjectives like 'wise', 'sensible', 'learned', and—most eulogistic of all—'philosophical,' she sets up a standard of moral and intellectual womanhood in the novel, facing the miseries of her solitary life with stoical fortitude. Amy Herbert is a novel with little structure and less psychological insight. Its interest is sentimental-moral, and Emily Morton, governess in the house of the title-character's aunt and uncle, is only one of two moral examples in the book (the other is Amy Herbert's saintly mother). To her the governess-ship is a blessed trial or martyrdom: it gives her the chance, which she never misses, to exercise Christian patience and humility.

She had no mother, no friends; her daily life was one of wearying mortification and self-denial; and yet Emily Morton had never been heard to utter a single murmur. She had never been known to compare her lot with others, or to wonder why she was deprived of the comforts enjoyed by them; and her heart was a perpetual well-spring of quiet gratitude, which made the heaviest trials of her life sources of improvement to herself, and of blessing to those around her.

Significantly, neither of these paragons ends up in marriage. Maria Young, at the end of Deerbrook, looks forward with masochistic bravery to going to the wedding between her best friend and the man she herself loves (and who courted her before she became lame and poor and an orphan). Emily's haven is reached when she gets a better position where, instead of 'ridicule or contempt', she is treated with 'the truest esteem and regard'.6 Both these novels, then, insert studies of the ideal governess—not so much qua governess as qua Christian stoic—into novel structures where they are not essential. Both, while gaining in general and social interest, lose considerably in concentration.

With both Lady Blessington's Governess and Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt the case is different. In both, as in Agnes Grey, the novel centres on its heroine-governess, and its structural pattern, too, simply consists in following the central character from one position to another. But here the three part company. The real interest in Lady Blessington's novel does not lie in the governess per se;7 it lies in the various social milieus that Clara passes through by virtue of being a governess. Clara is a convenient vehicle in a picaresque tour of various strata of English society: the parvenu Williamson family, the cranky poetess Mrs. Vincent Robinson, the high society of the Lord and Lady Axminster establishment, and the gourmand Manwarrings. Much of the treatment of the different social circles is satirical, and most heavily under fire is the vulgarity—'the solecisms in good breeding and still more in grammar'—of the Williamsons. Clara's own high breeding seems to have fitted her not so much for teaching their children as for ridiculing the bourgeois manner of these parvenus, their conversations (they continually misuse and misunderstand French), their taste in clothes (Mrs. Williamson looks like a radish, in pink and green), and so on. The literary circles of would-be poets and poetesses get their share of the satire, too.

Clara does suffer the customary humiliations, but her solution is not to fight it out: it is to be restored, by money and marriage (in that order), to her proper niche in society. Rich heiress becomes poor governess, but the poor governess eventually (thanks to the timely death of a rich uncle) becomes rich heiress again and marries lord. This pattern of success story is common enough in the 'fashionable' novels of Lady Blessington; and the fact that Clara spends her time of ill-fortune as a governess has nothing to do with her ultimate good fortune.

Caroline Mordaunt is, in most ways, an antithesis to Lady Blessington's novel.8 Caroline's course, through one governess's position after another, is not a picaresque satire but a domesticated Pilgrim's Progress; her various humiliations do not lead to the arms of a lord but to those of The Lord. True, she marries at the end, but the bridegroom is a clergyman (who wants, not romance but 'a housekeeper') of humble means. Mrs. Sherwood's intention is to show how Caroline, who starts as an irreligious and self-opinionated young woman, is brought by degrees to mortification and the Church. Her story, if we are to label it, is as much a Low Church religious novel as a governess tale. It ends by stating its two morals explicitly and emphatically. The first is that the heroine becomes a good Christian by realising 'how my various misadventures had been calculated to humble me, and bring me to a knowledge of myself; the second is an admonition to mothers to educate their daughters for the task of being 'a respectable wife in a humbler station' rather than governesses of intellectual and social pretensions. Needless to say, this novel has rather less artistic merit than that which treats of the more worldly Miss Mordaunt.

In Agnes Grey, as in The Governess, there is social contrast between the employing families. The Bloomfields live in 'a manufacturing district, where the people had nothing to do but make money'; they are definitely underbred; and Agnes's mother refers to them as 'those purse-proud tradespeople and arrogant upstarts'. The Murrays belong to the squirearchy and live in a country-house; they even move in the circles (and have the vices) of the society of the 'fashionable' novels. But social observation of this kind occupies a very subordinate place in the novel.

This, however, does not mean that Anne Brontë is not interested in social issues: on the contrary, Agnes Grey is a work much concerned with the nature of human relationships, both in the larger unit of society as a whole and in the smaller unit of the family—husband and wife, parents and children. Underlying the chronological pattern of the autobiography, there is a pattern of what we may call 'social' themes. These themes are developed by simple contrasts, as clear-cut as those in a Morality play. The vicar, Mr. Hatfield, and the curate, Mr. Weston, are as antithetical as the Bad Angel and the Good; and throughout the best part of the novel, episodes are arranged so as to provide testing ground for them. We first meet them in church, where the vicar's exhibitionism is ruthlessly observed:

He [Mr. Hatfield] would come sailing up the aisle, or rather sweeping along like a whirlwind, with his rich silk gown flying behind him … , mount the pulpit like a conqueror ascending his triumphal car; then sinking on the velvet cushion in an attitude of studied grace, remain in silent prostration for a certain time; then, mutter over a Collect, and gabble through the Lord's Prayer, rise, draw off one bright lavender glove to give the congregation the benefit of his sparkling rings, lightly pass his fingers through his well-curled hair, flourish a cambric handkerchief, recite a very short passage, or, perhaps a mere phrase of scripture …

Contempt, as usual, brings out Anne Brontë's power of metaphor. Mr. Hatfield's sermons are only concerned with outward observance, 'church discipline, rites and ceremonies, apostolical succession, the duty of reverence and obedience to the clergy'; or else he will take sadistic pleasure in delivering a hell-fire oration, not being ashamed to be seen after the service 'laughing [with the gentry] at his own sermon, and hoping that he had given the rascally people something to think about'. The curate, on the other hand, is characterised by the 'evangelical truth of his doctrine, as well as the earnest simplicity of his manner, and the clearness and force of his style'. What may look at first like a rather specialised ecclesiastical conflict between a Ritualist and an Evangelical churchman, soon proves to be a much more fundamental moral issue. Several chapters take us to the cottages of the poor, whom the vicar despises—one of his favourite topics being 'the necessity of deferential obedience from the poor to the rich'; while the curate sends them coal out of his small stipend, consoles their troubled minds, and goes to any trouble to carry out his pastoral duties. The relationship with the family from the Hall, and with their governess, is another touchstone: the vicar bows and scrapes to the Murrays and ignores Agnes; the curate sees the true worth of people and treats them accordingly. Thus Agnes and Mr. Weston are very clearly lined up against the Murray-Hatfield group; here again the cottagers perform an important thematic function, as the Murrays'condescending, thoughtless and even insulting treatment of them, like the vicar's, is contrasted with Agnes's, and the curate's, true charity. What is at stake in these antithetical attitudes is symbolically expressed in an episode which takes place while Agnes is at the Bloomfields'. A great deal is made of the children's cruelty to animals and the way this is condoned, or encouraged, by their elders. One day Agnes finds the boy with a nest of fledgling birds, gloating at the prospect of slowly tormenting each of them to death. Agnes, in an outburst of revulsion, drops a stone on the intended victims, and is afterwards severely rebuked by Mrs. Bloomfield for interfering with Master Bloomfield's amusements:

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

This, of course, is also the attitude of the family (and of the Murrays and their likes) to their inferiors, be they governesses or cottagers. Mrs. Gaskell tells us how she and Charlotte once discussed this particular passage in Agnes Grey, and how it provoked Charlotte to say that

none but those who had been in the position of a governess could ever realize the dark side of 'respectable' human nature; under no great temptation to crime, but daily giving way to selfishness and illtemper, till its conduct towards those dependent on it sometimes amounts to a tyranny of which one would rather be the victim than the inflicter.9

Agnes Grey is not a social problem novel in the sense that Mary Barton, or even Shirley, is; but in the comments implied, rather than stated, in its thematic structure, it cries out against using your fellow beings.

Relationships within the family unit, and above all on the question of marriage, are also starkly contrasted, in black and white. Here, again, the two clergymen set up an antithesis: the rector's undignified courtship of Miss Murray is developed at length, until it culminates in an ungraciously rejected proposal, in deliberate and pointed contrast to the restrained and slowly-growing affection between Agnes and Mr. Weston. Via the Murray family Agnes gets in touch with the world of high society, where mothers match-make and daughters marry pounds and titles. 'I must have Ashby Park, whoever shares it with me', Rosalie Murray proclaims. Anne Brontë is here obviously drawing on the kind of material that the novelists of manners used so profusely; but in comparison with the detachedly amused view of the marriage game in such a novel as Mrs. Gore's Mothers and Daughters, Anne's use of the theme is a firmly moralistic one. Thus Rosalie, on a woman's attitude to marriage:

'To think that I could be such a fool as to fall in love! It is quite beneath the dignity of a woman to do such a thing.'

But, it is implied, it is not beneath the dignity of a woman to sell herself on the slave-market. This speech is particularly effective, as it is directed to Agnes who has just begun to experience love. The contrasts in attitudes, understandings and moral imagination are all the greater for being implied rather than spoken. But Rosalie is not allowed to get away with it. Just before her reunion with Mr. Weston, Agnes is made to visit her former pupil, now in possession of her coveted Ashby Park, so that we may learn what Rosalie's marriage, after one year, has come to,

'I detest that man', whispered Lady Ashby with bitter emphasis, as he [a horseman] slowly trotted by.

'Who is it?' I asked, unwilling to suppose that she should so speak of her husband.

'Sir Thomas Ashby', she replied with dreary composure.

Rosalie's account of her husband's mode of life is a clear exemplum horrendum; it points forward to the more extended use of this kind of material in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It is worth noticing how Agnes's own family background is used in this context. Her mother's rejection of the life of an heiress for true love and a worth-while life is another contrast to the Murray way of thinking, and the issue is not just one of the past; it is brought up again when the mother spurns her father's offer of reconciliation at the cost of repentance.

Thus—to return to The Governess after this detour— while Lady Blessington is engaged in detached and satirical observation of society through the eyes of her governess, Anne Brontë is deeply 'committed' in the matter of social morality—that is, her novel deals with social situations in so far as they involve moral issues. What a modern reader may find most difficult to take in Agnes Grey are the suggestions of self-righteousness which pervade Agnes's attitude to her pupils and their parents, and which are crystallised in occasional comments—as, for example, when the Murray girls are maliciously intervening between Agnes and Mr. Weston and she consoles herself by thinking: 'though he knew it not, I was more worthy of his love than Rosalie Murray'. If we find this quality in the novel intolerable, then we are debarred from enjoying all those works of fiction (of which Mansfield Park is as clear an example as Agnes Grey) in which the author assumes that he or she shares with the reader an attitude, and the only possible attitude, to moral absolutes. In a novel so sure of what is right and what is wrong, so wholly occupied with mapping its world into black and white areas, as is Agnes Grey, being holier than thou becomes a matter of calm a priori classification rather than of personal pride. Yet Agnes Grey does not, like Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt, use the governess theme as a simple moral tract.

The most important distinction between Agnes Grey and any earlier governess novel is Anne Brontë's concentration on the task of governess-ship as such and, further, on what happens to the individual mind in situations such as those which Agnes Grey goes through. It is what happens inside Agnes, not around her, that matters. Throughout the first section of the novel—with the Bloomfields—there is transmitted a very clear image of a young girl, full of idealistic educational theories, exhilarated at the thought of making her own way in the world, coming up against the hard reality of spoilt children and unsympathetic employers. Her theories prove of no avail, her own childhood experiences do not apply to this brood, the work wears her out. But still she perseveres: 'They may crush, but they shall not subdue me!' Her pupils in her second position are older, but her efforts at making any kind of impression on them are as unavailing. It is here that we get to the deep hurt at the heart of the book, the insight into a human situation which none of the other governess novels even approaches. The real degradation, to Agnes Grey, is not that of social humiliation, slight and neglect; it is one of absolute human isolation and of emotional and spiritual starvation:

Never, from month to month, from year to year, except during my brief intervals of rest at home, did I see one creature to whom I could open my heart, or freely speak my thoughts with any hope of sympathy, or even comprehension… . Never a new idea or a stirring thought came to me from without; and such as rose within me were, for the most part, miserably crushed at once, or doomed to sicken and fade away, because they could not see the light.

There is a rhetorical force in the language here which suggests that we are approaching the central experience in the novel. Agnes fears that this kind of life is actually contaminating her:

Already, I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting, and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk at last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life.

Thus it is that the focus widens, from the governess, to any mind deprived of sympathy, isolated from its likes, and exposed to nothing but coarsening influence. The imagery used, and the notion behind it, cannot but recall Wordsworth's Immortality Ode: 'The gross vapours of earth were gathering round me, and closing in upon my inward heaven.' The initial enthusiastic Innocence of Agnes Grey is becoming the Experience of moral darkness. On the background of this, her feelings for Mr. Weston are seen as something other than a poor governess's infatuation with an eligible curate:

Mr. Weston rose, at length, upon me, appearing, like the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness.

The pathos of Agnes's need for any ideal outside the moral murkiness and sterility of her position is such as to justify the exalted imagery, with its definite religious undertones. In Anne's portrayal of Agnes's love, there is none of the passion that we find in the novels of her sisters, but there is another kind of intensity: the sense of love as an epiphany, as Grace. The same sense inspired her poem, 'The Power of Love', written after Agnes Grey was completed:

'Tis not my own strength has saved me;
Health, and hope, and fortitude,
But for love, had long since failed me;
Heart and soul had sunk subdued.

In her poems of spiritual struggle, divine intervention is expressed by the same kind of imagery as is first used for Agnes's love for Weston, and as reappears when her love is reciprocated in the last two chapters. The pattern of wavering between 'despair' (or, as in the passage just quoted, 'utter darkness') and hope is, perhaps, most evident in the poem called 'Fluctuations', where the 'cold and gloomy night', the 'gloomy darkness', are contrasted with the brightness of the sun and the 'silvery gleam' of the moon. In itself the imagery is commonplace enough; but in its context it suggests that the pattern of the spiritual and the emotional experience (for they are one and the same thing) in Agnes Grey is the same as that in Anne Brontë's most central poems. The denouement of Agnes Grey, then, is not just a conventional happy ending, but a victory for Hope against Despair.

To those who know something about the life of Anne Brontë, the ending of Agnes Grey may seem like a piece of wish-fulfilment, like the opposite of the poem where she dreams that her 'life of solitude is past', but wakes up to a reality of deprivation:

But then to wake and find it flown,
The dream of happiness destroyed;
To find myself unloved, alone,
What tongue can speak the dreary void!

A heart whence warm affections flow,
Creator, Thou hast given to me;
And am I only thus to know
How sweet the joys of love would be?

Maybe it is, and maybe the prototype of Mr. Weston was Willie Weightman, Mr. Brontë's curate, who died in 1842 and whom Anne loved, according to most of her biographers.'10 The cliffs on which Agnes's hope is fulfilled are obviously those of Scarborough which Anne Brontë loved, and where—in one of the most pathetic chapters of the Brontë saga—she was taken to die, within three years of completing Agnes Grey. The sunrise epiphany seems to represent a conjunction of images which had long been in her mind: in the Parsonage Museum there is a drawing by Anne of a girl on a cliff facing the rising sun. It is called 'Sunrise over the Sea' and belongs to the Weightman period; its date (November 13, 1839) suggests that she might have had in mind the approaching end to her governess-ship with the Ingrams of Blake Hall. But it is wrong to let the pathos of any autobiographical aspect blind us to the wider meaning of the ending in the 'true' autobiography of Agnes Grey. 'All true histories contain instruction.' To have left Agnes with nothing but a 'rayless arch of sombre grey' ('Self-Communion') would have been closer to the actuality of Anne's own life; but it would have been what Professor Pascal in his book on Design and Truth in Autobiography calls a 'wrong' truth.11 By postulating a reciprocated love, fulfilled in marriage, Anne must have felt that she was creating a 'right truth': she made her novel more morally impressive, more generally instructive. This, obviously, does not mean to say that she is 'instructing' by holding out, like a carrot to a donkey, a happy marriage to every persevering governess. It means that Agnes Grey is an attempt to hand on to the novelreading public her own belief, expressed in so many of her poems, that Hope and Joy will eventually come to those who live 'upright and firm, through good and ill' (('Vanitas Vanitatum').


1 Compare the protracted death of one of the pupils which is the highlight of Miss Sewell's governess novel, Amy Herbert.

2 There is a useful survey of the governess in literature in Chapter II of Patricia Thomson, The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal, 1837-1873 (1956), but I disagree with the author's opinions on the social attitudes expressed in Agnes Grey and on the literary merits of this novel. An illuminating study of the social position of the governess is to be found in Wanda F. Neff, Victorian Working Women: An Historical and Literary Study of Women in British Industries and Professions, 1832-1850 (1929), Chapter V, 'The Governess'.

3 The date of Mrs. Sherwood's novel is given by C.B.E.L., conjecturally, as 1845, but the English Catalogue shows it to be 1835. Strictly speaking, Caroline Mordaunt is not a novel but a tale for the young. But … the borderline between didactic, even juvenile, fiction and the novel proper is very thin; and Caroline Mordaunt could easily be classed as a religious novel, with a strongly Evangelical tone and a moralistic intention. Similar to Lady Blessington's The Governess in structure, it is diametrically opposed in tone and attitude. A comparison of the two, however, invites itself, if only because of the similarity in titles— Caroline Mordaunt is subtitled 'The Governess'—and in heroines'names—the heroine of The Governess is called Clara Mordaunt. Mrs. Sherwood was known as the author of exceedingly pious works, not least through the many editions of her 'improved' version of Sarah Fielding's The Governess (initially published in 1749; Mrs. Sherwood's The Governess; or, the Little Female Academy first appeared in 1820), in which she replaced fairy-tales with 'such appropriate relations as seemed more likely to conduce to juvenile edification' (her Preface, iv). Charlotte M. Yonge, who includes Sarah Fielding's work, in its original form, in her collection of children's classics, A Storehouse of Stories (1870), I, 89-222, speaks (p. vii) of 'Mrs. Sherwood's adaptation to her own Evangelical style'.

4 Cf. Chapter I, [esp. p. 27, of Their Proper Sphere: A Study of the Brontë Sisters as Early-Victorian Female Novelists, by Inga-Stina Ewbank, Harvard University Press, 1966].

5Quarterly Review, LXXXIV (December 1848), 176. These are, of course, some of the lines which Charlotte Brontë quotes in Shirley… .

6 This, too, is the pattern of the Belle Assemblée story, 'The Young Governess', … in which the heroine advances from a job as 'daily governess' with some very unpleasant people to one as 'in-door governess' in a good and kind family. It was probably the least revolutionary version of the success theme in the governess novel.

7 That this was due to the pressure of her reading public rather than to her own inclination, is indicated by her letter about The Governess, quoted in Michael Sadleir's study of her life and work, Blessington-D'Orsay: A Masquerade (1933), 275: 'It was my anxious wish to point attention and excite sympathy towards a class from which [more is] expected and to whom less is accorded, than to any other… . I felt this so much that I wished to make my book a much more grave one; but the publisher, thinking only of the sale, bargained for its being interspersed with lively sketches, which in my opinion interfere sadly with the original intention.' Clearly her 'original intention' was one which, if fulfilled, would have anticipated the governess-novel-with-a-purpose of the 1840s; instead she had to live up to her reputation as a fashionable woman and a novelist of fashionable life and write a typical 'she-novel' (this is how the Fraser reviewer described her novel The Two Friends (1835)—see Sadleir, 250).

8 See note [3].

9Life, 154-5. In the same context Mrs. Gaskell relates an occurrence which epitomises the reasons why the Brontës, and particularly Charlotte, so hated the life of a governess. In one of her situations Charlotte had managed, after many difficulties, to gain the respect and affection of her charges—so much so that one small boy, 'in a little demonstrative gush', put his hand in hers and said, 'I love 'ou, Miss Brontë'. But cold water was immediately poured on this display of unseemly feelings, by the children's mother exclaiming, before all the children, 'Love the governess, my dear!'

10 See, e.g., Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë, and Ada Harrison and Derek Stanford, Anne Brontë: Her Life and Work (1959).

11 Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (1960).

W. A. Craik (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9728

SOURCE: "Agnes Grey," in The Brontë Novels, Methuen, 1968, pp. 202-27.

[In the following essay, Craik offers an overview of Agnes Grey, surveying its characterization, theme, narrative technique, and style. In addition, Craik compares the work with those of Brontë's sisters Emily and Charlotte, suggesting that it bears stronger affinities with the eighteenth-century novel than it does with their writings.]

No one could call Anne Brontë's two novels masterpieces; but she deserves neither to be ignored, nor to be regarded only as a pale copy of her sisters. She is absorbing on at least three, though not equal, counts: as the first novel writer of the family, using material later used by Emily and Charlotte; as a norm from which to judge the powers of her sisters in using such material; and as a novelist in her own right with a mode and flavour of her own—worthy of attention, original and good. She resembles Charlotte in having similar experiences to draw upon, and in feeling in her second novel a moral duty to write of an uncongenial topic; she resembles both her sisters in finding man's inhumanity to man a fitting element in a love story; and in being startlingly unconventional, unsophisticated, and candid. She uses some of the methods of both in organizing her material. But her own personality, her way of considering the experiences she puts before her heroines, and the idiom in which her heroines present them, are not so much akin to her sisters as to the eighteenth century. If the reader goes to Anne Brontë for what either Charlotte or Emily offers, he is disappointed. If he takes pleasure in Fanny Burney or Maria Edgeworth—or, to name a greater, Jane Austen—he will find her manner congenial and her writing attractive. While I propose to relate her novels to those of Charlotte or Emily where the connection is useful to either sister, I intend also to assess them on their own terms, for what they attempt and achieve.

Anne Brontë has suffered like her sisters from the Brontë legend. She has also suffered from the sisters themselves. One thing that is best forgotten is the image of the 'gentle Anne', as she is termed by Charlotte and Arthur Nicholls, since without the legend and the comment one would not see much 'gentleness'in her, even in Agnes Grey. One thing well remembered however is that Agnes Grey is probably the first prose for publication written at Haworth Parsonage, and would be read and absorbed by her sisters before Wuthering Heights, The Professor, and the story it most resembles, Jane Eyre, were written. If any credit for conception is to be claimed it must be by Anne. The attempt must therefore be made to think of her with a mind reasonably uncoloured by Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, while not yet forgetting the juvenile fantasies that themselves colour all three.

Agnes Grey is an unpretentious work about an unpretentious heroine. It is probably a recasting of the work mentioned in the 'Birthday Note' of 1845, where she remarks: 'I have begun the third volume of Passages in the life of an Individual': a title more apt to what is now Agnes Grey than the one it possesses, which, like the story, is unassuming, and does not adequately suggest what is actually offered. One would summarize the main story as one in which a clergyman's younger daughter, compelled by her father's fallen fortunes to earn her living as a governess in two middle-class country families, and later, at his death, to help her mother run a small school, meets, while in her second place of employment, a worthy young clergyman whom she later marries. The other plot concerns the young and beautiful pupil, a coquette, who marries a degenerate young landowner for his money and position. Few plots could be less sensational; even The Professor, by contrast, seems a heady brew. Of the few exciting moments Anne Brontë offers herself, she makes very little, reducing them by covering them briefly—as Agnes' father's death, which is comprised in a few words at the end of Chapter 18—or by a calm literal manner of telling—like her meeting with Mr Weston on the sands (Chapter 24)—or by a dash of astringent or sardonic humour—as when she suppresses her reply to Mrs Bloomfield:

'You seem to have forgotten,' said she calmly, 'that the creatures were all created for our convenience.'

I thought that the doctrine admitted some doubt.

(Chapter 5)

Clearly her aim is not excitement or sensation, and, as will later be examined, is not indicated properly by such a summary, which is actually misleading. One does not, in fact, read Agnes Grey for the story, and its importance does not lie in the story, a matter which immediately sets Anne Brontë apart from her sisters. Like Jane Austen, Anne Brontë, working her way through it without excitement or sensationalism, produces some unique incident, pungent characters, and, above all, a serious, penetrating and new exposure of society.

Also like Jane Austen, she keeps to what she knows. The material is plainly drawn from her own life. Anne Brontë herself is a clergyman's daughter, the youngest of the family, compelled to teach to earn her living, employed in the families of the gentry, while Agnes Grey's eventual modest though happy marriage is what Anne Brontë could without impropriety envisage for herself. Like Charlotte, she draws on more than herself. The loathsome Bloomfield children in her first post are the Inghams of Anne's first post at Blake Hall; the Murray household resembles closely that of the Robinsons, with whom she stayed some years, as Agnes stays with the Murrays.1 Some of the most telling incident also is from life, notably the one that most readers remember best, in which Agnes destroys the nest of young birds to prevent a brutal child from torturing them.

It is as tempting therefore with Anne Brontë as with Charlotte to identify the narrator with the author, to consider that what is revealed of Agnes must also be true of Anne. It is not necessarily any more true of Agnes Grey than of Jane Eyre. While the narrative stance adopted in Agnes Grey is very much more simple than that of Jane Eyre, it is no mere autobiographical fantasy. Considerable degrees of detachment may be seen between the 'I' at different points in the narrative, and the 'I' who comments on them. Quite clearly the childish eighteen-year-old girl of the opening chapters is greatly below the narrator and also the reader, not only in quietly accepting that she is fit only to 'go and practise [her] music, or play with the kitten' (Chapter 1), but in thinking that

the clear remembrance of my own thoughts in early childhood would [in training children] be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser.

(Chapter 1)

As Agnes grows up the gap narrows, as it does as Jane Eyre grows up. But it never closes. Quite clearly the Agnes of the closing section is not only older but wiser than the young self narrating the events; yet at twentythree, she still asks her mother's permission before accepting Mr Weston's invitation to a walk (Chapter 25). There is no suggestion, despite the moral and instructive tone of parts of the narrative, that this is the proper, or accepted, way to act for a woman of twenty-three (only a year younger than Lucy Snowe), as there is for instance in the works of Charlotte M. Yonge. Anne Brontë always represents Agnes as someone younger and less experienced than herself or the reader, who is much less often on terms of wholehearted sympathy with her than with Jane Eyre. As a narrator, she has more in common with Esther Summerson in Bleak House.

She has in common with Esther that she also is not the absolute centre of interest. She is what makes the action cohere, but she is not necessarily the protagonist. She is the means by which the novel progresses, the author's purpose in it is achieved, and the events and characters are connected. But unlike Jane Eyre's, the important events concern others, notably Rosalie Murray, as much as herself, and the personalities she delineates are almost as clearly seen, and as interesting, as her own. One remembers Rosalie's flirtation with the rector Mr Hatfield better than Agnes's meetings with the curate Mr Weston, remembers the Bloomfield children's revolting habits more than the horror they inspire in Agnes; one sees the horse-loving Matilda or her mother 'who required neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms' (Chapter 7) quite as clearly as the quiet, plain, little heroine. Anne Brontë, while clearly showing, and expecting to elicit, sympathy for the hard-pressed Agnes, is not primarily concerned with her responses. Agnes does not actually create the reader's reaction to those with whom she comes into contact, nor do Anne Brontë and the reader judge them by how they treat her, as one judges those who come into contact with Jane Eyre. The whole of Rosalie's flirtation with Mr Hatfield proceeds without Agnes being moved by it at all, except to detached moral disapproval. Yet it is fully as significant and absorbing as Rosalie's next attempt, to flirt with Mr Weston, from which Agnes suffers considerable pain. What makes the second flirtation a graver matter than the first is what it reveals about Rosalie, that she is so taken up with coquetterie that she must descend from the willing and socially acceptable vicar to the unmoved and socially impossible curate. Agnes's feelings have very little to do with the artistic purpose here.

Agnes indeed as a personality can be effaced for quite long stretches. There are several points at which a secondary narrator supersedes her: as in Chapter 11, where the cottager Nancy retails the contrasting visits and behaviour to her of the two clergymen, or in Chapter 14, where Rosalie tells her own story. These, and scenes in which the story is told to Agnes, who merely comments, bear a resemblance to the method of Wuthering Heights. There are also many points at which the scene proceeds by way of dialogue in which Agnes takes no part and passes no comment. If so neutral a narrator has a precedent, it is found in Scott's Redgauntlet, which opens with the letters to and fro of Alan Fairford and his friend Darsie Latimer, the bulk of the narrative being that of Fairford, who is no more the all-absorbing hero than is Agnes. Scott has soon to abandon the method; Anne Brontë can continue in it. It is clear that her purpose in using her material, and adopting the first-person narrator, is an original and largely self-taught one; it is not a tentative movement towards either Charlotte Brontë's or Emily's. She is attempting an examination of a section of society, which, seen from the unusual view that a governess enjoys, exposes itself, its standards, its follies, and its failings for the reader's assessment, not necessarily so that an unusual judgement may be passed, but so that long-held opinions may be rescrutinized, refreshed, and confirmed.

Such a purpose affects the relationship between author, narrator and reader. Anne Brontë never forgets either herself, her creation, or her reader. Identification with Agnes is impossible, because of the childishness already noted, nor can one ever lose oneself in the action, since it is usually either comic or reprehensible. Emotional response is called up for a purpose, so that understanding and appreciation shall, as with Jane Austen, lead to moral judgement, the way to which is pointed by a whole variety of means, all befitting Agnes, but all making the detachment between herself and the reader very clear. Anne Brontë assumes a reader as rational and reasonable as Agnes's most mature self. Sometimes her tone is of serious straightforward utterance of dicta known to both, and given because they summarize what has gone, or prepare what is to follow:

Habitual associates are known to exercise a great influence over each other's minds and manners. Those whose actions are for ever before our eyes, whose words are ever in our ears, will naturally lead us, albeit, against our will—slowly—gradually—imperceptibly, perhaps, to act and speak as they do.

(Chapter 11)

It is with such well-grounded fears of her own deterioration in bad company that Agnes welcomes Mr Weston. Frequently she is much more oblique, as in her closing reply to Rosalie's wish

'to enjoy myself thoroughly, and coquet with all the world, till I am on the verge of being called an old maid; and then, to escape the infamy of that, after having made ten thousand conquests, to break all their hearts save one, by marrying some high-born, rich, indulgent husband, whom, on the other hand, fifty ladies were dying to have.'

'Well, as long as you entertain these views, keep single by all means, and never marry at all, not even to escape the infamy of old-maidenhood.'

(Chapter 9)

The story begins

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and, when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself: shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.

(Chapter 1)

It never loses sight of its opening. The purpose revealed—to establish moral standards, whether those of Agnes or others, to measure their conduct against them, and thus establish the worth of both the conduct and of the standards on which it is based—is plainly Anne Brontë's own, not her character's, since Agnes modestly disclaims what her whole history is designed to reveal—the possession of the 'treasure' of instruction. Agnes is plainly rather a mask behind which her author may retire, than a means by which, in Agnes's words, Anne Brontë herself can 'candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend'. She is showing herself ironically and wittily aware of the illusions of the fictional memoir which involves so improbable a laying before the public, and so establishes the terms on which she uses it. Anne Brontë, intending to be moral, avoids, again like Jane Austen, ever alienating her reader by instructing him in person. Agnes is her mouthpiece, a creation whose judgement the reader can always trust, but who is yet sufficiently his inferior in years and experience to make an appealing guide. The form of the candid, unsophisticated, unprofessional memoir is one very suited both to such a purpose and such a narrator. It makes the direct addresses to the reader acceptable and even desirable. They are frequent:

As I cannot, like Dogberry, find it in my heart to bestow all my tediousness on the reader, I will not go on to bore him with a minute detail of all the discoveries and proceedings of this and the following day.

(Chapter 7)

A few more observations about Horton Lodge and its on goings, and I have done with dry description for the present.

(Chapter 7)

As I am in the way of confessions, I may as well acknowledge that, about this time, I paid more attention to dress than ever I had done before.

(Chapter 17)

The diffidence that provokes these remarks makes Agnes an engaging guide, and prevents her from being a pontifical or priggish one. While one may suspect that the author also is diffident, she is proved to have chosen her form well, since it turns what could have been a defect to good use.

The narrative method and the form are, indeed, more cunning than they seem. The story is basically in two main sections, one comprising Agnes's experiences with the appalling Bloomfield family at Wellwood (Chapters 2-5), the other her several years' stay with the Murrays at Horton Lodge (Chapters 7-20). The sections are preluded by an account of her home life and the circumstances leading to her becoming a governess (Chapter 1); they are interrupted by several returns home for holidays (Chapter 3), for her sister's wedding (Chapter 8), and for her father's death (Chapter 18); and they are concluded by the brief account of her stay in her mother's school at A——(Chapters 21, 24, 25), and by her visit to the married Rosalie, Lady Ashby (Chapters 22, 23). The proportions of the material indicate clearly enough that this is not merely the chronicle of Agnes's life in these years. A minority of it is devoted to matters most touching her in her home life; her sister's marriage is passed over in a brief conversation with Rosalie:

'Who is she to be married to?'

'To Mr Richardson, the vicar of a neighbouring parish.'

'Is he rich?'

'No—only comfortable.'

'Is he handsome?'

'No—only decent.'


'No—only middling.'

'O mercy! what a wretch!'

(Chapter 8)

An exchange whose prime purpose is to display Rosalie's views on marriage, and reveals nothing of the relationship between Agnes and her sister. Similarly Agnes's father's death is dwelt on less than the callous behaviour of Mrs Murray, who

concluded with saying I might have the phaeton to take me to O——.

'And instead of repining, Miss Grey, be thankful for the privileges you enjoy. There's many a poor clergyman whose family would be plunged into ruin by his death; but you, you see, have influential friends ready to continue their patronage, and to show you every consideration.'

(Chapter 18)

Anne Brontë's business in the novel is with the society and attitudes she can examine through Agnes, rather than with Agnes herself. The examination becomes more subtle and complex (though one would never call it deep), as the novel goes on. The moral weight clearly regulates the shape not only of the whole but of its parts. Agnes's troubles with the Bloomfields occupy three chapters only; her stay with the Murrays, thirteen. What looks like disproportion results in balance, and shows the modest discretion of the author, as well as the purpose guiding her. Anne Brontë begins with the straightforwardly preposterous standards of the Bloomfields, who see no wrong in allowing a frustrated child to 'spit in the faces of those who incurred her displeasure' (Chapter 3); in encouraging a seven-year-old boy to kick not only the dog, but his governess; and who consider tormenting animals a child's legitimate amusement. Even with the Bloomfields, however, the rendering of character is convincing:

'Damme, but the lad has some spunk in him too! Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that! He's beyond petticoat government already:—by G——he defies mother, granny, governess, and all!'

(Chapter 5)

and the reasoning perversely ingenious:

'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 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!'

(Chapter 5)

The events at the Bloomfields' are so startling, and often shocking, that three chapters spent on them are enough; to continue or elaborate them would be to repeat, and to dull the effect. Once Anne Brontë has supplied an instance of the selfish and stupid father

'remember that, in future, when a decent dish leaves this table, they shall not touch it in the kitchen. Remember that, Mrs Bloomfield!'

(Chapter 3)

and of the consequences in a selfish and stupid son; and once she has made her point about the suffering that can be inflicted by both upon the helpless and the dependent, their use is over. Anne Brontë recognizes also that the grotesque is incapable of growth, and so moves her heroine away forthwith from a household of grotesques.

The transition to Horton is both smooth and artistic. Mood and themes are carried over. When Agnes first arrives at Horton, she is in charge of a family whose two youngest members are barbarians of a larger growth; John is 'rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable' and Charles 'only active in doing mischief, and only clever in inventing falsehoods' (Chapter 7). Though Anne Brontë wisely wastes no time on Agnes's tussles with them, which must repeat her tussles with the Bloomfields, their unpleasing presence connects Horton with the earlier section, while their speedy departure prepares for something new.2

The Murray girls are more mature and consequently more complex. Through them the novel moves on to consider not only the effects of negligent upbringing on behaviour, but the young person's own application of the deficient principles he has been given. The young boys having gone to school, the story concentrates on Rosalie, the most brilliant of the family, and the greatest disaster. The truths she exemplifies require a series of events, not mere isolated anecdotes, hence the greater length devoted to the telling. The story follows her 'coming-out' into society, her successes, her admirers, her betrothal to Sir Thomas Ashby, her encouragement and rejection of the clergyman Mr Hatfield, her attempt to captivate the curate Mr Weston, her wedding, and finally her married life. Anne Brontë firmly follows her on her career even after it has effectively ceased to be Agnes's, and drives home her message dramatically when Agnes visits Rosalie a year after her marriage (Chapter 22), to see the frustration and boredom to which her ambitions have led her. With this episode the social wheel has come full circle, Agnes Grey's function as narrator has been fulfilled, and the novel has completed its course. Rosalie has now become the parent, in her own household ruined by false values, with an unwanted child about to grow up to become, inevitably, another victim of its circumstances, as its mother has been. The situation is now seen from the mother's view:

'What pleasure can I have in seeing a girl grow up to eclipse me, and enjoy those pleasures I am forever debarred from? But supposing I could be so generous as to take delight in this, still it is only a child; and I can't centre all my hopes in a child; that is only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog. And as for all the goodness and wisdom you have been trying to instil into me—that is all very right and proper, I dare say; and if I were some twenty years older, I might fructify by it; but people must enjoy themselves when they're young—and if others won't let them—why, they must hate them for it!'

(Chapter 23)

The final episode, which settles Agnes in the situation she merits, drives home by contrast the points made at Ashby Park, and gains its power as much from this function, as for the happiness it brings to Agnes.

By contrast with her sisters', Anne Brontë's characters seem unsubtle. Though remarkably vigorous and memorable (considering how concisely they make their effects), they undoubtedly lack the strong flavour of Charlotte's, or the sublimity of Emily's. They are much closer to common life than either, and, equally, much further from any easily identifiable literary influence. They all have the rather simple force and the conviction of the documentary, the kind of personality that emerges from the sociological survey rather than the literary imagination. Excluding Mr Weston, they are of two separate kinds: those who form Agnes's family, and those whom she encounters away from home. The differences are of attitude as well as function and treatment, and indicate once more where Anne Brontë's interests lie. She wastes little time on the Grey family, large though it must figure in Agnes's mind. Clearly she could, without destroying the balance of the book, delineate the elder sister Mary more clearly, or spend more time on the mother, but to do so would alter the tone, since these characters are conceived in a different spirit from the rest. Their purpose also is different. They are the first on whom the candid Agnes exercises her judgement for the reader's benefit, thereby gaining the reader's confidence in her. Since we recognize how justly and acutely she assesses those who are virtuous in themselves, in circumstances we can readily enter into, whom we can readily recognize for ourselves, we are prepared to trust her summings-up of strangers, whose actions might well seem close to incredible. Agnes's family are not so much the stuff of nineteenth-century fiction, as of the eighteenth-century essay:

my father was completely overwhelmed by the calamity—health, strength, and spirits sunk beneath the blow; and he never wholly recovered them. In vain my mother strove to cheer him by appealing to his piety, to his courage, to his affection for herself and us. That very affection was his greatest torment: it was for our sakes he had so ardently longed to increase his fortune— it was our interest that had lent such brightness to his hopes, and that imparted such bitterness to his present distress.

(Chapter 1)

The eighteenth-century note is no disadvantage: Agnes analysing her father is as reliable as Fielding analysing Squire Allworthy, or Dr Johnson summarizing Rasselas. The note persists when the analysis is more acute and verges on the humorous:

My mother like most active, managing women, was not gifted with very active daughters; for this reason—that being so clever and diligent herself, she was never tempted to trust her affairs to a deputy, but on the contrary, was willing to act and think for others as well as for number one.

(Chapter 1)

Like the essayists, she reveals no more of the character than is perceptible to the intelligent observer, and has no occasion to go deeper. Her father's sufferings, even though they hasten his death, receive no more analysis than the above. Anne Brontë is happy, however, to allow dialogue to suggest relationships and underlying characteristics, and can do so economically and pleasantly, though she has no intention of using it, like Emily Brontë, for characters' deliberate self-revelation. The suggestion of cross-purposes, and modes of thought, is neatly done when Mrs Grey suggests that Mary should try to sell some of her drawings, while Agnes is preoccupied with her own plan to become a governess:

'I wish I could do something,' said I.

'You, Agnes! well, who knows? You draw pretty well too; if you choose some simple piece for your subject, I dare say you will be able to produce something we shall be proud to exhibit.'

(Chapter 1)

The atmosphere at home is admirably created, providing the settled existence behind Agnes which makes her resilient in the face of her astonishing experiences, so much more realistic than those in Jane Eyre or Villette, whose heroines Charlotte Brontë deliberately deprives of the refuge of a safe home. Economically, Anne Brontë continues to epitomize Agnes's home in her mother. She is the main speaker in the opening chapters, and the one who remains at the end, when, elder sister married, Agnes resigns her post to help her now widowed mother run her school. She represents a norm of good sense and right feeling, little emphasized but impressive, which prevents the disproportion of a world full of vice and folly, which would result from dwelling wholly on the families who employ Agnes.

Edward Weston, curate of Horton, on the other hand, is possibly the shadowiest hero ever invented by a woman novelist. If Agnes were the all-absorbing heroine, this would be a very serious charge. In fact, though he cannot rouse much interest in the reader, or demand long consideration, he does adequately what he is called upon to do. He is primarily the doer of good deeds in a naughty world, the only well-principled person of her own class, other than her family, whom Agnes meets. He functions always as a moral force. He is the immediate contrast to the worldly and careless clergyman Mr Hatfield, and, even as the man Agnes loves, what are stressed are his moral qualities:

I could think of him day and night; and I could feel that he was worthy to be thought of. Nobody knew him as I did; nobody could appreciate him as I did.

(Chapter 17)

Lack of information is a dramatic asset when he is marked down by Rosalie as her last victim. The reader, like Agnes, knows his virtue, but has no way of knowing his emotional temperament, or how he will respond to Rosalie's advances. While the end of the story is certain—by the convention of the novel he will marry Agnes—there is no way of telling whether he will succumb to Rosalie and then, disillusioned, recover, or whether he will be acute enough to resist her.3 A modest originality of Mr Weston's is to be an early instance of the unhandsome hero. The man 'a little, a very little, above the middle size' with 'his face too square for beauty', eyebrows 'too projecting' and eyes 'brown in colour, not large, and somewhat deepset, but strikingly brilliant' (Chapter 11) is the counterpart of a heroine with 'marked features, pale hollow cheek, and ordinary dark brown hair', just as Mr Rochester is the counterpart of Jane.4 Anne Brontë does here, calmly, without any sense in the writing that she is being novel, what Charlotte Brontë afterwards does with panache— a man who has no charms save in the eye of the narrator.

All the other characters are knaves or fools in some degree, even the children. Their failings are what justify their literary existence. Such a statement suggests that Agnes Grey must be either a satire, or a work of very limited interest. The nature of Agnes herself prevents it being the first, while the functions of the other characters prevent its being the second. Like the Grey family, the rest are seen only from outside, by the intelligent observer Agnes, whose author never allows her to guess at or speculate on the variety of impulses and motives which produce the behaviour she observes. Anne Brontë never causes the reader to worry what there can have been in common between Mr and Mrs Murray, for example, to cause them to marry, nor suggests how they may behave to each other in situations where Agnes herself could not observe them. She does not resolve the difficulty of how a selfish woman can endure the company of her own intolerable children. But she chronicles with such precision that the immediate incident rings so true as not to invite such speculation. Anne, like Emily, observes personalities, and allows them to expose themselves; she does not analyse or dissect; a feature which reveals that she is closer to Emily in this matter than to Charlotte, who is as much concerned with interior causes as with effects. The purpose of Anne Brontë's characterization is not psychological, but social. Actions and attributes are selected to lead the reader to consider their social and personal consequences, not their causes.

It is therefore wise of her to begin with the inhabitants of Wellwood. The reader's natural tendency with a child is to consider it as a being with a potential, but no past, who is very much the direct consequences of the influences it feels. The distasteful Bloomfield brood—Tom, Mary Ann, and Fanny—are presented firmly as the results of irresponsible overindulgence, to be judged themselves for conscious vices, and to cause judgement to be made both on their parents, and, by extension, on the grossly deficient moral and social standards by which the parents live. Good care is taken that they shall not be pitied as victims, either of the system or each other: Tom Bloomfield, enjoying brutality and torment, is his uncle Robson in miniature; Mary Ann, whom he bullies, is deliberately, systematically and inflexibly perverse, and the bad habits of both, and of the even younger Fanny, are such as to rouse more revulsion in the reader than in the narrator. Agnes herself and the nurserymaid Betty (who puts in a brief appearance in Chapter 3) prevent the reader from supposing that the children suffer from lack of affection, since it is offered and rejected. Anne Brontë clearly believes in original sin, as well as natural good, and in training as the very necessary force that will turn a child into a good man. The Bloomfield children's purpose, since they occupy only four hair-raising chapters, is to prepare the way for the Murrays, a more subtle and exhaustive study of the corruption of the individual, and the effects of wrong training on a faulty nature. Agnes, brooding on her charges, remarks:

the children would, in time, become more humanized: every month would contribute to make them some little wiser, and, consequently, more manageable; for a child of nine or ten, as frantic and ungovernable as these at six and seven would be a maniac.

(Chapter 3)

The Murrays, in their early teens, bear her out, and the reader, when he meets them, is prepared to regard them in the same way as the Bloomfields, looking only to the consequences they bring about, not to what caused them to become what they are.

The parents of these unhappy offspring are revealed with the same documentary precision, though, because they impinge less on Agnes, and are less to the purpose, more briefly. Again the eighteenth-century note is heard, and the characters of Mr and Mrs Bloomfield, the Grandmother, and Uncle Robson seem true to type without ever seeming trite. They are revealed through the individual, small, significant encounter, and usually through dialogue. Mr Bloomfield suddenly and arbitrarily interrupts the narrative, just as he suddenly and arbitrarily descends on Agnes and his children, to abuse them and her and depart; Uncle Robson, a more positive evil though a temporary one, makes his devastating comment on his nephew, Tom, raging over the loss of his birds' nest, and departs likewise:

'Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that! He's beyond petticoat government already!— By G—he defies mother, granny, governess, and all! Ha, ha, ha! Never mind, Tom, I'll get you another brood tomorrow.'

(Chapter 5)

Mrs Bloomfield on the other hand makes an impressive first appearance doing nothing; all the while Agnes wrestles with tough, cold, meat, with her hands numb from five hours' exposure to the bitter wind, what is being sensed is the tough, cold, numb Mrs Bloomfield silently watching her.

The handling of the convincingly unreasonable characters here leads forward to Horton, where the characters are to be unreasonable in ways more elaborate, and seemingly more like what usually appear in a novel. In the background are the neglecting father, and the worldly mother, seeing only what is to her daughter's social and financial advantage, bending all her efforts to an early and profitable marriage; in the foreground the two contrasting young women, the hoyden and the coquette; and attending on Rosalie an assortment of suitors, amongst whom the brutish and successful landowner contrasts, in his turn, with the aspiring social climber, the rector. Here also Anne Brontë successfully imposes her own tone, and, while using the stuff of convention, sees it not at all in the conventional way, contriving never to slip into the merely grotesque on the one hand, or on the other to allow herself or the reader to be seduced by the charm of what is inescapably reprehensible. The personality and position of Agnes herself imposes proportion, since what looms largest to her is also what matters most to the story and them. The method is economical in itself, and performed with natural economy. The characterization here has the same verve as at Wellwood, but is far more varied in its methods. The least significant personalities are suggested with splendid precision. The setting, the kind of character, the cool justice which is accorded them, the humane partly-involved narrator, the mingling of humour with instruction, all suggest, not another of the Brontës, but Trollope. While it is clear that his handling of elaborate ecclesiastical politics and the edges of high society is beyond her, so are her just proportioning of means to her end, her impulse to understate rather than elaborate her points, beyond Trollope. Mr Murray for instance is only of concern as the father figure for an unsatisfactory family in general, and as the one who authorizes and condones Matilda in her hunting and swearing. Agnes never see him 'to speak to' (Chapter 12) as she says, but 'the figure of a tall stout gentleman with scarlet cheeks and crimson nose'(Chapter 7), precisely noted at the beginning of her account of the family, remains firmly fixed in the reader's mind. Mrs Murray, more important since her influence is upon the more important daughter Rosalie, is permitted to impress herself by speech, by quietly devastating self-exposure:

'I have hitherto found all the governesses, even the very best of them, faulty in this particular. They wanted that meek and quiet spirit which St Matthew, or some of them, says is better than the putting on of apparel—you will know the passage to which I allude, for you are a clergyman's daughter.'

(Chapter 7)

Her moral values, her self-satisfaction, her relationship to her governess need no more explanation. On the rare occasions when it is necessary to suggest her motives, the method is equally laconic:

having notwithstanding the disadvantages of a country life so satisfactorily disposed of her elder daughter, the pride of her heart, [she] had begun seriously to turn her attention to the younger.

(Chapter 18)

'satisfactorily' suggests her own opinion, 'disposed' suggests Agnes's; while the conventional phrase 'pride of her heart' takes on a new richness applied to a relationship which has displayed all too much 'pride' and a total lack of 'heart'.

The younger daughter Matilda contrasts with her sister (her main function in the novel), demonstrating that, while to be sophisticated like Rosalie is unadmirable, to lack the quality may be, not admirable, but merely uncouth; to be deceitful like Rosalie is wrong, but merely to be frank in admitting is but little better:

'I pretended to want to save it, [a leveret killed by her dog] as it was so glaringly out of season; but I was better pleased to see it killed.'

(Chapter 18)

Anne Brontë's art shows in Matilda, as so often elsewhere, in her discretion and restraint. Though Matilda is reportedly foul-mouthed, the reader hears very little of her, since to do so would make her too uncouth to be an impressive opposite to Rosalie. Her stable language is heard no more once its comic point has been made:

'I'll never say a wicked word again, if you'll only listen to me, and tell Rosalie to hold her confounded tongue.'

(Chapter 9)

Rosalie is almost as much the heart of the novel as Agnes herself. She embodies the most serious moral preoccupations, she is the most closely-observed, her career is the most complete, she is the most self-exposing, and she is the object of the most serious and complete concern not only of the narrator but of the author. Whereas Agnes understates her own affairs of the heart (out of diffidence and modesty), Anne Brontë allows no such consideration to prevent the reader from observing Rosalie at all the most memorable points in her career. This career extends from the childhood period, when she is the product of her environment and education, through that when, as a young woman, she chooses her course for herself, to her married life when she experiences the consequences of her conduct. The account of a governess is the ideal one for mapping such a course. Agnes is intimate enough for her pupil to confide in her, but not enough respected either to influence or repress her. Hence Rosalie explains herself as does no other character, laying bare her opinions (she has very few feelings) on what she has already done, and her plans for what she proposes to do. Frequently these opinions and plans loom larger than the events connected with them: for instance, the reader has Rosalie's account of her coming-out ball (Chapter 9), not the ball itself; her words immediately after being married (Chapter 18), but not the wedding. The disproportion between the events and the importance they assume in her career (the coming-out ball takes more space than the wedding), allows the moral point to make itself, with very little help from Agnes as commentator. Equally pertinent is the disproportion between characters, revealed through how Rosalie regards them. Her husband, Sir Thomas Ashby, is mentioned no more than is essential for the reader's benefit—he is 'the greatest scamp in Christendom' and 'any woman of common decency' is 'a world too good for him' (Chapter 14)—but the rector Mr Hatfield looms large in the narrative, both in her conversation and account of her thoughts, and in events in which they both take part. Rosalie is indeed the main reason why events and characters appear, even when she is not present.5

The ways in which Rosalie is presented show considerable assurance and unobtrusive skill. Since Anne Brontë's purposes do not include psychological development and interpretation, an opening description which fixes permanently the main features of a personality serves her well. Rosalie receives the most comprehensive and significant one in the novel. Her looks, the obvious beginning of a description, are a significant one here, revealing that this young lady's face is her fortune. Though such a character is not unusual, the account is far from conventional, and has the astringent edge of truth, which renders vivid both the subject and the speaker:

on a further acquaintance, she gradually laid aside her airs, and in time, became as deeply attached to me as it was possible for her to be to one of my character and position: for she seldom lost sight, for above half-an-hour at a time, of the fact of my being a hireling, and a poor curate's daughter.

(Chapter 7)

Once she is thus established, she makes most of her effects by speech, of which she has more than any other single person (excluding Agnes herself and the other temporary narrator, Nancy Brown). Like so many of Anne Brontë's effects, her speech is successful in context, being completely appropriate and exactly serving its purpose; but it contains much less that is immediately striking in extract. Self-exposure, by a frankness that ironically reveals more to Agnes and the reader than she intends, is its most frequent feature:

'Brown said that she was sure no gentleman could set eyes on me without falling in love that minute; and so I may be allowed to be a little vain. I know you think me a shocking, conceited, frivolous girl, but then you know, I don't attribute it all to my personal attractions: I give some praise to the hairdresser, and some to my exquisitely lovely dress—you must see it tomorrow—white gauze over pink satin … and so sweetly made! and a necklace and bracelet of beautiful, large pearls!'

'I have no doubt you looked very charming; but should that delight you so very much?'

'Oh, no! … not that alone: but then, I was so much admired; and I made so many conquests in that one night—you'd be astonished to hear—'

'But what good will they do you?'

'What good! Think of any woman asking that!'

'Well, I should think one conquest would be enough, and too much, unless the subjugation were mutual.'

(Chapter 9)

The hints here of the maid Brown's idiom which opens the speech, the limited wit in Rosalie which acknowledges the hairdresser's and costumier's help, but entertainingly misunderstands Agnes's question 'should that delight you?', and cannot save her from the vulgarism of 'conquests' (emphasized by Agnes's literal and polysyllabic periphrasis, 'subjugation'—recalling Charlotte Brontë's humour); all these are neatly and unobtrusively suggested without either idiosyncratic diction or unnatural idiom.6

The method which serves the Rosalie of the early chapters works just as well for the dissatisfied married woman as for the pleasure-loving girl. Absence of proper feeling shows itself in her letter to Agnes (Chapter 21), where she speaks in the same offhand tone of her child, her dog, and her pictures:

'I forget whether you like babies; if you do, you may have the pleasure of seeing mine … the most charming child in the world, no doubt … and you shall see my poodle too, a splendid little charmer imported from Paris, and two fine Italian paintings of great value … I forget the artist.'

(Chapter 21)

Her acute, though faulty, reasoning is obvious again in her confidences, where this time Agnes's comment is an unspoken one:

'as soon as he heard we were there, he came up under pretence of visiting his brother, and either followed me, like a shadow, wherever I went, or met me, like a reflection, at every turn. You needn't look so shocked, Miss Grey; I was very discreet, I assure you; but, you know, one can't help being admired.'

(Chapter 22)

Though static, the character is by no means elementary. Anne Brontë, having established the deficiencies, allows the considerable charm of youth and high spirits, and gives Rosalie all the assets deriving from doing what the reader longs to have done—putting the pretentious Mr Hatfield in his place. Similarly she can let Rosalie infuse some transitory excitement into the story by attempting to charm Mr Weston: her charm and intelligence have been just enough to make Agnes's anxiety seem justified, and the chance that Mr Weston may succumb seem one worth considering.

Mr Hatfield himself is a small but throughly adequate piece of work. His purposes as the foppish, ambitious clergyman, with no sense of his calling, are easily fulfilled by lively details of his behaviour:

[Mr Hatfield] would come sailing up the aisle, or rather sweeping along like a whirlwind, with his rich silk gown flying behind him, and rustling against the pew doors, mount the pulpit like a conqueror ascending his triumphal car; then sinking on the velvet cushion in an attitude of studied grace, remain in silent prostration for a certain time.

(Chapter 10)

But such details as this, and kicking Nancy Brown's cat out of his way, do not suggest the power and originality of the scene, reported verbatim by Rosalie (Chapter 14), of his astonishing proposal to her, which proceeds by way of conventional protestation, through astonishment and chagrin, to repressed rage and a direct tu quoque and threat of blackmail to protect wounded pride.

The principles of economy and the strong sense of means to an end that dictate the personality and role of the narrator, the shape of the whole, and the handling of characters, determine also the selection and manipulation of material within the individual scenes, and the style. It is even more plain here that Anne Brontë is an author whose effects are made by accumulation and interrelation of simple details, very simply expressed, whose power is largely lost when they are seen in isolation. Her greatest single asset, apart from the handling of Agnes herself, is, as has already been examined, her use of dialogue. As well as revealing personality and exposing standards and lapses, speech is often used as an economical and dramatic means to other ends. There are occasional intrusions of transitory characters like Mr Smith 'the draper, grocer and tea-dealer of the village' (Chapter 1) whose gig takes Agnes to her first post. His comment:

'It's a coldish morin' for you, Miss Agnes, and a darksome un too; but we's, happen, get to yon' spot afore there comes much rain to signify.'

and the laconic little dialogue that follows, create an accurate and atmospheric vignette without holding up the narrative, and create variety between the author's account of her home, and that of the Bloomfields which is to follow. Nancy Brown's long account of her spiritual troubles in Chapter 11 is another instance of speech whose end is structural. It again forms a welcome break in Agnes's story, and provides information it is not in her power to give, in a novel, compact, and racy way. While so long an account is not naturalistic, Anne Brontë balances most professionally the demands of easy reading with keeping up a convincing dialect, wisely relying more on idiom than on phonetic reproduction:

'After he was gone, Hannah Rogers, one o' th' neighbours came in and wanted me to help her to wash. I telled her I couldn't just then, for I hadn't set on th' potaties for th' dinner, nor washed up th' breakfast stuff yet. So then she began a calling me for my nasty, idle ways. I was a little bit vexed at first; but I never said nothing wrong to her: I only telled her, like all in a quiet way, 'a I'd had th' new parson to see me; but I'd get done as quick as ever I could, an' then come an' help her. So then she softened down.'

(Chapter 11)

One hears Yorkshire speech as effectively here as in the much less decipherable Joseph of Wuthering Heights.

Scenery, setting, and the weather are plainly elements of situation as important to Anne Brontë as to her sisters. Like them she feels a whole scene through its central emotion, without ever suggesting sentimentality or the pathetic fallacy. Frequent and delicate notice of details of setting, of the weather, the seasons, or the passage of time, all vivify both the action and the subdued personality of Agnes herself. Here Anne Brontë rightly feels confident that mere allusion will evoke a response, without relying on description. She can be vivid and oddly moving with the most commonplace materials, precisely because what she uses is so familiar that she can depend upon the reader's response. Agnes, arriving exhausted at Horton Lodge after a winter day's travelling, where she gets no proper welcome, goes up to her room:

Then, having broken my long fast on a cup of tea, and a little thin bread and butter, I sat down beside the small, smouldering fire, and amused myself with a hearty fit of crying.

(Chapter 7)

Anne Brontë always thus underplays rather than overplays her hand, marking the story's most moving moments by bringing some small detail into sharp focus, as in this brief account of Agnes's first journey from home:

We crossed the valley, and began to ascend the opposite hill. As we were toiling up, I looked back again: there was the village spire, and the old grey parsonage beyond it, basking in a slanting beam of sunshine—it was but a sickly ray, but the village and surrounding hills were all in sombre shade, and I hailed the wandering beam as a propitious omen to my home. With clasped hands, I fervently implored a blessing on its inhabitants, and hastily turned away; for I saw the sunshine was departing; and I carefully avoided another glance, lest I should see it in gloomy shadow like the rest of the landscape.

(Chapter 1)

There is a deliberate rejection here of the significant or symbolic, for the sunshine moves naturally with the clouds; the significance is only what Agnes imagines, while what she describes has all the charm of reality. Like her sisters, Anne Brontë has also a strong sense of time passing. Each event in the story is precisely placed in its season, usually by its month.7 In a story where the most significant happenings will almost certainly take place on Sundays—when going to church involves meeting the clergyman—such care might be imposed rather than voluntary. But Anne Brontë can delineate time passing like a prose Tennyson; the passage where Agnes at Ashby Park waits and muses in her sitting-room is almost her Mariana:

I sat musing on Lady Ashby's past and present condition; and on what little information I had obtained respecting Mr Weston, and the small chance there was of ever seeing or hearing anything more of him throughout my quiet, drab-colour life, which, henceforth, seemed to offer no alternative between positive rainy days and days of dull, grey clouds without downfall.

At length, however, I began to weary of my thoughts, and to wish I knew where to find the library my hostess had spoken of, and to wonder whether I was to remain there, doing nothing till bedtime.

As I was not rich enough to possess a watch, I could not tell how time was passing, except by observing the slowly lengthening shadows from the window, which presented a side view, including a corner of the park, a clump of trees, whose topmost branches had been colonized by an innumerable company of noisy rooks, and a high wall with a massive wooden gate, no doubt communicating with the stable yard, as a broad carriage-road swept up to it from the park. The shadow of this wall soon took possession of the whole of this ground as far as I could see, forcing the golden sunlight to retreat inch by inch, and at last take refuge in the very tops of the trees. At last, even they were left in shadow— the shadow of the distant hills, or of the earth itself; and, in sympathy for the busy citizens of the rookery, I regretted to see their habitation, so lately bathed in glorious light, reduced to the sombre, work-aday hue of the lower world, or of my own world within. For a moment, such birds as soared above the rest might still receive the lustre on their wings, which imparted to their sable plumage the hue and brilliance of deep red gold; at last, that too departed. Twilight came stealing on—the rooks became more quiet—I became more weary, and wished I were going home tomorrow.

(Chapter 22)

As this passage and the previous ones reveal, expression is wholly ruled by what she has to say. The demands of sound, rhythm, or the well-wrought period do not concern her. She does not reject the oddly-used word 'basking', in the second passage; nor does she acknowledge, in the third, that the rhythm of the third sentence concludes at the words 'wooden gate': completeness demands the rather awkwardly attached dependent phrase and clause beginning at 'no doubt communicating … ', and completeness justifies its presence and its form. These sensitive and even lyrical descriptions all belong to Agnes, and bear on her role in the narrative. She is passive and sensitive, a central perception more fine than any other, and so a most accurate measurement of the other characters, though she is not at all the most absorbing interest for the reader.

On its small scale Agnes Grey has much in common with Mansfield Park, and Agnes herself with Fanny Price, who is in a similar position, has a rather similar nature, and performs the same functions. Anne Brontë resembles her sisters only where material is concerned (only occasionally do her methods suggest Emily), and resembles the eighteenth century in the type of characterization and the firm morality; the Victorians she suggests are those very different from the Brontës, Mrs Gaskell and Trollope; while a remarkable affinity exists between her and that other modest writer, of deep personal religion, pervadingly humble subjects, and a deceptively simple, literal style—Mark Rutherford.


1 Mrs Robinson is better known as the object of Branwell Brontë's ill-founded passion than as the original of Anne's portrait, which is considerably more cooly damning than anything in Branwell's history, though that also indicates a true mother of the daughter figured forth in Rosalie.

2 The two girls also are mere schoolgirls at first, Matilda only thirteen, and Rosalie, at sixteen, still 'something of a romp' (Chapter 7), who has yet to grow up into the accomplished coquette.

3 Any treatment of Weston such as that of Mr Rochester and Blanche Ingram would, though possibly creating more absorbing personalities, be to no useful end, since the movement at this point cannot turn away from Rosalie herself (the 'Blanche Ingram' of the episode) who is being swept on to uncongenial wedlock.

4 He and Mr Rochester may well have a similar source, sharing as well as looks a fine voice, while at one point Mr Weston even uses a Rochester image

'The human heart is like india-rubber; a little swells it, but a great deal will not burst it.

(Chapter 12)

anticipating Mr Rochester's declaring himself as 'hard and tough as an India-rubber ball: pervious, though, through a chink or two still, and with one sentient point in the middle of the lump.' (Jane Eyre, Chapter 14.)

5 A striking instance is in Agnes's visit to the old blind woman Nancy Brown, where Nancy's long account of her religious doubts dwells as much on Mr Hatfield's deficiencies as on Mr Weston's excellences; the former need to be known in order to gauge the falseness of his sentiment to Rosalie, the latter to create anxiety about her attempts, as she herself says, to 'fix' him (Chapter 15), though it also obviously reveals him as a fitting husband for Agnes.

6 Such success with plain language is one outside the power of either Charlotte or Emily Brontë, and places Anne rather with Mrs Gaskell or Trollope.

7 Rosalie's 'coming-out' ball takes place on 3 January, Agnes visits Nancy in the third week in February, Mr Weston gives her primroses at the end of March, Mr Hatfield's courtship, refusal, and Rosalie's change to Mr Weston proceed day by day, and she is married on 1 June.

Guy Schofield (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3310

SOURCE: "The Gentle Anne," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1971, pp. 1-10.

[In the following excerpt, Schofield examines the gentle humor of Agnes Grey and the novel's sources in Brontë's own life.]

May Sinclair has written: "There is in the smallest of the Brontës an immense, a terrifying, audacity. Charlotte was bold and Emily was bolder; but this audacity of Anne's was greater … because it was willed, it was deliberate, open-eyed. Anne took her courage in both her hands when she sat down to write The Tenant of Wildfell Hall."1 She did, and she never flinched from the consequences flung at her by her critics.

All the same, Agnes Grey is an infinitely better book because it falls within the natural range of Anne's literary capacity. It is her own story, unadorned, direct, beautifully told, perfectly visualised—the classic "documentary" as we might say of a Victorian governess. George Moore said it was "the most perfect prose narrative in English letters … a narrative simple and beautiful as a muslin dress." That celebrated judgment has provoked not a little misgiving, and it is hard to justify, yet when I re-read Agnes Grey in preparing this talk I found new rich veins of reflection and characterisation in it, and specimens of word-handling that delighted me. There is something shimmeringly complete about Agnes Grey. You feel it is a task attempted and done with loving precision. The author herself seems to realise this in the eight words that end her tale: "And now I think I have said sufficient." There is an endearing charm in the humility of that quiet curtain.

Agnes Grey, >of course, idealises the unfulfilled love that influenced Anne's short life; but before turning to this I would draw attention to one of her qualities that, had she lived and written more, might have given us another kind of Brontë altogether. I mean her sense of fun. In the glimpses she offers we see it as more robust, more true, more alive to the ludicrous, than anything revealed by her sisters. One feels that this capacity for fun was there all the time, ready to ripple forth whenever the clouds were not too thick about her. Look at this account of Mr. Bloomfield at luncheon, in Agnes Grey:

He had a large mouth, pale dingy complexion, milky blue eyes, and hair the colour of hempen cord. There was a roast leg of mutton before him: he helped Mrs. Bloomfield, the children and me, desiring me to cut up the children's meat; then, after twisting the mutton in various directions and eyeing it from different points, he pronounced it not fit to be eaten, and called for the cold beef.

'What is the matter with the mutton, my dear?' asked his mate.

'It is quite overdone. Don't you taste, Mrs. Bloomfield, that all the goodness is roasted out of it? And can't you see that all that nice red gravy is completely dried away?'

'Well, I think the beef will suit you.'

The beef was set before him and he began to carve, but with the most rueful expressions of discontent.

'What is the matter with the beef Mr. Bloomfield? I'm sure I thought it was very nice.'

'And so it was very nice. A nicer joint could not be; but it is quite spoiled', he replied dolefully.

'How so?'

'How so? Why, don't you see how it is cut? Dear, dear!—it is quite shocking.'

'They must have cut it wrong in the kitchen, then, for I'm sure I carved it quite properly here yesterday.'

'No doubt they cut it wrong in the kitchen—the savages! Dear, dear! Did ever anyone see such a fine piece of beef so completely ruined? But remember that in future when a decent dish leaves this table they shall not touch it in the kitchen. Remember that, Mrs. Bloomfield!'

Notwithstanding the ruinous state of the beef, the gentleman managed to cut himself some delicate slices, part of which he ate in silence. When he next spoke it was, in a less querulous tone, to ask what there was for dinner.

'Turkey and grouse', was the concise reply.

'And what besides?'


'What kind of fish?'

'I don't know.' "You don't know? " cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.

'No: I told the cook to get some fish—I did not particularise what.'

'Well, that beats everything! A lady professes to keep house and doesn't even know what fish is for dinner! Professes to order fish and doesn't specify what!'

The silly ass was told by his wife to order dinner for himself in future. Agnes Grey, we read, was ashamed and uncomfortable to have witnessed such a scene, but I wager that in writing it Anne Brontë was laughing.

Her satire was gentle, like Anne herself, but it was percipient. See how she pinions the rector, Mr. Hatfield:

Mr. Hatfield would come sailing up the aisle, or rather sweeping along like a whirlwind, with his rich silk gown flying behind him and rustling against the pew doors, mount the pulpit like a conqueror ascending his triumphal car; then sinking on the velvet cushion in an attitude of studied grace, remain in silent prostration for a certain time, then mutter over a Collect and gabble through the Lord's Prayer, rise, draw off one bright lavender glove to give the congregation the benefit of his sparkling rings, lightly pass his fingers through his well-curled hair, flourish a cambric handkerchief, recite a very short passage, or perhaps a mere phrase of Scripture, as a headpiece to his discourse and finally deliver—a composition.

Sometimes Mr. Hatfield would deliver a "sunless and severe" sermon and on coming out of church would laugh at the recollection of it, "hoping that he had given the rascally people something to think about; perchance exulting in the thought that old Betty Holmes would now lay aside the sinful indulgence of her pipe, which had been her daily solace for upward of thirty years; that George Higgins would be frightened out of his Sabbath evening walks, and Thomas Jackson would be sorely troubled in his conscience, and shaken in his sure and certain hope of a joyful resurrection at the last day."

For Yorkshire folk it is pleasant also to spot those little idiomatic touches that stamp Anne Brontë in another sense as "one of us". In Wildfell Hall there is talk of preparing tea "against they come in". There is advice concerning a lady to "let her down easy". Agnes Grey says "I proceeded to clomp down the two flights of stairs" and elsewhere she "demolishes some spice cake." Anne Brontë knew very well that you can't nibble Yorkshire spice cake; it requires to be demolished.

All that is engagingly homespun, but the core of the novel is of a different substance.

Anne had allowed a year or two to elapse after the death of the man she loved before re-creating and re-endowing him as Mr. Weston in Agnes Grey. We identify the real purpose to which she had set her pen in that recreation. The very first paragraph of the book declares the author's intention of laying before her readers "what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend."

The story of her love for the young curate of Haworth, William Weightman, has been told and re-told, and you know it well. You know how he blew in upon the close atmosphere of the parsonage like a breeze of Spring, bringing to life all sorts of little jollities, taking the girls for walks, manipulating an adventure to Keighley, slipping them preposterous Valentines when their father wasn't looking. They called him Celia Amelia because of his curly-haired good looks; he didn't mind. He made them happy—and he made Anne happy in a way, and to a degree, she had never known before. But as at every turning in her history, hope was to be snuffed out before it could burgeon into fulfilment.

In 1842, when she was away at Thorp Green, near York, living the dismal existence of a governess, William Weightman died, a victim of cholera at the age of 28.

He appears to have caught the disease when visiting the sick in Haworth. "Unclerical, fickle, light-hearted" were some of the words Charlotte used in describing him: they were true but only partially so. He was diligent in his pastoral duties, generous, and always kind. There was much more to him than Charlotte perceived, and Anne knew this and loved him for it though that love had to remain indeterminate, unavowed, idealised. She never forgot him. He was in her waking mind and vividly in her dreams. Just as the love story in Agnes Grey was wrapped around his memory, so he inspired the best of her poetry.

Here I come to something I would like very much to emphasise. Anne Brontë's poems are not by any stretch of imagination important. Compared with Emily's magnificent verse they are fragile little things. Some are juvenile fantasies, some are pious efforts in the manner of Cowper—one must never forget that Anne's religion was a constant, and sometimes a haunting, reality—but in my judgment those that were inspired by the memory of William Weightman contain a few stanzas that are among the most moving of their kind in our language.

They have been disregarded; they have been deemed to be but superficial expressions of sorrow and innocent dismay. They are not profound. They do not seek to unravel Freudian mysteries. They are quite out of line with contemporary attitudes—simple indeed, elementary in structure. But I will argue with anybody that, at their fleeting best, they merit a deal more regard than the world has conceded to them. For they are not contrived; they spring from a suffering heart and a fine intelligence and cannot be dismissed by the unprejudiced critic.

It is easy to be deceived by their simplicity, but in the examples I am going to read I ask you to note the lines that lift themselves high above any reproach of being commonplace.

Here are some, written in 1844, two years after Weightman's death:

Yes, thou art gone! and never more
Thy sunny smile shall gladden me;

But I may pass the old church door
And pace the floor that covers thee.

May stand upon the cold damp stone
And think that, frozen, lies below
The lightest heart that I have known,
The kindest I shall ever know.

A year later she wrote a poem called "Night":

I love the silent hour of night,
For blissful dreams may then arise,
Revealing to my charmed sight
What may not bless my waking eyes.

And then a voice may meet my ear
That death has silenced long ago;
And hope and rapture may appear
Instead of solitude and woe.

Cold in the grave for years has lain
The form it was my bliss to see;
And only dreams can bring again
The darling of my heart to me.

Again, two years later, a poem called "Severed and Gone" contains these verses:

Ah no! thy spirit lingers still
Where'er thy sunny smile was seen;
There's less of darkness, less of chill
On earth than if thou had'st not been.

Thou breathest in my bosom yet,
And dwellest in my beating heart;
And while I cannot quite forget,
Thou, darling, can'st not quite depart.

Life seems more sweet that thou did'st live,
And men more true that thou wert one;
Nothing is lost that thou did'st give,
Nothing destroyed that thou hast done.

"Nothing is lost that thou did'st give"—the implications of that line tell us the little that sufficed to help Anne Brontë on her way. What had Willey Weightman given her? A brief acquaintance with genuine human kindness and consideration, some merriment, a handclasp of honest regard, probably a few secret moments of tenderness and delight. These were the crumbs for which she was so grateful. It was by these that her naturally loving heart was stirred to its depth. We realise how frozen must have been the climate to which it was accustomed. Whatever William Weightman's youthful carefreeness may have been, he deserves to be remembered thankfully for what he did to charm and sustain that lonely girl. When we put a flower on her grave we should put one also on his.

Another ray of light, another small reward, came Anne Brontë's way. In one of those little birthday notes which she and Emily exchanged are these words:

This is Emily's birthday. She has completed her 23rd year and is, I believe, at home. Charlotte is a governess in the family of Mr. White. Branwell is a clerk in the railroad station at Luddenden Foot and I am a governess in the family of Mr. Robinson. I dislike the situation and wish to change it for another. I am now at Scarborough … Four years ago I was at school. Since then I have been a governess at Blake Hall, left it, come to Thorp Green, and seen the sea and York Minster …

In our modern world where travel and change of scene are prime objects of existence it is not easy for us to realise how circumscribed life was in those days, even for people more sophisticated than the Brontës. To have seen the sea and York Minster may seem laughingly modest accomplishments. For Anne, however, they were more than journeys made and wonders contemplated. They were profound experiences. In the stone vastness of the Minster, and the turbulent vastness of the sea, she found a sense of dimension that enthralled her, and in the dashing of the waves on a windy day an exuberant joy.

It was in 1841 that she first went to Scarborough with her employers, the Robinsons. From that moment Scarborough became for her a sort of earthly paradise. She loved the view from St. Nicholas Cliff where they lodged—the spot where the Grand Hotel now stands—and she loved to walk along the sands, buffeted by the wind and slapped by the spray. Round Castle Hill her imagination wove the final love scene of Agnes Grey. Here was her heart's harbourage. As Winifred G6rin has written, Scarborough burst open her whole being with "an onrush of inexpressible emotion … whatever she saw, she saw with the eyes of the spirit."2 Haworth may have remained home for Anne Brontë but she found elsewhere a place of deeper spiritual satisfaction. The sea drew her more powerfully than the moors, and it is eloquently just that her body should have been laid to rest on Castle Hill, within sound of the great breakers.

I will not dwell overlong on the closing scenes except to draw from them the heroic stature of this "least of the Brontës" as she has been untruly called. In December 1848 her beloved Emily died. Within a month a lung specialist from Leeds pronounced the inevitability of early death for Anne. All that could be done, he said, was to alleviate suffering. Two days later, knowing this, she wrote her last poem.

I hoped amid the brave and strong
My portioned task might lie,

To toil amid the labouring throng
With purpose keen and high;
But Thou hast fixed another part,
And Thou hast fixed it well …

As soon as spring arrived it was decided that she should be taken where she longed to go—to Scarborough. In a letter dated April 5th, 1849, she wrote to Ellen Nussey: "I wish it would please God to spare me, not only for Papa's and Charlotte's sakes but because I long to do some good work in the world before I leave it. I have many schemes in my head for future practice—humble and limited indeed—but still I should not like them to come to nothing and myself to have lived to so little purpose. But God's will be done."

Accompanied by Charlotte and Ellen Nussey she went to Scarborough in May. The journey, part by road and part by rail, was via Keighley, Leeds and York. The dying girl had to be carried by porters. At York she was taken in a bath chair to see the Minster once more. The weather was warm and sunny.

On May 25th they arrived at their lodgings on the south cliff. Anne was delighted to gaze down at the sea again. They hired a donkey carriage for her to drive along the sands. One evening, despite a fall from exhaustion, she willed herself to walk a little way on to the Spa bridge in order to watch a fine sunset pouring its last rays on Castle Hill. She must have recalled her own words about Castle Hill in Agnes Grey: "I shall never forget that glorious summer evening and always remember with delight that steep hill on the edge of the precipice where we stood together watching the splendid sunset mirrored on the restless world of waters at our feet."

Two days later she died on the couch in their sitting room. Her last words to the weeping Charlotte were "Courage, Charlotte, courage!"

She was 29 years old.

May Sinclair has written: "Of these tragic Brontës the most tragic, the most pitiful, the most mercilessly abused by destiny, was Anne." Those words are true.

Emily was a mystic, dwelling very largely in a world beyond the fluctuating pressures of this "bourne of time and place." Because of this we can accept Maurice Maeterlinck's judgment that "her heart was radiant with silent gladness. Of her happiness none can doubt." Charlotte lived to find much fulfilment and satisfaction in literary fame and marriage to a kind, if uninspiring, husband.

But to Anne, who asked so little, less than little was granted. Her ambition was not lofty—just to live on to do something useful—and her desires were those of most normal people, a home, a loving partner, a family fireside. All were denied. She endured at the very heart of the whole Brontë tragedy. Upon her the burden and the pain fell most acutely because she was more compact of ordinary human sensibility. Even the collapse of Branwell imposed itself more intimately on her than on the others.

Yet May Sinclair was wrong when she went on to say, "This delicate thing was broken on the wheel of life." She was not. Her spirit was never broken. She went her way of deprivation—occasionally, it is true, with a tear—but never with moan or bitterness. We call her "the gentle Anne", and so she was, but within the vesture of physical frailty there was a spirit immeasurably strong. In Charlotte's own words, written at a time when Anne was battling with repeated bouts of illness, she had an extraordinary heroism of endurance. "I admire but I certainly could not imitate her", said Charlotte.

When from our distance of time we look back on those astonishing women of Haworth, we are conscious, I think, that our admiration falls into two categories. We honour them for their imperishable contribution to English literature, and we honour them for the brave lives they lived in the face of adversity. It is within this second category that we see the real geatness of Anne.

All very well for George Saintsbury to call her "but a pale reflection of her elders"; all very well for others to call her the smallest, the least, of the Brontës. Those are detached literary verdicts. How can she be deemed the least who, at her departing, had to give strength to the brokenhearted author of Jane Eyre—"Courage, Charlotte, courage!"


1The Three Brontes (1912).

2Anne Brontë (1959).

Tom Winnifrith (essay date 1973)

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SOURCE: "The Brontës and Their Betters," in The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality, Macmillan, 1973, pp. 160-94.

[In the following excerpt, Winnifrith discusses Brontë's harsh portrayal of Victorian aristocracy in Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.]

We do not know a great deal about the life of Anne, and it is perhaps too easy to represent Agnes Grey as straight autobiography with the Inghams of Blake Hall portrayed by the Bloomfields of Wellwood House and the Murrays of Horton Lodge standing for the Robinsons of Thorp Green. Anne's experiences with the children of the two households may be accurately mirrored in her account of the fiendish young Bloomfields and frivolous young Murrays. But the Inghams, coming from a well-established Yorkshire family, were unlike Mr Birdwood, a retired tradesman who had realised a considerable for-tune; Blake Hall was not a new house, surrounded by mushroom poplars, and one of the Ingham girls in later life was scorned for marrying beneath her into trade.87 If we are looking for models for the Bloomfields, Charlotte's employers, the Whites of Upperwood House, seem a much more likely prospect.88 The Robinsons of Thorp Green were an aristocratic family, being related to the Marquess of Ripon, but Mr Robinson was a clergyman with Evangelical sympathies.89 Since Anne Brontë three times in the novel draws a pointed distinction between a bad worldly match and a good marriage to a poor man, and in each case the poor man is a clergyman, we must regard Mr Robinson's profession as in some sense detracting from his worldliness. There is a fourth clergyman who is himself worldly, Mr Hatfield, whose seven hundred a year, though not enough for Miss Murray, was three and a half times Mr Brontë's salary; unlike Agnes Grey's father or her brother-in-law, Mr Richardson, or Mr Weston, he is not a good man, and may possibly be modelled on Mr Robinson. At all events Anne cannot resist making even him an example of the danger of putting wealth before virtue, since Miss Murray in marrying Sir Thomas Ashby obviously suffers far more than if she had become Mrs Hatfield.90 There is no parallel here with the fate of Lydia Robinson who eloped with an actor called Henry Roxby, and was cut off without a penny.91

Nor can there be any biographical parallel between the marriage of Agnes Grey's parents and that of Anne Brontë's parents in spite of the theory to this effect of W.P.P. Mr Grey is a clergyman, and when he marries has some private means as well which he loses through rash investment. Unlike St John Rivers and even Mr Helstone, who have no private means but are considered quite eligible, Mr Grey is not considered good enough by his wife's family who refuse to give them any part of their fortune, and only reappear in the story to send a hard-hearted letter on the occasion of Mr Grey's death.

Unlike the very similar story of Jane Eyre's parents which at least serves to explain Jane's orphaned state, the story of Agnes Grey's parents serves no useful purpose unless it be to give Agnes a vaguely aristocratic lineage while at the same time providing material for a little anti-aristocratic propaganda. There is thus the same ambiguity as we found in Charlotte's works, and this impression is strengthened in a significant passage where Agnes Grey's mother compares the treatment suffered by Agnes at the hands of the vulgar Bloomfields with the treatment to be expected from a more aristocratic family.

This time, you shall try your fortune in a somewhat higher family—in that of some genuine thorough-bred gentleman, for such are far more likely to treat you with proper respect and consideration than those purse-proud tradespeople and arrogant upstarts. I have known several among the higher ranks who treated their governesses quite as one of the family; though some, I allow, are as insolent and exacting as anyone else can be: for there are bad and good in all classes.92

But though there are bad and good in all classes we do not see much good in the aristocrats of Agnes Grey, although the aristocratic Murrays are slightly better than the upstart Bloomfields.

The satire against the Bloomfields is crude and obvious. The children behave badly, Mr Bloomfield is rude to his wife about the food, and Uncle Robson is not a gentleman. The mushroom poplar groves of Wellwood House, an appropriate name for a mansion of a would-be gentleman, symbolise the nouveau riche atmosphere of the Bloomfield household.93 By contrast the wide park, stocked with deer, and beautiful old trees of Horton Lodge, shows that the Murrays are proper gentlefolk, although their behaviour both in general and towards their governess still leaves much to be desired.

The trouble with the Murrays is that though themselves well up on the aristocratic ladder they are anxious to climb still further, by a more aristocratic match. As a result Rosalie Murray spurns her more attractive suitors in order to become Lady Ashley, although she would have much preferred to have become a Peeress.94 Her delight in her title is reminiscent of Ginevra Fanshawe, but is even more short-lived. Also reminiscent of Ginevra Fanshawe is Rosalie's contempt for the humble nature of Agnes's sister's marriage to Mr Richardson, who is neither handsome nor young, but only good.95 Mr Richardson is of course but a pale shadow of the novel's hero, Mr Weston, whose origins are not touched upon, although he is eventually wealthy enough to marry Agnes. Mr Weston's condescending kindness to the poor, in notable contrast to the brusquerie of the socially ambitious Mr Hatfield, gives the novel a democratic air, and it is unfortunate that this impression is spoilt by clumsy pieces of snobbery. Agnes Grey's family are proud of their aristocratic origins, although her maternal grandfather, described vaguely as a squire, behaves worse than the Murrays. Cast off by this squire's family 'our only intercourse with the world consisted in a stately tea party, now and then, with the principal farmers and tradespeople of the vicinity (just to avoid being stigmatised as too proud to consort with our neighbours)'.96 And yet Agnes is curiously ignorant of aristocratic ways. Was Mr Grey with a snug little property of his own as well as a small incumbency really such a bad match for a squire's daughter?97 Why was he so much inferior to the rich nabob who married Agnes's aunt and who inherited Agnes's mother's portion? In the same way it is not clear why Mr Hatfield should be so unsuitable a husband for Rosalie Murray. Rosalie's enthusiasm for titles and determination to have one herself is frankly vulgar, and the distinction between the Bloomfields and the Murrays, like the similar distinction between Ginevra Fanshawe and the Watsons, becomes blurred. Finally the authentic note of rancour from the unnoticed governess comes out without any concealment in the following passage:

Nota-bene—Mr Hatfield never spoke to me, neither did Sir Hugh or Lady Meltham, nor Mr Harry or Miss Meltham, nor Mr Green or his sisters, nor any other lady or gentleman who frequented that church: nor, in fact, any one that visited at Horton Lodge.98

The obvious contrast between the humble and virtuous Mr Weston and Agnes Grey, and the richer and more vicious world of the Bloomfields and Murrays, is repeated in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In the part of the novel that centres around Wildfell Hall we see a humble but on the whole happy society, whereas Helen Huntingdon's narrative reveals the corrupt dissipation which ruined the more elevated society of Grassdale Manor. Whereas Agnes Grey had been too slight a work to attract critical attention, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, deriving notoriety from Jane Eyre, was attacked for its bold social doctrines. The reviewer in Fraser's99had no objection to the exposure of the ugly hypocritical visage of Society, but thought it both improbable and wrong that Gilbert Markham should marry Helen Huntingdon. Against the straightforward snobbery of comments such as the remark that Gilbert 'is no doubt highly attractive to young ladies of his own calibre' it is difficult to argue, but the gap between Helen Huntingdon and Gilbert Markham is smaller than the reviewer in Fraser's thinks. There is a curious mystery about Helen's origins. She only sees her father once, and he does not leave her much money. Her brother is the squire of the Wildfell Hall neighbourhood, but not too grand to contemplate marriage with Jane Wilson and to converse on easy terms with Gilbert Markham. Gilbert, who introduces himself as the son of a sort of gentleman farmer, and is described with a trace of sarcasm by Helen as 'the fine gentleman and beau of the parish',100 is not deterred by thoughts of his presumption in aspiring to marry above his station until he arrives at Staningley. By this time Helen's husband and uncle have both died, and it is Helen's wealth which causes Markham's neighbour in the coach to suggest that 'she'll marry none but a nobleman' and Markham himself, as deferential as Fraser's to 'the fitness of things', to ask himself:

And could I bear that she should think me capable of such a thing?—of presuming upon the acquaintance—the love, if you will—accidentally contracted, or rather forced upon her against her will, when she was an unknown fugitive, toiling for her own support, apparently without fortune, family or connections; to come upon her now, when she was reinstated in her proper sphere, and claim a share in her prosperity, which, had it never failed her, would most certainly have kept her unknown to me for ever.101

Helen does think Gilbert capable of such presumption, and he marries her, apparently without meeting either the anticipated slights and censures of the world, or the sorrow and displeasures of those she loved. Indeed both Helen and her aunt seem enthusiastic that the marriage should take place, and it is perhaps this enthusiasm which raised the hackles of the reviewer in Fraser's. But we can easily understand the readiness of Helen and her aunt to accept Gilbert, since the whole book is aimed at showing how much better his world is than the society from which Helen had chosen her previous husband. Anne Brontë is less blatant than in Agnes Grey in drawing the contrast between the two worlds. In Agnes Grey we are actually told that Mr Richardson is good and Sir Thomas Ashby bad, but in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, we are left to judge for ourselves the difference between the healthy society described in the first part of the book and the evil atmosphere surrounding Grassdale Manor. Nor does Anne Bronte make the mistake of painting the humbler society in too rosy colours. Unlike Mr Weston and the Grey family who are almost too good to be true, the Markham family and their friends are not without faults. Fergus and even Gilbert are boorish, although their antics are but pale shadows of the dissipation of Huntingdon and his friends, and the Markhams do work for their living. Mrs Markham and Rose interfere too much in the affair between Gilbert and Mrs Graham, although this slight excess of over-protectiveness is much better than the complete failure of Helen Huntingdon's family to prevent her from making a foolish match. Eliza Millward and Jane Wilson indulge in scandalous gossip about Mrs Graham and Lawrence, but this gossip, although unpleasant and rewarded by Jane and Eliza losing the respect of Gilbert and Lawrence, is a more venial fault than the real adultery of Annabella and Huntingdon, a sin which might have been nipped in the bud with a little more frank speaking. Finally, Jane Wilson, the least attractive figure among Markham's acquaintances, is the worst type of snob, aspiring to marry Lawrence and, when she fails, retiring into the country town to avoid living with her rough brother Robert. Here she lives.

in a kind of close-fisted, cold, uncomfortable gentility, doing no good to others, and but little to herself; spending her days in fancy work and scandal; referring frequently to her 'brother the vicar', and her 'sister, the vicar's lady', but never to her brother the farmer and her sister, the farmer's wife; seeing as much company as she can without too much expense, but loving no one and beloved by none—a coldhearted, supercilious, keenly, insidiously censorious old maid.'102

But this brutal portrait is more than balanced by that of the hard, pretentious, worldly minded Mrs Hargrave earlier in the book,103 whose anxiety to make good matches for her daughters is partly the result and partly the cause of her determination that her son should be enabled to hold up his head with the highest gentleman in the land. Whereas Jane Wilson merely does no good to anyone, Mrs Hargrave does positive harm to the character of her son Walter, and her wish to gain a rich man as a son-in-law almost ruins the lives of both her daughters.

Jane Wilson and Mrs Hargrave are minor characters, and it is perhaps unfair to compare the narrative of Gilbert Markham with the diary of Helen Huntingdon by taking these two characters from the two sections of the novel. But the passage decribing the eventual fate of Jane Wilson, although it occurs in a rather clumsy disposal of minor characters,'104 does reveal that Anne Brontë, whose knowledge of English families outside her own was greater than that of Emily and Charlotte,105 did have something of an ear for some of the delicate gradations of social snobbery. Jane Wilson's willingness to speak about one brother and reluctance to mention the other is a touch worthy of Middlemarch, and we sometimes regret that Anne Brontë abandoned her portrait of middle-class provincial life for her account of the aristocracy, of which she knew so little. There are several features of life at Grassdale Manor which would strike a hostile critic like Miss Rigby as unconvincing. In the first place we may note the narrow canvas on which Anne chooses to paint her unflattering portrait. With the exception of the unimportant Mr Boarham and Mr Grimsby all the characters in Helen Huntingdon's narrative are related to each other. Huntingdon has two friends apart from Grimsby, namely Hattersley and Lord Lowborough, and they marry Helen's two chief acquaintances, Milicent Hargrave and Annabella Wilmot, who are both nieces of Helen's first admirer. Milicent's sister marries Helen's brother, and the novels ends by announcing a marriage between Helen Hattersley and the young Arthur Huntingdon. Now it would be possible to find parallels for this closely knit circle of acquaintances both in other novels of this period and in families known to the Brontes.'106 But to limit the characters in this way, while it may be suitable for a novel of provincial life, is not suitable to a portrait of the aristocracy. It is inherently improbable that Huntingdon, who whatever his faults is an eminently sociable man, should limit his acquaintances to two or three boon companions, especially when he spends half the year in London. It is also improbable that two of these boon companions should choose a wife out of the very small circle of Helen Huntingdon's female acquaintances.

Anne Brontë's ignorance of the aristocracy is hard to distinguish from her inability as a novelist to develop a wide range of characters, but if The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is meant to show us the superiority of the honest yeomanry over the dissolute squirearchy then it is certainly a failing that life at Grassdale Manor seems very like the life of a yeoman, apart from some incidental and not very convincing idleness and dissipation. Wuthering Heights has a similar stark economy of characters but we do not accuse Emily Brontë of being either a bad novelist or an undiscriminating observer of the social scene for this reason. We do sometimes wonder why Edgar Linton became so withdrawn from his neighbours after his wife's death, although Emily gives some explanation in drawing some attention to his melancholy and making Lockwood comment on the remoteness of the locality. In general, however, Wuthering Heights succeeds, where The Tenant of Wildfell Hall fails, in painting a realistic contrast between two ways of life, the rough hard farming life of Wuthering Heights, and the more comfortable squire's life of Thrushcross Grange.


87[Brontë Society Transactions] 68 (1958), p. 242.

88 See J. Malham Dembleby, The Confessions of Charlotte Brontë (Bradford, 1954), pp. 198-217, for resemblances between the Whites and the Birdwoods. Mrs White's maiden name was Robson.

89 Winifred Gerin, Branwell Brontë, [London, 1961] pp. 216-26. But see Chapter 3 [of The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality, by Tom Winnifrith, Macmillan, 1973] for differences between Thorp Green and Horton Lodge.

90 Mr Hatfield appropriately marries a rich but elderly spinster (Agnes Grey, [in The Life and Works of Charlotte Brontë and Her Sisters, edited by H. Ward and C. K. Shorter, Haworth ed., 7 vols. (London, 1889-1890),] p. 536).

91Branwell Brontë, p. 252.

92Agnes Grey, p. 408.

93 Ibid., pp. 368, 423.

94 Ibid., p. 432.

95 Ibid., p. 429.

96 Ibid., pp. 356-7.

97 Ibid., p. 356. We may compare the very different attitude shown by Mr Oliver to St John Rivers, although Mr Oliver is not a squire, but a self-made manufacturer.

98 Ibid., p. 436.

99 See the reviews in Sharpe's London Magazine and Fraser 's Magazine, cited in Chapter 7 [of The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality, by Tom Winnifrith, Macmillan, 1973].

100The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, [in The Life and Works of Charlotte Brontë and Her Sisters, edited by H. Ward and C. K. Shorter, Haworth ed., 7 vols. (London, 1889-1890),] pp. 1, 401.

101 Ibid., p. 485-7.

102 Ibid., p. 448.

103 Ibid., p. 235.

104 Anne seems almost relieved to get rid of her characters, and this is one more indication that she was a reluctant novelist.

105 Her four years at Thorp Green as a sociable and fairly amiable family are in marked contrast to Charlotte's short career as a governess. Charlotte did of course spend time away from home, but only in the unworldly atmosphere of Miss Wooler's school and M. Heger's Pensionnat.

106 See Chapter 8 [of The Brontës and Their Background: Romance and Reality, by Tom Winnifrith, Macmillan, 1973] for the way in which Ellen Nussey's friends are also her relations.

Winifred Gérin (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: "Acton Bell," in Anne Brontë, revised ed., Allen Lane, 1976, pp. 209-34.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1959, Gérin summarizes the facts of Brontë's composition of Agnes Grey and the early critical reception of the novel.]

Anne Brontë's own copy of Agnes Grey (it was a compact volume of 363 pages), which is preserved in Princeton University Library, is full of the author's corrections of … numerous errors.1 One can imagine her sitting, with bowed head, the light of the lamp falling on her pretty hair, absorbed in her task. Agnes Grey was published in one volume; it had not the breadth to take up two like Emily's Wuthering Heights, far less three, like Charlotte's Jane Eyre. Yet it held in its modest dimensions a perfection of its own.

"Agnes Grey," wrote Charlotte a week after the book had come out, "is the mirror of the mind of the writer." She could not have more exactly defined its worth. Though Agnes Grey may have fallen into relative obscurity nowadays it must not be forgotten that in George Moore's opinion it was "the most perfect prose narrative in English literature… . As simple and beautiful as a muslin dress … the one story in English literature in which style, characters and subject are in perfect keeping."2

These are high claims indeed and worth recalling in any attempt to assess the book's lasting worth.

Agnes Grey, as its original title shows, had been begun as an autobiography. Its value today is still permanently enhanced by the fact that it relates, with startling adherence to truth, the circumstances of Anne's two experiences as governess.

For good or for ill, Anne did not leave it there. The artist within her took charge and the book, begun with one intention, had very soon far exceeded it and become a full-scale work of fiction.

Not full-scale in the sense of bulk; one of Agnes Grey's chief merits is its exquisite proportions. It is well proportioned as a French interior is well proportioned, with each article of furniture on so small yet perfect a scale that no object appears crowded or overwhelmed by its fellows.

Yet it was inevitable that the dual purpose of the book should emerge; that those portions which were derived from fact should be more vividly realised and that the purely fictitious incidents should be slurred over, as inappropriate, as it were, to the fuller treatment. Thus the happy ending to which, as fiction, Anne had not the heart to deny her heroine, is written in so low and subdued a key that it saddens rather than elates the reader. Judged from the standpoint of art this is a mistake; the story of Agnes Grey begun in such buoyant style, with so much wit and sparkle, should not modulate into a minor key and close in solemnity since, in spite of some tribulations, the heroine's happiness is assured.

So the author, at least, would have us believe. But the sadness of Anne's own experience in love broods over the tale and makes us rather doubt the ordering of the facts at the story's close. They are so very lightly sketched in, with none of the bite and incision of outline in which the exposition and middle of the book are etched, that one sees them as through a mist, only partially discernible.

That does not diminish their charm. There is, indeed, an elegiac charm pervading the whole of the latter half of the book, from Chapter 13 to the end, which fully makes up for the loss of the vivacity and humour of the opening. But the difference is there. Agnes Grey is a book that falls in two, not only because it is partautobiographical and part-fictional, but because, written over a period of probably at least three years, it reflects the tragic change in Anne's circumstances.

It seems likely that she began writing Passages in the Life of an Individual in her second year at Thorp Green, in 1842. She may even have begun it much earlier, during the interregnum at home following her dismissal from the Inghams. Whenever it was, she could still view her experiences at Blake Hall with enough humour to derive an artistic satisfaction from their narration. The opening chapters of the book, all those relating to Blake Hall indeed, are instinct with satirical observation and, what is rarer far, with a sense of humour as regards her own failures and distresses. The style is elastic and reveals a cheerful mind "full of bright hopes and ardent expectations".

It is this section of the book, the first six chapters in particular, in which Anne showed herself, to quote George Moore again, to have not only all Jane Austen's qualities but some others as well. (Her true literary progenitors, one is tempted to suggest, were Goldsmith and Maria Edgeworth; for she probably never read Jane Austen any more than Charlotte had done.)

Her time for writing would be very limited once she was fully engaged in teaching at Thorp Green. With the tragic autumn of 1842 and the death of Willy Weightman, a burden so great was added to her already flagging spirits that the zest and animation went out of her writing, however much she needed writing of some sort to absorb her. But all the delight was gone. There is observation as sharp of the Murray family as of the Bloomfields, but bitterness has replaced the good humour, and disappointment effectually dimmed the youthful ardour. The opening chapters of Agnes Grey are the work of a young person, still full of sanguine hopes; the latter half betrays the effort of a stricken heart.3

An identical circumstance attended the composition of Shirley and left similar indelible traces of the conflicting states of mind in which it was written, but Charlotte, unlike Anne, had by the time she was writing her third novel achieved a greater mastery of her medium. Time which militated in favour of Charlotte was to be so cruelly lacking for the development of Anne. There is tantalising promise in both her books of the master-piece that should have come thereafter.

Agnes Grey is as different from Wildfell Hall as two books by one and the same author can well be, yet unmistakably they are from the same pen: an uncompromising honesty invests both tales.

This quality it is which gives Agnes Grey its distinctive value. It is the honesty of the author which insists upon that self-analysis of the heroine's feelings and motives which constitutes not only the book's originality but its truth. Character described from without is one thing—and Anne was to show herself a mistress at tersely satirical portraiture—but that which is revealed to us, by growing degrees, from within, is far more rare and nearer the movement of life. Though the plot of Agnes Grey is too static to arouse keen excitement in the reader, there is nothing static in the characters. The flux of feeling, the uncertainty of temper, the deteriorating effect of time, it is these considerations that hold our attention and make us wonder right to the very end how the characters will finally resolve their problems.

The literary qualities of the book are best judged by their appropriateness; the style suits the matter, and though Anne always excelled in purely descriptive passages—her loving eye for all aspects of the natural scene being perfectly matched by her fastidious choice of language—there is no writing for the sake of writing.

The book is rich in such observation of character as the following:

"Mr Bloomfield," she writes of her first employer, "was a retired tradesman who had realised a very comfortable fortune, but could not be prevailed upon to give a greater salary than £25 to the instructress of his children."

Here is the grandmother of the Bloomfield family—"Hitherto, though I saw the old lady had her defects (of which one was a proneness to proclaim her perfections) I had always been wishful to excuse them, and to give her credit for all the virtues she professed, and even imagine others yet untold."

For a parson's daughter the following sketch of a worldly cleric is full of savour. "Mr Hatfield would come sailing up the aisle, or rather sweeping along like a whirlwind, with his rich silk gown flying behind him and rustling against the pew doors, mount the pulpit like a conqueror ascending his triumphal car; then, sinking on the velvet cushion in an attitude of studied grace, remain in silent prostration for a certain time… "

So much of the psychological interest of Agnes Grey derives from the personal experience of the author that the tendency is to consider it rather in its autobiographical than in its literary connection. It is part of Anne's quality, however, that though she told nothing but the truth, by the force of imagination she seemed to be inventing, and it is Agnes Grey with whom readers are concerned, not Anne Brontë.

Its essential truthfulness no competent critic has ever doubted. Charlotte Brontë,. stung by Lewes's accusations of extravagance and improbability in her own Jane Eyre, wrote of Agnes Grey to her publishers: "Agnes Grey should please such critics as Mr Lewes for it is 'true' and 'unexaggerated' enough."4 As the reviewer in Douglas Jerrolds' Weekly wrote: "The author, if not a governess, must have bribed some governess very largely, either with love or money, to reveal to him the secrets of her prison house … ," so convincingly did Acton Bell set forth "the minute torments and incessant tediums" of her situation.5

In this respect one near-contemporary reader's views are peculiarly worth recording. Lady Amberley noted in her diary for 1868: "read Agnes Grey, one of the Brontës, and should like to give it to every family with a governess and shall read it through again when I have a governess to remind me to be human."6

In due course the professional reviews arrived at the parsonage, regularly forwarded to the authors by Mr Newby. The discerning critic on Douglas Jerrolds' Weekly was of opinion that Agnes Grey was a tale "well worth the writing and the reading"; that on Britannia (who had a mind to discern sublimity in Wuthering Heights) found nothing to call for special notice in Agnes Grey, but conceded that "some characters and scenes" were nicely sketched in.

It was the writer on The Atlas who gave Emily's and Anne's novels the most exhaustive review. As was inevitable, he compared the two productions. Agnes Grey he found "more level and more sunny. Perhaps", he added, "we should best describe it as a somewhat coarse imitation of Miss Austin's [sic] charming stories". It did not offend "by any startling improbabilities", and he found the incidents relating to the governess's life "such as might happen to anyone in that situation of life and, doubtless, have happened to many. The story, though lacking the power and originality of Wuthering Heights, is infinitely more agreeable. It leaves no painful impression on the mind—some may think it leaves no impression at all. We are not quite sure that the next novel will not efface it." In the last line Anne may have read a challenge which strangely accorded with her then intentions, for, by the time she was reading the Atlas critic's review, she was already engaged on writing her second novel.


Anne Brontë
Agnes Grey
Charlotte Brontë
W. S. Williams
Brontë Society Transactions
The Brontës, Life and Letters

by C. K. Shorter In quoting from Anne Brontë's novels, Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the text of [The Brontë Novels, 6 vols., London, in] Smith, Elder and Co's edition of 1900 has been used throughout, but the page references, for the greater convenience of modern readers, apply to the current reprints in the Nelson Classics.


1 AB's copy of AG: see Dr Charles A. Huguenin's article on Brontë MSS in Princeton University Library, BST 1955.

2 George Moore on AG: see Conversations in Ebury Street, [London, 1930] 214-23.

3 Observation of character: AG, chap. I, 11; chap. IV, 36; chap. X, 79.

4 CB to WSW, 14th December 1847, SLL I, 375.

5Douglas Jerrolds' Weekly: for the texts of the reviews of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, see E. M. Weir's "Contemporary Reviews of the First Brontë Novels", BST 1947.

6 Lady Amberley: quoted from the text in Patricia Thomson's The Victorian Heroine, [Oxford, 1956] 53.

P. J. M. Scott (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14032

SOURCE: "Agnes Grey: Accommodating Reality," in Anne Brontë: A New Critical Assessment, Vision Press Limited, 1983, pp. 9-44.

[In the following essay, Scott evaluates the realism, theme, style, and contemporary relevance of Agnes Grey, acknowledging the work's simplicity and brevity but seeing these as among its strengths.]

Agnes Grey has three principal purposes: a paedogogic one; a protest against tyranny; and an attempt to reconcile the passionate yearning heart with life's realities, with its actual possibilities.

We underrate the novel if its brevity and simplicity of construction cause us to think the handling of these themes is slight.

As a story it is simple enough. The eponymous young heroine, who narrates the whole, grows up in a good-natured loving North of England family, the daughter of a clergyman, who loses on a business speculation even the 'snug little property of his own' which has amplified hitherto their modest circumstances. As well as making drastic retrenchment the family now considers ways and means of supplementing his meagre stipend. Mrs. Grey suggests to the older of her two surviving children Mary the drawing of pictures for sale. Agnes herself volunteers to become a governess and after much opposition from the other members of the household carries her point.

At last, to my great joy, it was decreed that I should take charge of the young family of a certain Mrs. Bloomfield; whom my kind, prim aunt Grey had known in her youth, and asserted to be a very nice woman. Her husband was a retired tradesman, who had realised a very comfortable fortune; but could not be prevailed upon to give a greater salary than twenty-five pounds to the instructress of his children. I, however, was glad to accept this, rather than refuse the situation—which my parents were inclined to think the better plan.

After a long cold journey in the middle of the succeeding September, she arrives at the Bloomfields' mansion Wellwood only to discover chilly hospitality from the mistress of the house and that its children are undisciplined cruel egotists. Tom (aged 7), Mary Ann (almost 6) and Fanny (almost 4 on their new preceptress's coming) are her charges and heavy work they make for her. The parents expect Agnes Grey to keep these artful savages in order, having themselves indulged them all along and continuing to impose no settled course of restraints and encouragements of their own.

Tom indeed has the most barbarous instincts towards animals, and retails 'a list of torments' he intends to inflict upon 'a brood of little callow nestlings' which he has just filched from a neighbouring plantation, but

while he was busied in the relation, I dropped the stone upon his intended victims and crushed them flat beneath it. Loud were the outcries, terrible the excerations, consequent upon this daring outrage… .

But soon my trials in this quarter came to a close— sooner than I either expected or desired; for one sweet evening towards the close of May, as I was rejoicing in the near approach of the holidays, and congratulating myself upon having made some progress with my pupils (as far as their learning went at least, for I had instilled something into their heads, and I had at length brought them to be a little—a very little—more rational about getting their lessons done in time to leave some space for recreation, instead of tormenting themselves and me all day long to no purpose), Mrs. Bloomfield sent for me, and calmly told me that after Midsummer my services would be no longer required. She assured me that my character and general conduct were unexceptionable; but the children had made so little improvement since my arrival, that Mr. Bloomfield and she felt it their duty to seek some other mode of instruction. Though superior to most children of their years in abilities, they were decidedly behind them in attainments: their manners were uncultivated, and their tempers unruly. And this she attributed to a want of sufficient firmness, and diligent, persevering care on my part. (Ch. 5)

This failure Agnes actually finds disappointing, but with fresh hope she sets out on another governessemployment, gained by placing an advertisement of her qualifications in the newspapers. It takes her (at £50 a year) to

the family of Mr. Murray, of Horton Lodge, near O——, about seventy miles from our village: a formidable distance to me, as I had never been above twenty miles from home in all the course of my twenty years' sojourn on earth; and as, moreover, every individual in that family and in the neighbourhood was utterly unknown to myself and all my acquaintances. But this rendered it only the more piquant to me.

It turns out, however, that Horton Lodge is far from being a sanctuary of sweetness and light. Here again her employers have a very limited sense of her identity and needs as a human being. Mr. Murray is largely absent from her purview, a blusterous redfaced portly country gent. His wife is a giddy social butterfly, chiefly concerned, in the later phases of the story, about making 'good' matches for her two daughters—at whatever such trifling cost as matrimonial misery.

These girls and their brothers also, like the Bloomfields, have been 'outrageously spoiled', so that 'Master Charles … his mother's peculiar darling … was … 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.' However, of both boys' instruction and management the new governess is delivered twelve months after her arrival by the dispatch of the younger to follow his brother at a boarding school.

At all times and seasons the youngsters torment Miss Grey with their selfish irrational conduct, and by all the family her convenience or comfort is never consulted. Likewise the local squirearchy never speaks to her or takes any notice of her existence and in Mr. Hatfield, the vicar of the parish, Anne Brontë satirizes much that she despised and hated in the Established Church of her days—among other things, the alternation between sermons 'sunless and severe' and ingratiation of wealthy parishioners. Yet Agnes is comforted to note how the new curate, Mr. Edward Weston, nowise resembles him.

Meanwhile she receives a blow-by-blow account from day to day of the intrigues in cynical flirtation, and for heartless marriage, on the part of her elder charge Rosalie Murray, who aims at rich wedlock to a baronet while teasing both the parson and Harry Meltham, a younger son of the local hall.

Visiting one Nancy Brown, an elderly pauper of the village, who, as well as by physical disablement has been 'somewhat afflicted with religious melancholy' (Ch. 11), Agnes has learned of Mr. Weston's good offices as a comforting pastor in this household of hidden suffering. And indeed she finds that the new young curate, not specially winsome in his ways or of his person as he is, has done like offices in other poor homes, including material help:

'Just for all the world!' exclaimed his [a poor consumptive labourer's] wife; 'an about a three wik sin', when he seed how poor Jem shivered wi' cold, an' what pitiful fires we kept, he axed if wer stock of coals was nearly done. I telled him it was, an' we was ill set to get more: but you know, mum, I didn't think o' him helping us; but howsever, he sent us a sack o' coals next day; an' we've had good fires ever sin: an' a great blessing it is, this winter time. But that's his way, Miss Grey: when he comes into a poor body's house a seein' sick folk, he like notices what they most stand i'need on; an' if he thinks they can't readily get it therseln, he never says nowt about it, but just gets it for 'em. An' it isn't everybody 'at 'ud do that, 'at has as little as he has: for you know, mum, he's now't at all to live on but what he gets fra' th' rector, an' that's little enough, they say.'

It comes as all the harder to bear for the plain governess (as she deems herself) when Rosalie Murray with her very real beauty and charm exercises the idle prenuptial time of her espousal to Sir Thomas Ashby in attempting to engage the curate's affections as well; since by then Agnes has thoroughly fallen in love with Mr. Weston and highly esteems his quiet virtue, strength of character, courage and independence of spirit.

This last quality appears uppermost, for all that Weston has occasionally taken the opportunity of walking with, talking to Miss Grey and plucking flowers for her, when he bears very calmly the news of her departure from Horton following the death of her father back at home and the resolution there taken by mother and daughter to hire and conduct a ladies' seminary in a coastal resort at the other side of the country. (Her sister Mary is by now married to a poor person of her own.)

As the weeks pass with no further word coming from him, Agnes abandons the faint hope raised by his last question ("'It is possible we may meet again," said he; "will it be of any consequence to you whether we do or not?"'); and she accepts the erewhile Rosalie Murray's invitation to stay at Ashby Park. There she observes the beginning of a life of married unhappiness which exhibits a new pathos in the bride's fate, even as or though that young woman herself is bored with her infant child.

Back at the watering-place which is now scene of both home and work to her, Agnes goes one summer morning early for 'a solitary ramble on the sands while half the world was in bed'. Here she encounters Weston again and it turns out he 'never could discover' her address, that he has lately been installed in a living only two miles distant. He visits her and her mother from now on regularly, and one evening taking her for a walk towards a cliff with a magnificent sea-view, he proposes.

With their marriage and a restrospective summary of their happiness over subsequent years, as co-workers in the church and as parents of three children no less than as partners, the tale concludes.

Stated like that the story is bald and bare to the point of banality; and indeed the anticlimactic mood or effect of its closing phase is something which deserves attention. But two things give the whole a solidity and value quite out of the run-of-the-mill. First, the substantiality of its heroine's nature, which is mediated to us by the quality of her language as narrator. And second, deriving from this, the amount of ground the book covers in its brief compass.

Ars est celare artem. A wholly perspicuous literary style is one of the highest attainments, whether conscious or 'given', of a writer. To create a complete picture of a living world 'out there' in front of your readers by linguistic means of which they are unaware or rendered unobservant—well, the power to do that inheres only in a few classics, let alone lesser works. Some great authors are justly valued for the idiosyncrasy of their style: a chief value in reading them is contact with the highly individual voice which their pages offer—say those of Sir Thomas Browne or Jeremy Taylor, Marcel Proust or the later Henry James. But the other, the 'quiet thing', is much more difficult of achievement.

Anne Brontë's narrative manner operates like a transparent pane of glass. We stare straight through it at the subjects under consideration.

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge. I sometimes think that it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself. Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture; and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend.

Thus the very opening of the novel.

This is not hemming and hawing, a proemial warmingup which, for all the good it does, could just as well be cut. We need to be supplied with a motive for what follows—for why is Agnes Grey telling her story? Yet we don't want a prologomenon which testifies to nothing so much as its author's self-importance with either blatant arrogance or coy pseudo-apology; and neither type of effusion is here traceable.

The narrative is confessedly offered as having a didactic drift and potential moralistic value, but in a direct quiet manner which is self-conscious in all the right ways and none of the wrong ones. To this the absence of any turgid lumbering in the style testifies; indeed negatives will characterize the best terms of our praise for this side of Anne Brontë's accomplishment, and just because it is so thoroughly accomplished. Those first four sentences are paced so as to move with a light various rhythm; but not to draw attention to themselves as so doing. Though their declared focus is the historian herself we have already become unconscious, by the end of that short paragraph, of a mind behind it manipulating a rhetoric.

As we drove along, my spirits revived again, and I turned, with pleasure, to the contemplation of the new life upon which I was entering. But though it was not far past the middle of September, the heavy clouds and strong north-easterly wind combined to render the day extremely cold and dreary; and the journey seemed a very long one, for, as Smith observed, the roads were 'very heavy'; and certainly, his horse was very heavy too: it crawled up the hills, and crept down them, and only condescended to shake its sides in a trot where the road was at a dead level or a very gentle slope, which was rarely the case in those rugged regions; so that it was nearly one o'clock before we reached the place of our destination. Yet, after all, when we entered the lofty iron gateway, when we drove softly up the smooth, well-rolled carriage road, with the green lawn on each side, studded with young trees, and approached the new but stately mansion of Wellwood, rising above its mushroom poplar-groves, my heart failed me, and I wished it were a mile or two farther off. For the first time in my life, I must stand alone: there was no retreating now. I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants. But how was it to be done? True, I was near nineteen; but, thanks to my retired life and the protecting care of my mother and sister, I well knew that many a girl of fifteen, or under, was gifted with a more womanly address, and greater ease and self-possession, than I was. Yet, if Mrs. Bloomfield were a kind, motherly woman, I might do very well, after all; and the children, of course, I should soon be at ease with them—and Mr. Bloomfield, I hoped, I should have but little to do with. (The opening of Ch. 2)

The balance here of narrative, description, commentary and self-revelation is very finely judged. We move without effort from the young appointee's inward musings to the exterior scene, first in its totality and then particulars—as her new place of work swings into view; then back again to the interior ponderings which have now (at the crisis of the journey as it were) become self-examination. Look how different the devices are which make actual to us the horse's gait, the pace of the journey, on the one hand, and on the other the effect of the whole new Wellwood topography upon its present recruit's eye and spirit. 'Condescended to shake its sides in a trot' is a lovely mimesis, full of close observation and gentle irony where the paratactic sentence with a very simple structure of clauses also conveys the laboured progress the travellers enjoy. Which is immediately followed by the rather breathless rhythm of the prose at the entrance to the grounds of Agnes's new abode:

(1) Yet, (after all) …
(2) when we entered …
(2a) when we drove …
(2a/i) with the green lawn …
(2a/iA) studded with young trees,
(3) and approached
(3a) rising above …

The dependency of these numerous clauses one upon another, the accumulation of them before the wave of the sentence breaks at 'my heart failed me' (its main verb), well conveys the rising apprehension, even to panic, of the new arrival.

We move at once into quick erlebte Rede:

For the first time in my life, I must stand alone: there was no retreating now. I must enter that house, and introduce myself among its strange inhabitants. But how was it to be done?

At the remove of only one tense this is her self-address of the actual historical moment; provoking in its turn a reflection on her general situation, her identity as a social being altogether, in the more relaxed amplitude of which we are given two points of view: the young woman's, little more than a girl, to whom all this happened at the original time, and that of the more experienced judicious narrator of after years who is telling her tale. ('True, I was near nineteen, etc …')

This very fluency of representational competence all but matches Dickens's art on like occasions in his first-person-told Bildungsromane, David Copperfield and Great Expectations; so that there seeps into our subconscious the conviction that a narrator, who has speech and there-fore life itself so much under her hand and is such a true reflector of the world, possesses in herself a human value which makes important the novel's trajectory of its old theme, innocence passing through experience. The duality of vision—the older Agnes mediates to us the experiences of her younger self—is in the main handled with secure success. There are, at least for me, only a couple of instances where uncertainty obtrudes. Is there a cringing kittenishness in the heroine's speech and attitude during the second half of Chapter 1 ? Is it that, recording the same, the novelist is using the quietly ironic eye she deploys upon other human weakness in her pages? Or is it simply truthful psychological portraiture; is this exactly how her heroine would speak and move, in consequence of a life spent hitherto in greatly sheltered innocence? We may be the more wary of censuring this first of such 'lapses', if that is what they be, given the truly virile range and variety of tone—the moral insight and control—in the paragraphs preceding it.

Likewise with a certain moment in Chapter 11:

One bright day in the last week of February, I was walking in the park, enjoying the threefold luxury of solitude, a book, and pleasant weather; for Miss Matilda had set out on her daily ride, and Miss Murray was gone in the carriage with her mamma to pay some morning calls. But it struck me that I ought to leave these selfish pleasures, and the park with its glorious canopy of bright blue sky, the west wind sounding through its yet leafless branches, the snow-wreaths still lingering in its hollows, but melting fast beneath the sun, and the graceful deer browsing on its moist herbage already assuming the freshness and verdure of spring—and go to the cottage of one Nancy Brown, a widow, whose son was at work all day in the fields, and who was afflicted with an inflammation in the eyes… .

The governess here strikes me as being somewhat—and the least bit disagreeably—'pi'. Such pleasures as appreciating Nature's glories are not 'selfish' but of themselves wholesome; at least, in a life not given up to indulgence and sloth, which anyway has few enjoyments or releases in it. There is arguably a kind of embarrassment on the narrator's part herself communicated to us in the way the sentence that conveys the new resolution to visit the cottager is worked up with a lengthy subordination of clauses, to end so (as it were) consciously in bathos (indicated no less with the hyphenation which introduces the closing cadences). Perhaps this is again simple psychological fidelity on Anne Brontë's part: at a time when her personality is under assault from various angles, Agnes Grey is attempting to shore it up and find refuge in deliberate self-conscious rectitude. Her problem at Horton Lodge is that everything there constitutes a continual raid on her self-esteem. We may be offered here, archly from the narrator's view, a glimpse of her method for compensation. But we are not sure. The tale as a whole is not told in a mode, like Jane Austen's, which alerts us all the time to the smallest nuances of tone as likely to be critical of the heroine's motivations, in however fugitive, slight and complex a fashion.

Complex but assured in its disposition of tones is the episode of the primroses, the symbolic moment in which Edward Weston indicates his concern for Miss Grey and even a particular interest in her.

Whether I walked with the young ladies or rode with their parents [to church of a Sunday], depended upon their own capricious will: if they chose to 'take' me, I went; if, for reasons best known to themselves, they chose to go alone, I took my seat in the carriage. I liked walking better, but a sense of reluctance to obtrude my presence on any one who did not desire it, always kept me passive on these and similar occasions; and I never inquired into the causes of their varying whims. Indeed, this was the best policy—for to submit and oblige was the governess's part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils. But when I did walk, the first half of the journey was generally a great nuisance to me. As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me, or across; and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy—as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so. It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for, in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were—though her young ladies might choose to have her with them, and even condescend to converse with her when no better company were at hand. Thus—I am almost ashamed to confess it—but indeed I gave myself no little trouble in my endeavours (if I did keep up with them) to appear perfectly unconscious or regardless of their presence, as if I were wholly absorbed in my own reflections, or the contemplation of surrounding objects; or, if I lingered behind, it was some bird or insect, some tree or flower, that attracted my attention, and having duly examined that, I would pursue my walk alone, at a leisurely pace, until my pupils had bidden adieu to their companions, and turned off into the quiet, private road.

One such occasion I particularly well remember: it was a lovely afternoon about the close of March; Mr. Green and his sisters had sent their carriage back empty, in order to enjoy the bright sunshine and balmy air in a sociable walk home along with their visitors, Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody else (a couple of military fops), and the Misses Murray, who, of course, contrived to join them. Such a party was highly agreeable to Rosalie; but not finding it equally suitable to my taste, I presently fell back, and began to botanise and entomologise along the green banks and budding hedges, till the company was considerably in advance of me, and I could hear the sweet song of the happy lark; then my spirit of misanthropy began to melt away beneath the soft, pure air and genial sunshine: but sad thoughts of early childhood, and yearnings for departed joys, or for a brighter future lot, arose instead. As my eyes wandered over the steep banks covered with young grass and green-leaved plants, and surmounted by budding hedges, I longed intensely for some familiar flower that might recall the woody dales or green hillsides of home: the brown moorlands, of course, were out of the question. Such a discovery would make my eyes gush out with water, no doubt; but that was one of my greatest enjoyments now. At length I descried, high up between the twisted roots of an oak, three lovely primroses, peeping so sweetly from their hiding-place that the tears already started at the sight; but they grew so high above me that I tried in vain to gather one or two, to dream over and to carry with me: I could not reach them unless I climbed the bank, which I was deterred from doing by hearing a footstep at that moment behind me, and was, therefore, about to turn away, when I was startled by the words, 'Allow me to gather them for you, Miss Grey,' spoken in the grave low tones of a well-known voice. Immediately the flowers were gathered, and in my hand. It was Mr. Weston, of course—who else would trouble himself to do so much for me? (Ch. 13)

We are shown several of the concomitants when a human being is treated as a convenience, not as a full independent entity with a valued life. As her companions look through or talk over her, Agnes has no socially recognized means of reacting which repudiates her loss of status and yet which does not itself denigrate her. Even feeling resentment is demeaning, because it acknowledges a hurt and that means living at the standards and level of this third-rate company itself. Yet not to feel it, nor to attempt showing it in any way, would seem a loss of caste as a human identity; perhaps cowardly also, possibly too quietist in attitude.

It is a poisoning air Agnes Grey breathes at Horton, bringing decay into all aspects of her own nature, which cannot wholly be separated off (this is Anne Brontë's point) as something intrinsically distinct from her environment and its morality. It may well put us in mind of Fanny Price's dilemma at Mansfield Park, the predicament that is her entire role there—or of any good Austen character faced with delinquency in a constricted unalterable and inescapable social group. She is imprisoned and the impossibility of dealing wholly healthfully with the pressures upon her is illustrated for us in several features of this 'sequence'.

First of all there is the backbiting cattiness that mars her account of her young charges' visiting swains: 'Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody else (a couple of military fops)'. This governess has a score of big just grievances against the Misses Murray, but we see resentment turning to general misanthropy in parlance so dismissive of those identities. And she who was once like a saint from Olympus in comparison with the mentality of her pupils begins, oppressed by their injustice, to sound like a cantankerous gossip of no elevated mind at all: 'for, in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were—'.

That is not so very far off the internal chatter of Mrs. Petito, the lady's maid in Maria Edgeworth's The Absentee (published 1812, a novel which almost certainly Anne Brontë had read in her formative years):

'It will do very well, never mind,' repeated Petito, muttering to herself as she looked after the ladies whilst they ran downstairs, 'I can't abide to dress any young lady who says never mind, and it will do very well. That, and her never talking to one confidentially, or trusting one with the least bit of her secrets, is the thing I can't put up with from Miss Nigent; and Miss Broadhurst holding the pins to me, as much as to say, do your business, Petito, and don't talk. Now, that's so impertinent, as if one wasn't the same flesh and blood, and had not as good a right to talk of everything, and hear of everything, as themselves. And Mrs. Broadhurst, too, cabinet councilling with my lady, and pursing up her city mouth, when I come in, and turning off the discourse to snuff, forsooth, as if I was an ignoramus, to think they closeted themselves to talk of snuff. Now, I think a lady of quality's woman has as good a right to be trusted with her lady's secrets as with her jewels; and if my Lady Clonbrony was a real lady of quality, she'd know that, and consider the one as much my paraphernalia as the other. So I shall tell my lady tonight, as I always do when she vexes me, that I never lived in an Irish family before, and don't know the ways of it. Then she'll tell me she was born in Hoxfordshire; then I shall say, with my saucy look, "Oh, was you, my lady? I always forget that you was an Englishwoman." Then maybe she'll say "Forget! you forget yourself strangely, Petito." Then I shall say, with a great deal of dignity, "If your ladyship thinks so, my lady, I'd better go." And I'd desire no better than that she would take me at my word, for my Lady Dashfort's is a much better place, I'm told, and she's dying to have me, I know.'

Mrs. Petito is much more amusing and less justified in her situation than Agnes Grey in hers, yet a similar note is discernible in the musings of the latter heroine upon her wrongs, a kind of bleat-bleat-bleat of, itself, no very elevated mind.

In Reflections on the Psalms C. S. Lewis referred to what is centrally in question here:

It seemed to me that, seeing in them [the cursings in the Psalms] hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being. The word natural is here important. This result can be obliterated by grace, suppressed by prudence or social convention, and (which is dangerous) wholly disguised by selfdecseption. But just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire—though damp or the intervention of some more sensible person may prevent it—so the natural result of cheating a man, or 'keeping him down' or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the Psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages. He may succeed in resisting the temptation; or he may not. If he fails, if he dies spiritually because of his hatred for me, how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand? For in addition to the original injury I have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him. I was the tempter.'1

Agnes Grey is not utterly corrupted by her experiences first at Wellwood and then Horton; but we are shown they do set fair to wreck her life. In a girl who started out guileless, ingenuous and open-minded, they have induced a sense of human incompetence and insufficiency that all but precludes marriage for her.

The author may here be writing very much from the heart. Of the three surviving Brontë sisters the various contemporary testimony has concurred with the view that Anne was the pretty one; she was personable and appealing as Charlotte, all self-consciously, was not. But if you are convinced you are unattractive—and in ways not only bodily—if you deem yourself unnoticeable and unmarriageable, unmarried is how you will tend to stay. It is really the function not of a look in a mirror which reveals actual deformity and repulsiveness: rather, a social and psychological disablement. And it is self-fulfilling. All compliment, all awakening interest in another party will appear mere vapour to you, will receive no appropriate response; indeed it will be repressed, stillborn, even in its very conception (within other people's awareness of you) by your habitual deportment, and paralysing self-estimate.

We the readers can see that Edward Weston is doing something not certainly but potentially 'speaking', in plucking those flowers for Miss Grey, but the latent significance of that gesture (not yet articulate for either of them, no doubt) the object of his attention misses: and the full text of her self-denigration we get in Chapter 17, concluding with this:

They that have beauty, let them be thankful for it, and make a good use of it, like any other talent; they that have it not, let them console themselves, and do the best they can without it: certainly, though liable to be over-estimated, it is a gift of God, and not to be despised. Many will feel this who have felt that they could love, and whose hearts tell them that they are worthy to be loved again; while yet they are debarred by the lack of this or some such seeming trifle, from giving and receiving that happiness they seem almost made to feel and to impart.

The primroses episode is as subtly handled as it needs to be. We should not respect Agnes if she were the sort of woman who saw flirtation in every male smile and a marriage proposal round every corner: that itself would betoken psychological disablement of a less attractive kind. And indeed the little scene is variously interpretable. Weston may simply help her pick her flowers out of politeness, or speak with her motivated by charity towards someone he recognizes as humanly very cut off and lonely; any sort of amorous implication is not—and should not be—explicit between them. For such a thing to be raised to the level of consciousness at all in either breast would signalize a crudity of response each to the other which would make them lesser people than they are.

What Anne Brontë is delineating with beautiful delicacy is one of those moments when someone may or may not be feeling his/her way toward you (in the sense of a more special relationship than good neighbourliness) and with a feeling the character of which they themselves have by no means analytically grasped; which the wellintegrated person, when mutually disposed, will accept—i.e. leave—at that, to ride upon the air with its own vibration.

Locked by the behaviour of her successive households of employment, however, into a steep fall of self-confidence, Agnes Grey responds to Edward Weston's every word and gesture in a manner that would choke off interest in all but the most tenacious of suitors. On her side she keeps hoping for his attachment but has lost, because she has been discouraged from ever gaining, the social aplomb (i.e. through self-confidence) to ripen another's attention into regard and regard into courtship—which entails permitting, not hastening nor retarding, a process of self-confidence in the other party. All this is implicit in the inadequacy of her account of the business: 'It was Mr. Weston, of course—who else would trouble himself to do so much for me?'

Most of the time she is gauche in his company, we see, and speaks so much at cross-purposes as even to fail of giving her admirer knowledge of her new address in the coastal town where she and her mother are to set up their school when she leaves Horton.

All this is the more satisfactorily handled, in an artistic point of view, for not being explicit between author and reader—throughout. It is quietly intimated to us, but totally adumbrated, how this young couple come near to missing their best fulfilment in life on account of the sheer quantity of discouragement which, unawares, the heroine places in the hero's track: a misdirection itself born of her discouragement. And that that is to be laid at the door of the people with whom she has worked is illustrated most flagrantly when the Murray girls keep their instructress indoors and, in their meetings with Weston, allege she stays there by choice:

'And he asked after you again,' said Matilda, in spite of her sister's silent but imperative intimation that she should hold her tongue. 'He wondered why you were never with us, and thought you must have delicate health, as you came out so seldom.'

'He didn't, Matilda—what nonsense you're talking!'

'Oh, Rosalie, what a lie! He did, you know; and you said—Don't, Rosalie—hang it!—I won't be pinched so! And, Miss Grey, Rosalie told him you were quite well, but you were always so buried in your books that you had no pleasure in anything else!' (Ch. 17)

Rosalie Murray, not being emotionally inhibited, obviously is aware of the curate's potential devotion to her teacher and, wanting to engross all worthy male compliments in the district to herself, feigns lack of interest on the part of the one toward the other. It is very cruel and wrong, and Agnes Grey's further substantiality as a portrait of life lies in anatomizing for us where such callousness derives.

In successive phases the two engagements its heroine takes on illustrate the origin and process of bad upbringing. The youngsters Agnes goes to are monsters of self-conceit and uncharitableness because they have been, and continue to be, parentally neglected. Basically their fathers and mothers do not care about them (as individuals); which is why they do not discipline them.

Chapter 3 demolishes all the modem cant about children being sacrosanct from bodily inflictions. Was there ever a gentler spirit than Anne Brontë's or her heroine's? Yet as Agnes is moved to protest:

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience. A few sound boxes in the ear, on such occasions, might have settled the matter easily enough: but as, in that case, he might make up some story to his mother, which she would be sure to believe, as she had such unshaken faith in his veracity—though I had already discovered it to be by no means unimpeachable—I determined to refrain from striking him, even in self-defence; and, in his most violent moods, my only resource was to throw him on his back, and hold his hands and feet till the frenzy was somewhat abated. To the difficulty of preventing him from doing what he ought not, was added that of forcing him to do what he ought. Often he would positively refuse to learn, or to repeat his lessons, or even to look at his book. Here, again, a good birch rod might have been serviceable; but, as my powers were so limited, I must make the best use of what I had.

For when all else fails the only thing which will speak to a morally deaf child is physical pain. Reasoning, civilized offered responses are unavailing because an alien language; and this in turn owing to the child's essential previous neglect.

Agnes Grey could not be more urgently relevant to our own society now: an age (as it seems to me) where perhaps most parents in all classes are in essentials just like the besotted Bloomfield and Murray adults. In too many cases nowadays folk appear to get married and have children, not for the love of those undertakings in themselves but as some sort of venture into additional human status, a further inward-looking self-endorsement. Mrs. Bloomfield is not interested in her offspring except as very tangential extensions of her own selfesteem and social aura: the hard work of a mother's love interests her not at all. That would involve effort, toil, care of a merely boring kind, because she is not in the first place bothered about having a relationship with her children. She wants them, but as items which can go in and out of some sort of cupboard in her life marked 'Progeny', and shut up there with a surrogate, the governess, who is officially employed to turn them into rational well-conducted creatures but who has hardly any real chance of doing so.

For the children, like all children, know when essentially they are minor tangentialities in their parents' values—always a ripe source of delinquency; and like all the cruelly indifferent, father and mother substitute a phoney humanitarianism in the place of true upbringing, as a sop to Cerberus and makeshift for the lapse on their part of the one thing needful, their attention.

Given that a majority of marriages and child-rearings are like this in the U.K. today (to judge by the theft endemic among 'middle' and 'upper'-class children, the pink and green hairstyles of the punk rockers—for what are these things but desperate cries for attention?) Agnes Grey can hardly be set aside as no tract for the times—our times.

The parents of 1983 are like the silly couples at Wellwood and Horton: they are wishful of anything for their children except to give them, consistently, out of a true devotion, their time, their interest, their selves: to bother with them. And then we wring our hands in adult colloquy about the rising crime wave of an affluent society and wonder how on earth atrocity can increase where social conditions are improved, historically, almost out of recognition. But children do not live by bread alone; they cope with life according as they are loved; which means being bothered with, related to, continually, by their progenitors and homemakers.

In the two youths who some months ago actually broke into the house of an old woman of 96 and raped her, we see the breakdown of even the most (one would have thought) fundamental taboos of creaturely life; and.without question they must have been subhuman to be able to do that. Yet what was even their act but a revenge upon the bad parenthood generally prevalent in our society? And a function of the rottenness of that state, that primary tie, in our day is the general refusal, codified by the intelligentsia into a dogma, to have real discipline around, including corporal punishment, whether at home or at school. For as the devil Screwtape points out to his minion Wormwood:

The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere 'understanding'. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.2

Exactly. In our epoch, when children's great predicament is that they are undisciplined (because ignored and unloved), the spectre which raises so very many teachers' and parents' hands in horror is the mere idea of corporal—indeed of any real—punishment.

Thus it is that both sets of parents can be so little aware of their offspring's true characters, can demand of Miss Grey that she turn them out as superior in behaviour to the hoydenism which at best, for instance, the girls display; and yet be affornted at any suggestion of bit or curb in a coherent process of charactertraining (viz. Mrs. Murray's reproaches in Ch. 18).

Hence it is that Tom Bloomfield can be so hideously cruel to animals, and his siblings with him (Chs. 2 and 5), in scenes which have provoked disbelief. Much that we pride our humanity upon are virtues and reciprocities acquired, by no means guaranteed as birthright for the species; and homo sapiens tends to love and care for living things only as he knows love and care experientially himself. When children are brought into the world by begetters who are not interested in them—when they are denied the primary experience of love so completely as that—how will they have 'natural' feelings towards plants, the animal kingdom or their own kind?

Anne Brontë, in Chapters 21 and 22, sends her heroine to stay with the young married Rosalie Murray within a year of her becoming a lady of the manor at Ashby Park, not simply to fill out her story, nor to exhibit supernatural piety in forgiveness and charitable feeling on the observant governess's part towards a former tormentor; but to trace into a new generation yet again the consequences of this sort of denial which was prevalent amongst the higher classes in her day and which—perhaps with so much relative prosperity materially—has now spread through our society as a whole.

What Agnes discovers in that brief cheerless visit is not merely, as expected, that Rosalie does not care for her husband, is already at enmity with his family and something of a prisoner in the round of her rural wedded condition—because there is so little real affection and respect on both sides of a marriage made from paltry motives. The new mother cannot even love her child, and has just the same disparaging dismissive feelings about the baby to whom she herself has given birth that were all she really inspired in her own parent:

'But I can't devote myself entirely to a child,' said she: 'it may die—which is not at all improbable.'

'But, with care, many a delicate infant has become a strong man or woman.'

'But it may grow so intolerably like its father that I shall hate it.'

'That is not likely; it is a little girl, and strongly resembles its mother.'

'No matter; I should like it better if it were a boy—only that its father will leave it no inheritance that he can possibly squander away. What pleasure can I have in seeing a girl grow up to eclipse me, and enjoy those pleasures that I am for ever debarred from? But supposing I could be so generous as to take delight in this, still it is only a child; and I can't centre all my hopes in a child: that is only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog. And as for all the wisdom and goodness you have been trying to instil into me—that is all very right and proper I dare say, and if I were some twenty years older, I might fructify by it: but people must enjoy themselves when they are young; and if others won't let them—why, they must hate them for it!'

Egotism in its turn will no doubt be the psychological portion of a child so raised; and that self-conceit disables others who are not even guilty of being blood-kindred is what the previous chapters of the novel have shown, with the assault on the governess's capacity for happiness made by her ordeal in both her situations of employment. Her experience of the outer world, after a sheltered childhood, proves to be of an arena where people look over or through her and withhold all sense of her having a human value; so she all but becomes unmarriageable. Philip Larkin has put it memorably:

Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.3

and Anne Brontë is here tracing the process in its origins.

Agnes Grey, then, is about the way all of us tend to mutilate one another's lives—radically—in affording our fellow creatures less than full respect as equal beings having an independent importance like to our own: which is as much as to say, the manner to some degree most of us treat each other most of the time.

The novel is also about coping, however; about making something workable out of the human mess. Its heroine achieves this in virtue of her moral education in a loving environment, her training and religious piety from a background of fine sensibility—and the randomness of life itself.

She starts with supplemental advantages that may by no means be underived. Her imagination and the sly humour which animates a considerable portion of her narrative themselves constitute a resilience under the pressures all around. Take the following, for example, concerning the senior Mrs. Bloomfield:

Hitherto, though I saw the old lady had her defects (of which one was a proneness to proclaim her perfections), I had always been wishful to excuse them, and to give her credit for all the virtues she professed, and even imagine others yet untold. (Ch. 4)

It is the subtlety of the final nuance there which invigorates—as it is indeed the function of a vigour in the writer. That sentence is a straightforward, obvious enough piece of satire until its last clause briefly makes us skid. There the hyperbole of feeling is shown in the context to have several constituents. The young woman is desperately lonely and clutching at straws:

Kindness, which had been the food of my life through so many years, had lately been so entirely denied me, that I welcomed with grateful joy the slightest semblance of it.

She is also setting up as a judicious judge, self-consciously slightly witty, though we cannot forget she is only 19. The tone is of a self-possession and social ease which are not really secure, and yet which is the honest property of a genuinely discriminative mind.

It is the ability to transmit trace-elements of this sort of light weight yet significance which made me before think of Jane Austen and Professor George Whalley's words on that novelist's 'delight in effortless virtuosity, in catching by an impossible fraction of a hair's-breadth the savour of a nuance of implication'.4

This is not the leading hallmark of Agnes Grey's mind and rhetoric; Anne Brontë's themes are different. Yet the capacity to mock the old lady, mock herself and make several serious points with the necessary fugitiveness that characteristically we find here, itself represents a human value which is also a defence—however much that is to be seen as more securely acquired in retrospect than at the time.

Or we can turn to Chapter 19. Here a less qualified kind of irony operates which signifies a very amiable robustness in the moral nature of the bereaved family that the surviving Grey womenfolk have now become:

'Your grandpapa has been so kind as to write to me. He says he has no doubt I have long repented of my "unfortunate marriage," and if I will only acknowledge this, and confess I was wrong in neglecting his advice, and that I have justly suffered for it, he will make a lady of me once again—if that be possible after my long degradation—and remember my girls in his will.'

But Mrs. Grey intends to answer with defiance and specifies the various heads of her reasoning why, concluding

'Will this do, children?—or shall I say we are all very sorry for what has happened during the last thirty years, and my daughters wish they had never been born; but since they have had that misfortune, they will be thankful for any trifle their grandpapa will be kind enough to bestow?'

Of course, we both applauded our mother's resolution; Mary cleared away the breakfast things; I brought the desk; the letter was quickly written and despatched; and, from that day, we heard no more of our grandfather, till we saw his death announced in the newspaper a considerable time after—all his worldly possessions, of course, being left to our wealthy, unknown cousins.

A word en passant here. Does not Agnes Grey very considerably more than any other Brontë novel stick to the sort of realism which Charlotte Brontë sought to infuse into the nineteenth century's fiction at the commencement of her public foray?5

Finally, in proof of our heroine's vitality as a centre of discriminations we have her ear for dialogue. Anyone who can reproduce as faithfully as she does very different styles of speech, sometimes in proximity together, and even the variations of an individual's modes of discourse, has by definition an extrovert awareness of others and life's variety which itself confers hope upon her fate as well as facilitating an active conscience.

'I have another place to go to,' said he, 'and I see' (glancing at the book on the table) 'some one else has been reading to you.'

'Yes, sir; Miss Grey has been as kind as to read me a chapter; an' now she's helping me with a shirt for our Bill but I'm feared she'll be cold there. Won't you come to th'fire, miss?' …

'Miss Grey,' said he half-jestingly, as if he felt it necessary to change the present subject, whether he had anything particular to say or not, 'I wish you would make my peace with the squire, when you see him. He was by when I rescued Nancy's cat, and did not quite approve of the deed. I told him I thought he might better spare all his rabbits than she her cat, for which audacious assertion he treated me to some rather ungentlemanly language; and I fear I retorted a trifle too warmly.'

'Oh, lawful sir! I hope you didn't fall out wi' th' maister for sake o' my cat! he cannot bide answering again—can th' maister.'

'Oh, it's no matter, Nancy: I don't care about it, really; I said nothing very uncivil; and I suppose Mr. Murray is accustomed to use rather strong language when he's heated.' (Ch. 12)

The slight orotund pomposity of language, the relatively elaborate grammatical organization in the longest sentence there quoted contrasts with the other remarks Mr. Weston makes to his two parishioners. He is embarrassed both at the context and content of what he finds to say at that juncture and his diction subtly alters, accordingly.

The use and aid of such equipment for an ethical being has already been shown in the way Agnes reports her tearful self-pity and maudlin self-contempt during the primroses episode: 'Such a discovery would make my eyes gush out with water, no doubt; but that was one of my greatest enjoyments now.' The self-indulgence is there contained and disciplined by a conscience, we realize, habituated to exercise and examination.

Starch of a more nutritive kind is supplied by her religion. Ultimately she has not been brought up to expect, i.e. demand, of this world a nice time. (Osip Mandelstam's words to his wife, before dying for his brave outspokenness, put the matter at its most bleakly direct: 'Why do you think you ought to be happy?') Indeed the more I study Anne Brontë's work the more it seems to me she is first and foremost a Christian writer; and this creates problems in connection with a late-twentieth-century readership at least analogous to the question of the validity, for our society now, of Europe's medieval poetry, shot through as most of that is with a religious interpretation of existence. The issue is so large I choose to try and take the bull by the horns in a separate section later. Suffice it to say here it is significant that Anne Brontë, as was remarked before, accomplishes the most 'realistic' story of any fiction the Haworth sisters chose to publish. Agnes Grey has no unanswered questions like the method of Heathcliff's making his fortune before he returns to Wuthering Heights, or Jane Eyre with its magnificent psychology yet preposterous plot.

It rides beautifully between the Scylla and Charybdis of any social realist in the form. On the one side, it does not yield to softness: in E. M. Forster's words, 'the temptation's overwhelming to grant to one's creations a happiness actual life does not supply.'6 On the other hand, it does not flog its characters with a grim Hardyesque determinism of misery, something no less fantastic, at least in its artistic effect. The Brontës' actual life-history reads fully as unfortunate as Jude the Obscure's, but were it hawked in a fiction we should probably withhold credence. The trouble with Hardy for me is that, like real life sometimes (as Forster has elsewhere also remarked), he 'gets things wrong',7 and the awful trajectories of his heroes' courses all but overwhelm the other, wonderful features of his prose writing because they create the impression of an universe deliberately malign without 'arguing the case', imaginatively speaking, for such a view; sufficiently at least to carry conviction during the space of the reading. 'Yet why are these people so remarkably stupid and dogged by such unusual quantities of stupendous ill-luck?' is my repeated moan as I trace the agonies of Jude and his fellow-sufferers. 'If "It", as Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson called the First Cause, were so implacably cruel, surely the first amoeba would never have managed to crawl out of the slime.'

I think the complaint has little to do with the portion of tragedies in one's own life. Different authors can penetrate us with the sense, at least for the nonce, that 'not to be born is best' or, in C. S. Lewis's words immediately after the death of his wife, trying out the voice of advocatus diaboli 'Fate (or whatever it is) delights to produce a great capacity and then frustrate it. Beethoven went deaf. By our standards a mean joke; the monkey trick of a spiteful imbecile.'8 But they do so, these other writers, by means more solidly based and inwardly structured.

Agnes Grey suffers enough and various afflictions to become representative of ordinary humanity—equally in the lower-to-middle middle classes of her day, and at large. Her home life is happy at first, but her father loses his money and by the standards of their caste their means become almost desperately straitened; and the psychological as well as material costs of this debacle are registered. She sets out to earn her own living and add something to the common funds besides, by teaching; and finds the task not only unpleasant but degrading—not once but twice over. Her sister marries, modestly. Her mother becomes a widow, and when they set up a school together they have to work hard to make ends meet with no provision in view should either of them be stricken ill, except that of falling hard upon her brother-in-law and his thin means. Agnes loves, but her affection seems unrequited and she has to reconcile herself to the nearly certain prospect of a future as a hapless old maid.

This constitutes a sufficient series of possibilities followed up by frustrations. More would look like authorial obtuseness. We should say in that case, 'Well if life is really tougher still than this—more painful, of its own intrinsic logic, inevitably—it is hardly worth caring about in the first place. With the words of Ernest Hemingway's heroine at the end of A Farewell to Arms, "It's just a dirty trick" (Ch. 41), our most appropriate response would be to turn our faces thankfully to the wall whenever we could and like her expire with an expression of contempt upon them.' On the other hand, if Agnes Grey's career were pleasanter we should be tempted to retort, 'Very nice, but where have all the bereavements and economic hardships gone, the frustrations intellectual and emotional? There seem to be plenty more of such things in the world outside than between the covers of this book. It's just a novelette of female wish-fulfilment.'

In short, it appears to me Anne Brontë pitches the matter just right. The duplication of unsatisfactory households in which her heroine works makes a social criticism even as it builds the picture of a whole social world. The upper classes in her time have too much power, too much freedom to be bad. That they use these liberties ill is thoroughly exemplified, not only by the characters of the Bloomfields and the Murrays and their on the whole repulsive children, but by the local squirearchies in each case surrounding them and their various relations and friends.

This is the book's Tyranny-theme in its political aspect: that in such a society as early Victorian Britain, certain individuals can disregard too many aspects of the Golden Rule just because they have lots of money. It is all-significant that more than one type of gentry abuses equally their freedoms of cash and time: Mr. Bloomfield the self-made tradesman, Mr. Murray of the 'genuine thoroughbred gentry' (Ch. 6) and the lower aristocracy with whom he associates. The implication of this is evident for us, though never worked out or otherwise than implicit in the text: the need so to restructure society's economics that one group does not exist in a state of nearly complete possession and others in almost total dependence. And indeed upon the same theme the British nation has exercised itself more impressively than most other communities, historically considered, during the past century and a half.

Terry Eagleton, writing from a Marxist point of view, offers generous appreciation of certain features of Anne Brontë in general and the present work in particular. E.g.,

Whereas Lucy Snowe's chiding of Polly Home and Ginevra Fanshawe betrays less reputable motives than mere moral disinterestedness, Agnes Grey admonishes her obnoxious charges with a remarkable freedom from personal malice—the more remarkable because we have in this work a more direct and detailed account of the social violence to which the governess is subjected than anything we find elsewhere in the Brontës.9

Noting that 'Her fraught relation to her pupils … provides a painfully lucid image of "genteel" poverty's unwilling alliance with morally irresponsible wealth',10 he accurately indicates why 'Agnes's responses are cooler, more equable than those we find in a Charlotte protagonist's truck with the gentry'; it is because here the heroine's 'own amour-propre is not fundamentally at stake'.

He declares also that she and the book avoid smugness. He confesses its lucidity:

Its final line—'And now I think I have said sufficient'neatly captures the laconic modesty of the whole, the sense of a work attractively reserved in feeling without any loss of candid revelation."11

Yet ultimately, he argues, 'the orthodox critical judgement that Anne Brontë's work is slighter than her sisters' is just',12 because there is only 'one brief moment in Agnes Grey when Agnes, dispirited by her fruitless efforts to instil moral principle into the Murrays' spoilt brats, wonders whether her own standards of rectitude might not be insidiously eroded by daily contact with such dissoluteness."'13 Always in her work there is a 'partial unhinging of the "moral" from a nurturing social context.'14

But such a complaint is more about the novel's subject-matter than its treatment thereof. For the predicament, how to be a relatively responsible moral agent and cope with inhabiting a delinquent social world, when life itself also offers plenty of frustrations, is one in which every decent reader of the book must be interested. Anne Brontë does not (pace Dr. Eagleton) oppose the 'social' and the 'moral': that primroses episode alone, to which I keep referring simply as a type of the whole, showed us the governess's feelings on being not recognized by society as a full human entity not only being analysed by her; they were presented (by the author which notionally she has become) as more complex, fraught and vulnerable—the tone does this, the juxtaposition of events in the passage quoted—than she herself recognized at the time. She is more pained and compromised than she admits. That is what we are made and given to see, exemplified as it is by the way a certain literariness will rub shoulders uneasily with more direct colloquial narrative: 'I presently fell back, and began to botanise and entomologise … '. We realize that she does not entirely know any longer how to manage her self-awareness while yet being conscious that it is perilously near to sentimental self-pity.

Her religious convictions and training preserve her however, we can see, from progressive mere self-endorsement and ultimately cranky isolation. They save her from a collapse of the self, in giving an exterior standard—the Gospels' hopes and commands—by which to keep measuring her conduct and attitudes. Faced with the lapse, pretty well, of her hope of marriage and doomed, as it appears, to a future of worthiness but boredom, she articulates this:

Should I shrink from the work that God had set before me, because it was not fitted to my taste? Did not He know best what I should do, and where I ought to labour? and should I long to quit His service before I had finished my task, and expect to enter His rest without having laboured to earn it? (Ch. 21)

Nor is it that she strikes us, on such occasions, as some haloed goody-goody, in her commitment to the 'strait gate and narrow way': she can show the refreshing fierceness of the truly, likeably virtuous from time to time, when appropriately provoked. Writing of Mr. Robson's encouragement of his nephew Tom Bloomfield's 'propensity to persecute the lower creation, both by precept and example', we have the following:

As he frequently came to course or shoot over his brother-in-law's grounds, he would bring his favourite dogs with him; and he treated them so brutally that, poor as I was, I would have given a sovereign any day to see one of them bite him, provided the animal could have done it with impunity. (Ch. 5)

Significantly it is when she has resigned herself, actively, to her lot—a worthy one as an instructress in the seminary of her own making but a fate without joy—that the break comes. Agnes Grey illustrates thus the Christian gloss upon Elizabeth Bowen's great dictum, 'We are constructed for full living. Occasion rarely offers'; and E. M. Forster's apt comment in A Passage to India, 'Adventures do occur, but not punctually.'

'Unless the grain dies …' Only when the heart has resigned its earthly hopes (especially its very dearest ones) in favour of obedience to its supreme marriage-bond, its role as Bride of the Lamb, can God afford to make this-worldly happiness available to those He loves as children who can be saved. Until then, awarding us the felicities we ache, the reliefs we gasp for, as the central fulfilments in our lives, He is just encouraging us to dance off down a mirage-track to ultimate death beside the transitory water-holes of our own imaging.

After plenty of happy upbringing, followed by oppression and suppression, Agnes has to lose her last great hope this side of the grave—beyond that of doing her duty as a Christian—and she has to live on quite a while with that lost hope rendered seemingly permanent as lost; before its realization arrives after all.

When it does so, Prince Charming hardly sweeps her off in a glass coach at one bound, nor with brightly caparisoned chargers. Edward Weston's situation and character are perfect for the book's purposes. He is sturdy and real enough to be reassuring: no mere cardboard cut-out of a perfect cleric with extremely modest means. Yet he is intrinsically un-exciting enough to figure in the reader's lay-mind as not—like marriage to Mr. Darcy for Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—a brilliant upshot for the heroine's career, both socially and emotionally. After their re-encounter by happy chance (here Life's own helpful randomness comes in) on the sands of Agnes's new home town, it takes some time before he proposes marriage, some weeks indeed—and then the romance is very quiet. Winifred Gérin has censured the close of the novel as exposing interests uncombined, not unified, on the author's part:

Yet it was inevitable that the dual purpose of the book should emerge; that those portions which were derived from fact should be more vividly realised and that the purely fictitious incidents should be slurred over, as inappropriate, as it were, to the fuller treatment. Thus the happy ending to which, as fiction, Anne had not the heart to deny her heroine, is written in so low and subdued a key that it saddens rather than elates the reader. Judged from the standpoint of art this is a mistake; the story of Agnes Grey begun in such buoyant style, with so much wit and sparkle, should not modulate into a minor key and close in solemnity since, in spite of some tribulations, the heroine's happiness is assured.15

But that misses the various points of which the accomplishment is here achieved. (1) The book is about the business of reconciling oneself to possible modes of happiness, not extremely unlikely ones—as well as to actual species of suffering. Were the hero handsome, witty, rich and charming, we should ignore the whole as a day-dream: for how often could portionless young governesses, gauche of manner and no brilliant beauties withal, get proposals from such as they—then or now? (2) It helps solve the aesthetic problem for most novels with a happy ending—the suggestion, artistically constituted by the very procédé of the plot, that life has now stopped, albeit on a plateau of fulfilments. We cannot imagine Elizabeth and Darcy living through their first married quarrel or the death of a child; rightly—we do not want to and there would be no value in the exercise. It would be a 'How many children had Lady Macbeth?' sort of question. But here it is of the essence of the piece, our well knowing that trials face the couple of the concluding scene—several of these in his pastoral life and her parish-work at Horton we have beheld already. Life carries on at the close of Agnes Grey and it is the real life where 'il faut cultiver son jardin'. If the young pair do not attempt to penetrate the aristocracy nor hold themselves entirely aloof from it but keep fairly distant from certain classes' routines and blandishments with no sense of loss, it is in order to stay 'unspotted from the World' in the sense that we associate that term with 'the Flesh and the Devil'. This is no question of retreat or escapism, quite the reverse. We see two committed social workers taking up their task in the broad blaze of historical day and the middle of public highways at the end of Anne Brontë's first novel. Miss Grey's fate, far from being a sort of transcendent one, untied to the earth, like the brides' at the ends of most comedy, means happiness; but happiness in the world outside the covers of a human celebration, and amidst that world's problems.

What could be set down for a flaw is the book's failure to convey the lovers' feelings for each other, or at least its heroine's for its hero, from the inside in their full 'romantic' aspect. This is a manque writ larger in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In both works we know that the characters have powerful amorous inclinations towards each other: but as a Briton and an Australian are well aware that their respective countries exist on opposite shores of the globe without appreciating those terrains in their reality until they have paid a visit the one to the other. When not only Helen Graham's response to Arthur Huntingdon, in the early time of their acquaintance, is mediated to us sans its full alleged erotic colouring and necessary emotional intensity, but also Huntingdon's later for Annabella Lowborough and, here, Agnes Grey's for Edward Weston, we are likely to suspect that some sort of psychological inhibition was operative in this author—perhaps an excess of delicacy. But we must also appreciate that conveying passion is no facile undertaking, artistically considered. Henry James was surely a born novelist if ever there has been one, and his pages throb with the sexual interest woken by men and women in each other: The Awkward Age seems to me white hot, like poor Nanda Brookenham's face there, with the passion of her feeling for Vanderbank. But it is not till as late in his career as The Golden Bowl (1905) that James can make his characters convincingly embrace, and had he died at the same early age as Anne Brontë (he would have been 29 years and 4 months old in August 1872) what would he have left to show of his excellent craftsmanship, his true novelistic gift and inspiration? Well, one novel Watch and Ward (1869); nineteen tales, up to 'Guest's Confession'; and some substantial travel and critical writings—but no such masterwork as A Portrait of a Lady.

While this is a flaw in The Tenant and a serious one, we may even vindicate it in Agnes Grey, the unsubstantiated inner life of the lovers' feelings for each other; since throughout the whole, Weston is seen, necessarily for the novel's effect, ab exteriori (being registered through the anxious uncertain eyes of the governess), and the tale concludes with the relief of her emotions in his proposal, a rescue and fulfilment about which it would be tasteless in her to brag.

That their religious commitment has its own dangers Anne Brontë is also concerned to illustrate. In the case of old Nancy Brown (Ch. 11, 'The Cottagers') she shows the religious melancholy infused into nineteenth-century life in consequence of the Evangelical Movement and its reanimation of a living Church in her society. This elderly widow is harrowed by the very creed which ought to comfort her:

' … th' prayer-book only served to show me how wicked I was, that I could read such good words an' never be no better for it, and oftens feel it a sore labour an' a heavy task beside, instead of a blessing and a privilege as all good Christians does. It seemed like as all were barren an' dark to me. And then, them dreadful words, "Many shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able." They like as they fair dried up my sperrit.'

With this instance Anne Brontë is not only working out a major quarrel with herself—there is little evidence to contradict the view of both her sister Charlotte and her biographer that it was in battling against religious melancholy that most of her own brief life was spent—she is 'being fair' as a creative spirit and implying, with exemplary equity, how the very philosophy she commends to society carries, like any doctrine which is a reading of History and an ethos, its own pitfalls too:

' … I tried to do my duty as aforetime: but I like got no peace. An' I even took the sacrament; but I felt as though I were eating and drinking to my own damnation all th' time. So I went home, sorely troubled.'

As well as the moral strengthening and psychic power, for the individual and the community, deriving from Christian conviction, there will be casualties who need aid.

Aid may come in the form of direct sensible and perceptive pastoral counsel. Mr Weston the new curate points out that we love by practice; in acting out a pretence of the Saviour's commands, our habits become reality, the Beast behind the beautiful mask becomes a Beauty.

'But if you cannot feel positive affection for those who do not care for you, you can at least try to do to them as you would they should do unto you: you can endeavour to pity their failings and excuse their offences, and to do all the good you can to those about you. And if you accustom yourself to this, Nancy, the very effort itself will make you love them in some degree—to say nothing of the goodwill your kindness would beget in them, though they might have little else that is good about them… . '(Ch. 11)

Divine counsel will also be available, advice not made with hands or uttered by human voices—in the grandeur, the elevating loveliness of Nature. A kind of basso ostinato runs through this book as through all of Anne Brontë's work, a first-hand experience of Nature as restorative, invigorating, a spiritual sanctuary and very present help in trouble. Again and again the heroine is struck by some prospect or deliberately goes to feed upon some part of the physical environment which encompasses mere men, finding there new strength and fresh comfort.

And then, the unspeakable purity and freshness of the air! there was just enough heat to enhance the value of the breeze, and just enough wind to keep the whole sea in motion, to make the waves come bounding to the shore, foaming and sparkling, as if wild with glee. Nothing else was stirring—no living creature was visible besides myself. My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands;— nothing before had trampled them since last night's flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left it fair and even, except where the subsiding water had left behind it the traces of dimpled pools, and little running streams. (Ch. 24)

Hence the appositeness of her meeting Weston again, after thinking perpetually to have lost him, upon these sands of 'A-'. She has come to drink once more at the only fount where such perceptions and thirsts as (say) Wordsworth's could be slaked; and in doing so for its own sake has had everything else she cares for added unto her.

Which makes another point. Good Chance also exists. That too is part of God's Creation, the reality with which we humans have to come to terms. Weston may well be suspected of having accepted a living near 'A-' in the hope of one day running into his heart's best find. He has helped, if we will, give Luck a nudge, even a hearty one. But now he and his bride-to-be have been assisted by the randomness of things as well as hindered, in the past, by their cruelty: here it has expressed itself in his being offered such a living as 'F-', 'a village about two miles distant', in the first place; and in the second, their re-encountering as they do.

Nevertheless there is an aspect in which the story is consummated with a sense of anti-climax. Miss Gérin has the right idea by the wrong end. Similarly to Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, though with rather more individualized character, Agnes Grey's lover constitutes no thrilling human presence; and we wish wistfully that he did.

But then by what right should he? Like most of us, the governess herself, considered whether physically or morally, socially or intellectually, is not the catch of catches. Yet she has a passionate yearning heart and the instinctual wisdom to fix upon what it can elevate to absolute value by its very devotion. Thus much we deduce, I think, across the trajectory of her rhetoric. For as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once pointed out,16 it is the character of Love to make significant what is even of itself trivial. And Weston is far more than that.

It is questionable all the same whether Agnes could so elevate a man like Mr. Hatfield, Horton's worldly vicar, or some member of Rosalie Murray's set of squirearchical-aristocratic admirers, even if she were noticed by them. They lack a dimension of conscience and feeling necessary to give those responses which can make Love a prosperous horticulturist. Her marriage with the former curate however can become something great (we again intuit), though he is not the most exciting individual since Sir Philip Sidney. She has herself planted half the garden her devotion will raise in the soil of this man's worthiness, somewhat stolid as it is. But that won't make its fruits and blooms any less real or precious than they already promise to be.

All this shows as mattering the more in the context of a novel which has illustrated only too vividly through most of its course what people are like when morally untutored by either precept of suffering.

The subject-matter and style of this book are of the first importance—in their very quietness. In a sense Anne Brontë's relegation is the final proof of her success. Her compact but richly realized fable about what life is like and how to live works so totally, it is eclipsed by fierier rockets of illumination that throw a more fitful glare upon the scene. Agnes Grey is full of the way in which people have to make ends meet— financially, psychologically—in the real world; and Life's own creative play there as well.


1 Op. cit., Fontana edition (London, 1967), p. 26.

2The Screwtape Letters (London, 1942), pp. 128-29.

3High Windows (London, 1974), p. 30.

4 In Jane Austen 's Achievement, ed. Juliet McMaster (London, 1976), pp. 121-22.

5 'By the time she wrote [The Professor] her taste and judgment had revolted against the exaggerated idealisms of her early girlhood, and she went to the extreme of reality, closely depicting characters as they had shown themselves to her in actual life: if there they were strong even to coarseness—as was the case with some that she had met with in flesh-and-blood existence—she "wrote them down an ass;" if the scenery of such life as she saw was for the most part wild and grotesque, instead of pleasant or picturesque, she described it line for line. The grace of the one or two scenes and characters which are drawn rather from her own imagination than from absolute fact, stand out in exquisite relief from the deep shadows and wayward lines of others, which call to mind some of the portraits of Rembrandt.'—Mrs. Gaskell's Life (ed. Ward & Shorter), p. 313.

6 E. M. Forster, Maurice (London, 1971): quoted in P. N. Furbank's Introduction, letter to G. L. Dickinson of 13 December 1914.

7Abinger Harvest (pocket edn., London 1940), from 1932 review of Jane Austen's Letters, p. 158.

8A Grief Observed (London, 1961), section II, para. 1.

9 Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (London, 1975), p. 123.

10 Ibid., p. 124. The quote immediately following in my text is from this page also.

11 Ibid., p. 126.

12 Ibid., p. 134.

13 Ibid., p. 123.

14 Ibid., p. 132.

15 W. Gérin, Anne Brontë (London [1959]; rev. edn., 1976), p. 230.

16 At a religious meeting-and-discussion session in York University, circa 1978.

Priscilla H. Costello (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3049

SOURCE: "A New Reading of Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey," in Brontë Society Transactions, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1987, pp. 113-8.

[In the following essay, Costello recounts the plot of Agnes Grey and examines the novel as one that "criticizes the corruption of moral and ethical values" in Victorian society.]

Anne Brontë's first novel, Agnes Grey, published in 1847, is ordinarily either ignored by literary critics or treated summarily as a charming though not too serious endeavour. It is an apparently simple story of a parson's daughter who endures the trials of a governess, and eventually marries the young minister she loves. Underneath this simplicity, however, is not only a realistic and unmelodramatic account of the life of a governess, but also a study of Victorian values. Through a portrayal of five different families, Anne Brontë gives us a microcosm of Victorian society, with five class levels. Through her analysis of these families, she criticizes the corruption of moral and ethical values in a society that is becoming increasingly materialistic.

Brontë's heroine, Agnes Grey, follows a particular pattern of development: she moves from the security of her family through an increasing sense of alienation as governess to a resolution in her attachment to Mr Weston and the establishment of a family of her own. We meet her first at home, a parsonage in the north of England. The description of her family life is typical of that of the country parsonage. A close and loving family, they lead a fairly insular life. Although the Reverend Richard Grey, the minister of the village and moorland parish, "was deservedly respected by all who knew him',' they kept much to themselves. As Agnes writes:

Our only intercourse with the world consisted in a stately tea-party, now and then, with the principal farmers and tradespeople of the vicinity (just to avoid being stigmatised as too proud to consort with our neighbours), and an annual visit to our paternal grandfather's (p. 394).

Financial necessity, however, forces both daughters to earn a living: Mary, the elder, paints and sells her pictures; Agnes decides to go out as a governess. Despite the family's protests, voiced in Mary's plea, "What would you do in a house full of strangers?" (p. 399), Agnes leaves for a post in a wealthy tradesman's house. Her feelings upon leaving her home and village are movingly portrayed.

As the story follows Agnes through two different posts as governess, and then as a visitor in the home of one of her former charges, we see her growing alienation from real inclusion in family life. As a governess she of course occupies an ambiguous position, regarded as neither servant nor family member, so although living in a home with a family, Anne is an outsider, within it.

Naϊvely thinking that her first employer, Mrs Bloomfield, will be "a kind, motherly woman" (p. 403), she is met by the cold, distant and formal mistress of Wellwood House. At least here Agnes is greeted by her employer, who shows her to her room, gives her lunch, and introduces her to the children she will be in charge of. In her next post she does not meet Mrs Murray until the second day; when she first arrives, she is casually led to the schoolroom by the butler, and then up to her room with only tea and bread as her solitary meal. Here she feels even more lonely and desolate than at Wellwood House.

The Bloomfield children are little horrors, and Agnes is trapped in the impossible position characteristic of her post, being responsible for their education and behaviour, but forbidden to discipline them. She is, in fact, at the mercy of the children whom she had dreamed of tenderly guiding and nurturing when she was at home in the parsonage.

At Wellwood, Agnes is an integral part of the family's routine, if not the recipient of their affection and regard. The Bloomfield family and the governess eat their midday meal together. Agnes is constantly with the children, even sharing a bedroom with the little girl, Mary Ann, and various adults periodically visit the schoolroom. Yet she has the esteem of none: the children scorn and tease her, the adults disdainfully discuss her behind her back.

Dismissed from her post (ironically for not being sufficiently firm with the children), Agnes leaves Wellwood for the parsonage, thinking that what she has learned from this experience is "to love and value my home" (p. 431). At the personage, however, she realizes that the necessity of earning her own living is even greater because of her father's ill health and his anxiety for his daughters' futures.

At her second post at Horton Lodge, not only is her entrance or welcome into the Murray family less formal or planned, but here she is less frequently included in family routines. She has all her meals in the schoolroom with her pupils. She sees Mrs Murray only occasionally, and Mr Murray more rarely and then only if they accidentally meet in the hall, or in the grounds of the estate. Although she is supposed to teach all four children, the boys soon go away to school, while the girls spend little time over their studies, deciding on their daily activities without consulting their governess. Agnes' duties are therefore even less essential than at the Bloomfields, and she becomes little more than a companion or chaperone. Here, too, she is held in little esteem by parents, children and servants alike, although the elder girl, Rosalie, begins to like her as time goes on.

Agnes leaves Horton Lodge, not because she is dismissed, but because her home and family has broken up. Her sister Mary has married and her father has died, and now Agnes and her mother plan to start a school together. This, however, necessitates leaving the parsonage, home to Agnes all her life, which grieves her; she must also say goodbye to the Reverend Edward Weston, with whom she has fallen in love.

Now the novel's plot begins to turn in a more positive direction as Agnes rejoins her mother in their new "abode"; but before its final resolution, she again experiences being an outsider within a strange family: she is invited by her former pupil, Rosalie Murray, to visit Ashby Park where she stays as a guest for several days. Despite the friendly greeting from Rosalie, who professes affection and friendship, Agnes not only has no role to fulfil as she did as a governess, but spends most of the day completely alone and completely removed from such little family activity as goes on among Lord and Lady Ashby, their baby, and old Lady Ashby. She leaves for home: "finding I could render myself so little serviceable, my residence at Ashby Park became doubly painful" (p. 538).

At this point she is reunited with Edward Weston and becomes his wife. Her mother, Mrs Alice Grey, insists on continuing to live on her own to run the school, but she will spend her vacations alternately with each daughter, thus becoming the one who unites the two families.

Agnes Grey's story not only illustrates a pattern of movement from alienation to attachment, but it provides a framework for Anne Brontë's more serious criticism of society.

Each family Agnes stays with is both increasingly materialistic and less a family, in Brontë's sense of the word. Each progressively demonstrates the corruption of moral and ethical values, and of the family virtues of love, harmony and cohesiveness. As Agnes moves from the parsonage, to Wellwood House (the "new but stately mansion" of the Bloomfields), to Horton Lodge (the large house and estate of Squire Murray), to Ashby Hall (the elegant mansion and park of Lord Ashby), each marriage becomes more socially prominent and "approved", but at the same time more false and unhappy. Agnes' marriage to the Reverend Edward Weston at the end of the novel reaffirms the moral and family values established initially in the picture of the Grey family.

Life at the parsonage demonstrates the importance of family and moral values over materialistic ones. All work together closely, in harmony, and the Grey marriage is a happy one based on love. Mrs Grey, a squire's daughter, had given up her luxurious life and inheritance to marry a poor country parson, but Agnes says "she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world" (p. 393). However, even here the growing materialism of Victorian society leaves its mark: Richard Grey has difficulty accepting the fact that his wife is truly happy in the simple parsonage, and wants to supplement the income from his incumbency and small property. A failed business venture undermines both his finances and his self-confidence, and his mental depression leads to physical illness. Anne Brontë, with acute psychological insight, writes that "the cheerfulness with which she [Alice Grey] bore her reverses, and the kindness which withheld her from imputing the smallest blame to him, were all perverted by this ingenious self-tormenter into further aggravations of his sufferings" (p. 397). The minister's illness and his retreat into depression forces the women in the family to think of various ways to survive, and Mrs Grey proves to be the stronger partner in this marriage through her ability to grapple with reality and through her skill in financial and household management.

When Agnes takes her place as governess in the Bloomfield family, she is going a step up in the social scale, for Mr Bloomfield is "a retired tradesman who had realized a very comfortable fortune" (p. 401). However, he offers Agnes only a meagre salary, and his general attitude toward her and toward his servants is one of rude contempt, characteristic of the nouveau riche whose ill treatment of their social inferiors seems necessary to bolster their own self-esteem.

Certainly the Bloomfield family as a whole, and each of its members, is despicable. Despite the appearance of the newly built but stately mansion with its formal gardens, the family life within is disrdant and corrupt. The marriage, though formally correct, seems quite loveless; at one point Agnes is an embarrassed witness to a sarcastic argument they have over the dinner menu. The children are unruly and untaught; adored by their mother, who views them as angels, they are actually ill-tempered, deceitful, and nasty. Furthermore, they are encouraged in their cruel treatment of helpless animals, particularly by their father and uncle, both whom are pictured as coarse, vulgar and arrogant men who drink to excess. Uncle Robson is also encouraging of the worst sexist extremes, teaching Mary Ann to value personal appearance and flattery, and young Tom to drink and swear.

Agnes despairs of being able to teach these children anything because they lack any moral sense: "They knew no shame; they scorned authority which had no terrors to back it; and as for kindness and affection, either they had no hearts, or such as they had were so strongly guarded, and so well concealed, that I, with all my efforts, had not yet discovered how to reach them" (p. 430). Agnes leaves Wellwood House hoping "that all parents were not like Mr and Mrs Bloomfield" and "certain all children were not like theirs. The next family must be different …" (p. 431).

The next family is another step up: Mr Murray of Horton Lodge is a country squire. Mrs Grey believes this higher social position will prove more suitable for her daughter, for she affirms, "Such are far more likely to treat you with proper respect and consideration than those purse proud trandespeople and arrogant upstarts" (p. 434).

The Murrays, however, live very un-family-centered lives: Mr Murray spends much of his time fox hunting and riding, while his wife goes to parties and dresses in fashion. They seem to care little for Agnes' teaching qualifications in "Music, singing, drawing, French, Latin and German" (p. 434). The boys are soon sent off to school, while the girls are to be prepared simply to take their prescribed place in upper class society.

The real corruption of values in this family is most evident in the fostering of the marriage of the eldest daughter, Rosalie, to Sir Thomas Ashby. Rosalie has been taught to value in marriage not love, respect and honesty, but status and money. Even though Sir Thomas is known to be dissipated and corrupt, his wife will become Lady Ashby of Ashby Park, and that is the prime goal of Rosalie and her mother. Mrs Murray is willing to sacrifice her daughter's happiness for status.

This materialism motivates all of their behaviour, and Rosalie's efforts are geared toward captivating potential suitors and eclipsing all others with her beauty and elegant appearance. The whole family goes to church every Sunday, the girls often twice, not for spiritual edification, but to be seen and admired. Even the few charitable acts by Rosalie and Matilda were performed largely for the "flattering homage" (p. 459) they received, or to appear to others to be concerned and charitable.

A steady contrast to both the Bloomfields and Murrays is the figure of Agnes Grey; she tries unsuccessfully to replace her charges' materialistic values with the values she had been taught at home, those of truthfulness, piety and compassion. These values lead her to two poor families, both cottagers near Horton Lodge, where, since affluence is not even within the realm of imagined possibility, the virtues of piety and simplicity have flourished. Agnes visits the family of Mark Wood (who is dying of consumption), and also the widow Nancy Brown, who keeps house for her fieldworker son. While reading the Bible to Nancy, Agnes comes to know the curate, Edward Weston better: his kindness, "strong sense … and ardent piety" (p. 471) reaffirms her faith in human goodness and strikes a common chord in her own heart.

It is when Agnes Grey visits the most socially prestigious home, Ashby Park, that she finds the most unhappy marriage and most disrupted family life. There are four family members under the one roof (Sir Thomas and Lady Ashby [Rosalie Murray], their infant daughter, and old Lady Ashby), each of whom lives an existence separate from the others, meeting only occasionally for formal, strained meals. Rosalie's marriage progresses beyond indifference or lovelesness to actual hatred; she tells Agnes when they see Sir Thomas riding through the estate, "I detest that man!" (p. 536). Rosalie has discovered that being Lady Ashby does not compensate for marriage to a gambler, drunkard and womanizer. Furthermore, she hates her mother-in-law who, she says, is "a tyrant, an incubus, a spy" (p. 533), and cannot bring herself to love even her baby, whom Sir Thomas had already rejected because it is a girl. Rosalie complains, "what pleasure can I have in seeing a girl grow up to eclipse me …" (p. 537) and adds, "I can't centre all my hopes in a child: that is only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog" (p. 538). Rosalie's values have been so corrupted that Agnes fears she will not be able to find any comfort or happiness in life. Ashby Park, such a primary marriage goal for Rosalie and her mother, has become for its mistress a desolate prison.

The distinction that Anne Brontë makes between a house and a home is clarified in a conversation between Edward Weston and Agnes. They affirm that a home is not merely a place one lives in, but a repository of affection and domestic enjoyment. Edward and Agnes share not only this definition, but the moral and ethical values that bring them together.

It is obviously relevant and interesting that the type of family in this novel that epitomizes the ideal character of family life is that of the country parson, the type in which Anne Brontë herself lived in Haworth. In the novel it is illustrated in the home of the Reverend Richard and Alice Grey, in that of Mary and the Reverend Mr Richardson (whose forthcoming marriage Agnes describes to her pupil, Rosalie), and, finally, in that of Edward and Agnes. These are all marriages based on love whose family values derive from moral ones. Agnes recalls the moment when she and Edward pledged their troth:

I shall never forget that glorious summer evening, and always remember with delight that steep hill, and the edge of the precipice where we stood together, watching the splendid sunset mirrored in the restless world of waters at our feet—with hearts filled with gratitude to Heaven, and happiness, and love—" (p. 547).

My analysis of Agnes Grey is derived from a larger study I have done of the Brontës which reveals that the family was the dominant social structure and emotional force in their lives and that family is the thematic and structural core in all seven of the sisters' novels2. Though varied in subject and approach, each novel posits a similar pattern of development for its protagonist. Agnes Grey is characteristic of the heroine/hero whose family connection is already disrupted or fragmented at the outset, or soon becomes so; a heroine/hero who grows increasingly alienated from society/life, an alienation expressed through lack of inclusion within a family; who gradually rejoins society through attachment to another or others, culminating in full participation in a family of her/his own.

Agnes' movement toward love-attachment is handled largely within the Victorian social norm, but even within this conservatism emerges the Brontes' didactic use of the family to reform society: in Agnes Grey, as in the six other Brontë novels, family is used to identify the deterioration of society's values. The corruption of moral values by a growing materialism is seen in the distortion of family values and affection.

Therefore, viewing Agnes Grey within this larger framework, Anne Brontë's early novel assumes a new significance as both a social statement and as a deliberately structured work of art.


1Agnes Grey (1847; reprint in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, London: J. M. Dent, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1922), p. 393. All page references in parentheses within the text refer to this 1922 edition.

2 For a full discussion of the importance of family to the Brontës, consult my PhD dissertation, The Parson's Daughters: The Family Worlds of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, 1983, The Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities, USA.

Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: " Agnes Grey: 'all true histories contain instruction,"' in Anne Brontë: The Other One, Macmillan, 1989, pp. 96-117.

[In the following essay, Langland characterizes Anges Grey as a novel of female development "that both draws from a tradition of other such novels and departs significantly from it."]

Agnes Grey tells a story of female development. What makes it distinctive from previous novels by women with female protagonists is that Agnes more closely follows a male pattern of development. The classic starting point for the male Bildungsroman, or novel of development, is the protagonist's dissatisfaction with home and a corollary desire to gain experience in the larger world. While Agnes cannot simply take to the open road like a male hero, she nonetheless longs 'to see a little more of the world' (AG [Agnes Grey, Everyman's Library (London and Melbourne, Dent, 1958)] 4). She resists being kept the 'child and the pet of the family … too helpless and dependent—too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life' (AG 4). She wants 'To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance …' (AG 10). Anne's sounding of these aims heralds the arrival of a heroine new to fiction, one to whom, as we have seen, Charlotte owes a major debt. Jane Eyre's famous call for general equality has some of Agnes Grey in it: 'Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculites and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do'.1 But where Jane Eyre quickly finds her restlessness appeased by the arrival of Rochester, Agnes actually seeks that field for her efforts and exercise for her faculites.

The novel apparently had its origins in Anne Brontë's own experiences as governess first with the Inghams of Blake Hall and then with the Robinsons of Thorp Green. When Anne returned to Thorp Green in the new year of 1842, she began a story called 'Passages in the Life of an Individual'.2 This work details her own experiences in her two posts and may or may not be a source for her first novel. But even if Anne mined her personal experiences for Agnes Grey, we should not confuse Agnes with Anne or neglect to appreciate the high level of artistic shaping present in the published novel. Three years and increasing literary sophistication wrought their effects. Too often, Agnes Grey has been read primarily to learn about Anne. Our goal here is to read it as the exquisite novel that George Moore praised in Conversations in Ebury Street.


Agnes Grey is foremost a novel dealing with education; it is a novel of education (Agnes's) and about education (her attempts as governess to educate her charges) whose goal is to bring about an education in the reader. Thus, Brontë opens her novel with the claim: 'All true histories contain instruction' (AG 3). There is, as a result, a constantly informing reciprocity of subject and form. For even as Agnes makes only slight gains with her recalcitrant students, she is continually taking home the lessons to herself, learning from the experience, and emerging more fully and forcibly as a self-determining individual. And in the process of displaying her own education, she brings the reader new knowledge.

Because Agnes is a female protagonist seeking to become educated and knowledgeable about the world, she is distinctive in the nineteenth-century novel. Although Anne Brontë seems to have been largely oblivious of any feminist or ideological agenda, her commitment to women's activity and influence in the world and her suspicion of men as providers led her to promulgate a feminist thesis: that women must look to their self-provision. Indeed, if Agnes Grey takes any stance, it is that the novel should both entertain and instruct, combine the dulce with the utile. This attitude, as we have seen, she learned from the eighteenth-century masters. Yet even as Anne Brontë intends that her novel should instruct, she rigorously insists that the only valid instruction comes from an unswerving commitment to the representation of 'truth'. Because all meaning derives from her representing reality as she saw it, her work remains strongly novelistic and does not become didactic. Anne Brontë focuses, then, on representing as fully as possible the quotidian details of Agnes Grey's employment as governess, and she lets any instruction emerge from that representation.

Agnes's progression from the Bloomfields' to the Murrays', from young charges between the ages of four and seven, to charges between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, marks her own self-progress and shapes the reader's developing understanding. When she arrives at the Bloomfields', Agnes is but a child herself, as she admits, having been spoiled and pampered by her family. But Agnes is naive only in experience; in principles and understanding she is mature. This maturity makes even more dramatic the disparity between the 'pampered' and 'indulged' Agnes and the pampered and indulged Bloomfields. Basically, Agnes has been indulged only in being overly protected. In contrast, the Bloomfield children are fairly sophisticated in the ways of the world and have even learned to manipulate their world quite cleverly. The indulgence they have been allowed in the unbridled exercise of their passions, has resulted in an early corruption of their principles.

It is immediately clear to the reader that, in this contest between governess and pupils, the pupils will quickly gain the upper hand precisely because they have neither internal nor external bridles while Agnes knows both the self-restraint taught her by her principles and the external restraints imposed on her as the Bloomfields' 'servant'. Let us address the latter point first. Agnes is clearly instructed that she is not to punish the children. She recognises immediately that 'I had no rewards to offer; and as for punishments, I was given to understand, the parents reserved that privilege themselves; and yet they expected me to keep my pupils in order. Other children might be guided by the fear of anger, and the desire of approbation; but neither the one nor the other had any effect upon these' (AG 22). In an eloquent passage, Agnes sets out the plight of the governess:

I returned, however, with unabated vigour to my work—a more arduous task than any one can imagine, who has not felt something like the misery of being charged with the care and direction of a set of mischievous turbulent rebels, whom his utmost exertions cannot bind to their duty; while, at the same time, he is responsible for their conduct to a higher power, who exacts from him what cannot be achieved without the aid of the superior's more potent authority: which, either from indolence, or the fear of becoming unpopular with the said rebellious gang, the latter refuses to give. I can conceive few situations more harassing than that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at nought by those beneath you, and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above. (AG 29)

Through Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë has pinpointed what makes the situation of the governess intolerable: entire responsibility for those she cannot bend to her will.

This situation becomes the condition for Agnes's achievement and our evaluation of that achievement. Agnes will serve in two posts, the first of which will challenge her physically, the other spiritually. In both posts, huge demands will be made on her energies, yet she will be given little authority to fulfill those demands. Her success will be measured by her imaginative and flexible adjustment to the limitations imposed on her.

A schoolmistress, in contrast to a governess, has remarkable freedoms. When Agnes joins her mother to open a school, she remarks the difference between the life of a schoolmistress and the life of a governess:

I set myself with befitting energy to discharge the duties of this new mode of life. I call it new, for there was, indeed a considerable difference between working with my mother in a school of our own, and working as a hireling among strangers, despised and trampled upon by old and young. (AG 134)

It is interesting to compare Anne's representations of the governess's life with Charlotte's. Charlotte never succeeded in her posts as governess in a private home, yet, surprisingly, her novels fail to represent the difficulties and humiliations in that position. In Jane Eyre, the eponymous heroine finds herself in charge of a docile, if vain, child and in the presence of a motherly housekeeper. The task of teaching her charge scarcely consumes her time, and she has huge tracts of leisure for dalliance with Rochester. It is a highly romanticised portrait of the governess's life. Agnes Grey, in contrast, finds her job as governess endless and exhausting. She rarely sees her employer, Mr Bloomfield, and he speaks to her only when exasperated with her failure to control the children. She must do continual battle with recalcitrant and tyrannical pupils. The young master of the family, Tom, amuses himself by 'pulling off [the] legs and wings, and heads of young sparrows' (AG 18). To prevent another such episode of torture, Agnes herself drops a heavy stone and crushes a nest of fledglings that Tom has secured. When thwarted in his pleasures, he becomes violent and frenzied and Agnes's 'only resource was to throw him on his back, and hold his hands and feet till the frenzy was somewhat abated' (AG 22). Mary Ann, the oldest daughter, alternates between rolling on the floor in passive obstinacy or emitting 'shrill, piercing screams, that went through [Agnes's] head like a knife' (AG 25). When the younger Fanny joins her siblings, Agnes finds herself now with a creature of 'falsehood and deception, young as she was, and alarmingly fond of exercising her two favourite weapons of offence and defence; that of spitting in the faces of those who incurred her displeasure, and bellowing like a bull when her unreasonable desires were not gratified' (AG 27).

Despite her early recognition that her situation is untenable, Agnes has no choice but to behave as if she is dealing with students as susceptible as herself. As a result she is continually forced to confess her own failure: 'With me, at her age, or under, neglect and disgrace were the most dreadful of punishments; but on her they made no impression' (AG 25). Her early admission to Mrs Bloomfield that 'I am sorry to say, they [the pupils] have quite deteriorated of late' (AG 27) sets the stage for her dismissal after only six months, a dismissal which her mistress attributes to a 'want of sufficient firmness, and diligent, persevering care on [Agnes's] part' (AG 41).

Her second position, with the Murrays at Horton Lodge, secures her older pupils, less physically demanding but more intellectually demanding. Agnes never loses this position, but the threat of an arbitrary dismissal always hangs over her. Mrs Murray seems to echo Mrs Bloomfield in chastising Agnes: 'I have no desire to part with you, as I am sure you would do very well if you will only think of these things and try to exert yourself a little more: then, I am convinced, you would soon acquire that delicate tact which alone is wanting to give you a proper influence over the mind of your pupil' (AG 122). We have moved from 'sufficient firmness … and persevering care' to 'delicate tact'.

On one level, nothing has changed: Agnes is still expected to compensate for the parents' unacknowledged deficiencies in childrearing. On another level, there are substantial changes: something much more subtle is now demanded of Agnes.

If the Bloomfields initiate her education, acquaintance with the Murrays refines it. She begins with four pupils, but the two boys are quickly dispatched to school. Rosalie, sixteen years, and Matilda, fourteen years, remain, and to these, Agnes is sufficiently close in age that she might seem a sister rather than a governess. Nevertheless, there is never any confusion on that score, because of both rank and character. Agnes's inferiority in the former and her superiority in the latter keep her from intimacy with the Murray sisters. Yet it is important to note that Agnes's superiority of character helps breach the social distance. Agnes remarks of Rosalie, 'And yet, upon the whole, I believe she respected me more than she herself was aware of; because I was the only person in the house who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty …' (AG 52). Rosalie is possessed of a good temper, 'but from constant indulgence and habitual scorn of reason, she was often testy and capricious; her mind had never been cultivated' (AG 52). Matilda has high animal spirits—'full of life, vigour, and activity'—but 'as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless, and irrational' (AG 54).

As at the Bloomfields, Agnes is severely limited in her authority. She is immediately instructed by Mrs Murray that 'when any of the young people do anything improper, if persuasion and gentle remonstrance will not do, let one of the others come and tell me; for I can speak to them more plainly than it would be proper for you to do' (AG 51).

Whereas the Bloomfields needed simple discipline before instruction could begin, the Murrays are sufficiently mature to have acquired some outward restraint and a concern for social reputation. Thus, Agnes can focus on much more subtle points of principle. She observes the sisters' want of discretion, of discrimination, of judgment, of compassion, of generosity. She delineates with precision their rage for attention that leads them to appropriate and use other people for their own amusement. Rosalie and Matilda condescend to the cottagers, treating them as 'stupid and brutish', yet expect the people to 'adore them as angels of light, condescending to minister to their necessities, and enlighten their humble dwellings' (AG 70). Rosalie encourages Mr Hatfield in a flirtation to entertain herself and to have the pleasure of disappointing him. Although engaged to Thomas Ashby, she seeks to snare Mr Weston in her nets before the engagement is publicly announced. Rosalie knows of Ashby's reputation as a reprobate, yet lacks the understanding to have concern for her own future with him. Throughout all, Agnes is anticipating, discriminating, and judging, learning the value of sound principles, individual integrity, and personal independence.

Although Agnes does not confront active and intentional evil at the Murrays, she finds herself grappling with a more insidious because more subtle and pervasive evil stemming from a confusion of right and wrong. Work at the Bloomfields was physically strenuous; work at the Murrays is morally strenuous. Agnes reveals to the reader that:

Already I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting; and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk, at last, beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life. (AG 80)

This corruption of innocence by the 'baneful influence of such a mode of life' will become a central theme in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Here, the fear is sounded only at the moment that it is removed: 'Mr Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning-star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness' (AG 80). In addition, Agnes does not fall prey to the corruption because she imprints her character on the Murray sisters more than they influence her. She recognises at one point that they 'became a little less insolent, and began to show some symptoms of esteem' (AG 58).

Agnes herself gives us the full measure of her achievement by parroting her pupils' own evaluation of her. Because Brontë filters the Murray sisters' changes of opinion through Agnes's more generous and discriminating sensibility, we are able to appreciate two key things: (1) the respect Agnes has genuinely earned; and (2) Agnes's subtle and ironic understanding of the limits of that respect. Agnes summarises her influence in this way:

Miss Grey was a queer creature: she never flattered, and did not praise them half enough; but whenever she did speak favourably of them, or anything belonging to them, they could be quite sure her approbation was sincere. She was very obliging, quiet, and peaceable in the main, but there were some things that put her out of temper: they did not much care for that, to be sure, but still it was better to keep her in tune; as when she was in a good humour she would talk to them, and be very agreeable and amusing sometimes, in her way; which was quite different to mamma's, but still very well for a change. She had her own opinions on every subject, and kept steadily to them—very tiresome opinions they often were; as she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion, and an unaccountable liking for good people. (AG 58-59)

It is a measure of Agnes's own successful education that she has succeeded to the degree she has, especially in view of the limitations put on her powers.

If Agnes is often severely crippled in her efforts to teach her students by the restraints imposed by the Bloomfields and Murrays, she is, in key ways, enabled in these situations by her own self-restraints. She does not complain or lament or indulge in self-pity. She can see beyond the particular situation to her larger goals, and she 'longed to show my friends that, even now, I was competent to undertake the charge and able to acquit myself honourably to the end' (AG 28). Although we may find aspects of Agnes's self-suppression excessive—she says, for example, 'I judged it my wisest plan to subdue every resentful impulse, suppress every sensitive shrinking' (AG 28-29) or 'I sometimes felt myself degraded by the life I led, and ashamed of submitting to so many indignities' (AG 58)—the episodes culminate in self-affirmation rather than self-negation. She is both enabled and emboldened. She may adopt a policy of compliance to her employers, but the fact that it is a policy suggests the measure of control she preserves. She always has the choice of returning to her home; thus, she assesses her situation on the basis of the autonomy she has achieved rather than on the difficulties she encounters. Consequently, although Agnes is like many nineteenth-century heroines in having to turn inward to cultivate her spiritual resources, she differs from those heroines because this mode culminates in increasing mastery of the secular world. Although dismissed from her first post, Agnes chooses to depart from her second to open a school with her mother. The result is a female Bildungsroman, or novel of development, that both draws from a tradition of other such novels and departs significantly from it. Cultivation of the spiritual life, leading to mastery of the passions, seems to ensure a greater degree of self-determination for Agnes rather than an increase in self-abnegation typical of the protagonist of the female Bildungsroman. All of Agnes's pupils have been tossed about by their passions and, even with maturity, they remain unable to curb their indulgence in whims and their rage for attention. Agnes can see the evils to which they are vulnerable in maturity and, learning to conquer potential weaknesses in her own character, establishes herself as an independent woman.

Brontë's Agnes cannot replicate exactly the pattern of a male protagonist in a Bildungsroman. For example, the hero's two love affairs, one sexual and one spiritual, would culminate in social expulsion for a female protagonist. Nonetheless, Brontë uses the physical stresses suffered under the Bloomfields and the spiritual stresses endured under the Murrays as analogues for those other definitive developmental experiences en route to maturity. So Agnes, like the male protagonist, concludes her journey in her achievement of individual autonomy and social authority.

Through teaching, Agnes has plumbed her own strengths and honed her own understanding. She has completed her own education. Anne Brontë has carefully structured the novel to emphasise this completion. We have acknowledged that the novel was, perhaps, autobiographical in its inception, but Brontë shaped her materials towards novelistic ends. Agnes, as narrator, focuses on those episodes in which her education is being forwarded. She passes over her returns to home during the holidays. Her longing for such holidays is strongly represented to ensure our appreciation of her stoicism, but Brontë does not represent the holidays themselves because they are not germane to the novel's subject. Brontë opens Chapter four with Agnes's words, 'I spare my readers the account of my delight on coming home … I returned, however, with unabated vigour to my work …' (AG 29). Later, Agnes comments, 'for I was lonely. Never, from month to month, from year to year, except during my brief intervals of rest at home, did I see one creature to whom I could open my heart, or freely speak thoughts with any hope of sympathy, or even comprehension' (AG 79). But those precious, brief intervals do not make their way into the plot. Agnes concludes her tenure with the Bloomfields remarking, 'vexed, harassed, disappointed as I had been, and greatly as I had learned to love and value my home, I was not yet weary of adventure, nor willing to relax my efforts' (AG 41). Her several months at home are related in three pages and primarily establish two central points: Agnes must succeed in the world, and a woman need not marry to succeed. Agnes's mother counsels the father, 'But it's no matter whether [our daughters] get married or not: we can devise a thousand honest ways of making a livelihood' (AG 42).


Distinctively, the novel is neither male—nor marriage—oriented. Although it will conclude with wedding bells, that traditional bourne of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, the reader is not led to expect marriage as Agnes's fulfilment. We may contrast what Anne Brontë does with what Jane Austen does. Both writers are concerned with the education of their protagonists. We may say that Austen yokes the heroine's movement toward marriage with her education; that is, an Austen protagonist must learn to discern the true from the false, the flashy from the substantial, the truly amiable man from the merely agreeable one. This is particularly true for Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. Their lessons in discernment culminate in their choice of suitable partners. Agnes's lessons, in contrast, all culminate in her independency. Perhaps this emphasis signals Anne Brontë's very different experiences. The Brontës were much poorer and of a lower class than the Austens; thus Anne had to think constantly about profitable employment while Austen never worked. More important, Anne could never rely on her brother for support as Austen could on hers. As a result, Brontë's feminism ultimately takes on a different character.

Anne Brontë has structured her narrative to emphasise the acquisition of independence. Her heroine meets a suitable man, a clergyman Mr Weston, relatively late in the novel. She first recognises his excellence and then discovers in herself symptoms of a growing attraction. When she leaves him to open a school with her mother, she has made this choice to depart. She has been encouraged to believe he might seek her hand, and, at first she pines for this resolution like a typical heroine. She reveals that:

I knew my strength was declining, my appetite had failed, and I was grown listless and desponding;—and if, indeed, he could never care for me, and I could never see him more—if I was forbidden to minister to his happiness—forbidden, for ever, to taste the joys of love, to bless and to be blessed—then, life must be a burden, and if my Heavenly Father would call me away, I should be glad to rest. (AG 136)

But no sooner has Agnes reached this pitch than she resolves, "'No, by His help I will arise and address myself diligently to my appointed duty"' (AG 137). The consequence is a rapid restoration of tranquillity of mind and 'bodily health and vigour'.

At this point we may note that there exists many another heroine of spunk who recovers her spirits without a proposal. We may recall Elizabeth Bennet's thoughts when doubtful that Darcy will propose again: 'If he is satisfied with only regretting me, when he might have obtained my affections and hand, I shall soon cease to regret him at all'.3 But, while Darcy immediately makes his appearance in Austen's novel, Brontë's narrative seems deliberately to shift to another scene and to a new focus: Rosalie's marriage. Agnes is invited by her former pupil to visit her in her splendour as Lady Ashby. What she finds is a woman in misery, yet another reminder that marriage does not necessarily culminate in fulfilment for a woman and, indeed, may mark her further imprisonment. When Agnes returns home, full of a sense of her own riches, she is rejuvenated: 'Refreshed, delighted, Invigorated, I walked along, forgetting all my cares, feeling as if I had wings to my feet, and could go at least forty miles without fatigue, and experiencing a sense of exhilaration to which I had been an entire stranger since the days of early youth' (AG 150).

It is only at this point of physical health, mental equanimity, and the personal fulfilment of financial and emotional independence that Mr Weston arrives to propose. The marriage simply stands as a coda to Agnes's journey toward autonomy.

The novel not only proposes that marriage per se does not constitute fulfilment, but also, as we have seen in the example of Rosalie, that marriage to the wrong partner might condemn one to a life of unhappiness. I suggested earlier that the novel was neither marriagenor male-oriented and the two are obviously related. The entire novel presents only one admirable man: Mr Weston. Although he is a good man, he is not at all romanticised. In contrast to Charlotte's heroes and Emily's Heathcliff, he is not stern, commanding, and forceful. He is strong mainly in his commitment to principle and duty. He is somewhat phlegmatic and unemotional, deliberate and precise. Anne seems to avoid any romantic idealisation of men, particularly of men with power and money. In them, she finds large scope for abuse.

The men who employ her, Mr Bloomfield and Mr Murray, are contemptible. Neither man does her the courtesy of introducing himself. She infers their identities from their behaviour. Neither is prepossessing. Mr Bloomfield is a 'man of ordinary stature—rather below than above—and rather thin than stout, apparently between thirty and forty years of age: he had a large mouth, pale, dingy complexion, milky blue eyes, and hair the colour of a hempen cord' (AG 20). Mr Murray is a 'tall, stout gentleman, with scarlet cheeks and crimson nose' whom Agnes often hears 'swearing and blaspheming against the footmen, groom, coachman, or some other hapless dependent' (AG 50). Neither exercises any proper authority over his children. Their deficiencies reveal themselves in the defects of their children.

The most pernicious effect of these careless fathers is the automatic assumption of authority, importance and careless disdain for so-called lesser creatures they bequeath their sons. We will recall that Tom Bloomfield, Agnes's first charge, likes to torture fledglings which his papa says is 'just what he used to do when was a boy. Last summer he gave me a nest full of young sparrows, and he saw me pulling off their legs and wings, and heads, and never said anything …' (AG 18). But not only birds suffer under this masculine dictatorship. Women do as well. When Agnes protests, 'Surely, Tom, you would not strike your sister! I hope I shall never see you do that', he replies, "'You will sometimes: I am obliged to do it now and then to keep her in order"' (AG 16). And this general attitude is fostered in young boys by the men who surround them. Mr Robson, Mrs Bloomfield's brother, 'encouraged Tom's propensity to persecute the lower creation, both by precept and example' (AG 37). He chortles when Tom heaps opprobrious epithets upon Agnes—'Curse me, if ever I saw a nobler little scoundrel than that. He's beyond petticoat government already …' (AG 39)—recalling Walpole's characterisation of Mary Wollstonecraft as a 'hyena in petticoats'. Anne Brontë will explore and expose more fully this masculine arrogance toward women in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but it is evident even here that the subject concerns her greatly. Here, too, she links, as she will in The Tenant, male drinking, masculinity, and male tyranny. Mr Robson encourages his nephew 'to believe that the more wine and spirits he could take, and the better he liked them, the more he manifested his bold and manly spirit, and rose superior to his sisters' (AG 37).

In linking women with the 'lower creatures', Anne Brontë also suggests in this novel that a woman may take the measure of the man from his treatment of animals. Mr Hatfield, the vain and arrogant rector in the Murray's parish, consumed by his flirtation with Rosalie Murray, kicks a poor lady's cat 'right across th' floor, an' went after [the Murray girls] as gay as a lark' (AG 74). And he harasses the poor woman's spirit much as he harasses her cat's body. Mr Weston, in contrast, 'spake so civil like—and when th' cat, poor thing, jumped on to his knee, he only stroked her, and gave a bit of a smile: so I thought that was a good sign; for once, when she did so to th' Rector, he knocked her off, like as it might be in scorn and anger …' (AG 75-76). Agnes has formed an affection for a little terrier at the Murrays' and is heart-broken when he is taken away and 'delivered over to the tender mercies of the village rat-catcher, a man notorious for his brutal treatment of his canine slaves' (AG 118). Mr Weston heralds his arrival to propose to Agnes with this little canine messenger, whom he has rescued from the rat-catcher. Agnes's satisfaction that Snap, the terrier, now 'has a good master' anticipates her own acceptance of Mr Weston.

It seems that Charlotte may have drawn this mode of characterisation from her sister. In Shirley, the eponymous character argues that to know if a man is truly good, 'we watch him, and see him kind to animals, to little children, to poor people'.4 In praising Robert Moore, Caroline Helstone replies, 'I know somebody to whose knee that black cat loves to climb; against whose shoulder and cheek it likes to purr. The old dog always comes out of his kennel and wags his tail, and whines affectionately when somebody passes'. Charlotte intensifies her similarity to Anne's description in a succeeding passage: 'He quietly strokes the cat, and lets her sit while he conveniently can, and when he must disturb her by rising, he puts her softly down, and never flings her from him roughly'.5 Louis Moore, too, has his excellence measured by his sympathy with animals. And Shirley's cousin, Henry, is distinguished from the usual school-boy by his behaviour with animals. Shirley reveals, 'Generally, I don't like school-boys: I have a great horror of them. They seem to me little ruffians, who take an unnatural delight in killing and tormenting birds, and insects, and kittens, and whatever is weaker than themselves … '6 Finally, as if recalling Agnes Grey, Martin Yorke is reminded at one point 'of what he had once felt when he had heard a blackbird lamenting for her nestlings, which Matthew had crushed with a stone'.7 Charlotte has learned from Anne a very powerful mode for realistically delineating male tyranny.

Anne deserves recognition for the clarity with which she details men's contempt for women in Victorian society and for the corollary recognition that, given this contempt and the power men hold in marriage, women are likely to suffer in that relationship. In her first position, Agnes witnesses a scene in which Mr Bloomfield berates his wife for her presumed negligence of duties. Agnes relates that, 'I never felt so ashamed and uncomfortable in my life for anything that was not my own fault' (AG 21). When Rosalie Murray marries the reprobate Lord Ashby—described as 'disagreeably red about the eyelids', with 'a general appearance of langour and flatness, relieved by a sinister expression in the mouth and the dull, soulless eyes'—she anticipates that because he adores her, he will 'let [her] have her own way' (AG 146). But she discovers to her chagrin and pain that 'he will do as he pleases, and I must be a prisoner and a slave'. Rosalie cries out, 'Oh, I would give ten thousand worlds to be Miss Murray again! It is too bad to feel life, health, and beauty wasting away, unfelt and unenjoyed, for such a brute as that!' (AG 147). Ironically, Rosalie has earlier glimpsed her impending prison and confided to Agnes, 'But if I could be always young, I would be always single' (AG 64). Less vain than Rosalie and independent of male approval, Agnes is more suspicious of marriage as woman's fulfilment.

Even her parents' own example has given Agnes cause to proceed cautiously and to ensure her own autonomy before committing herself to another. Although Anne Brontë represents Mrs Grey's decision to marry a 'poor parson' as a positive one, one for which Agnes's mother is wholly admirable, Mr Grey is painted less sympathetically. Agnes confides that 'saving was not my father's forte. He would not run in debt (at least, my mother took good care he should not), but while he had money he must spend it' (AG 5). Ultimately Richard Grey decides to speculate with his small capital and loses it. Agnes, her sister, and her mother all survive the shock, but Mr Grey 'was completely overwhelmed by the calamity' (AG 6). Not only does he plunge them into poverty, but, incapable of rising to the challenge himself, he becomes an additional burden on his struggling family. His weakness leaves them vulnerable and ultimately increases their responsibility. In contrast, Mrs Grey is resourceful, energetic, strong, and determined. She ultimately heads a little community of women that provides a much more positive image of relationship than that of heterosexual marriage.

Anne Brontë, however, does not allow this female community to resolve her novel. As I've pointed out above, Agnes ultimately marries. But she does so only after we have been made to feel she has the option of self-support and of a nurturing female community. These are unusual options to find represented in a novel set in Victorian England. And, lest we feel that, after all, Agnes, like many another heroine before her, has succumbed to marriage as the only viable option, we have the positive portrait of successful Mrs Grey, who refuses to live with her daughters, 'saying she could now afford to employ an assistant, and would continue the school till she could purchase an annuity sufficient to maintain her in comfortable lodgings …' (AG 157). This might yet be Agnes's fate, and not a bad one, we feel, in a world that encourages male strength to take the form of tyranny and that indulges male weakness.


I've suggested above that the novel's strength lies in its quiet realism. Here, it is well to note what cannot be too often emphasised: Anne Brontë's talent for painting her milieu. She gives us, more accurately than most of her contemporaries, a sense of what Victorian female leisured life was like. She communicates the lassitude, the emptiness, the boredom. She makes us experience the significance of social rank: the disdain in which Agnes is held by the neighbouring gentlemen, the rudeness with which servants—taking a cue from their masters—treat her. We share the frustration of being a servant, subject to the whims of one's masters, whether these whims take the form of either demanding that she finish the tedious parts of pictures and of fancywork or encouraging her to appear unobtrusive when unwanted and infinitely accommodating when needed.

No one has communicated better than Anne Brontë the sheer physical demands of the period. I have already detailed her exhausting struggles with her pupils. Travel, too, is particularly demanding. When Agnes first arrives at the Bloomfields, she has only a minute to try to put herself in order and is dismayed at her appearance: 'The cold wind has swelled and reddened my hands, uncurled and entangled my hair, and dyed my face of a pale purple; add to this my collar was horridly crumpled, my frock splashed with mud, my feet clad in stout new boots' (AG 14). Her second journey is even more difficult. Agnes leaves on a dark winter morning and relates that 'the heavy snow had thrown such impediments in the way of both horses and steam-engines, that it was dark some hours before I reached my journey's end, and that a most bewildering storm came on at last … I sat resigned, with the cold, sharp snow drifting through my veil and filling my lap, seeing nothing …' (AG 47). Brontë captures, too, Agnes's nausea from being stuffed into a carriage and riding backward, and her humiliation at being forced to dawdle behind a walking party because she is regarded as a 'mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen …' (AG 85).

Because Agnes Grey is dedicated to portraying a truth about Victorian life, Brontë eschews dramatic scenes. Many readers will find the 'plot' turgid, so little happens. But that is, as I have argued, because the novel is about education. It intends to keep the reader focused on the life of a mind.

Certain classic themes are generated out of these formal ends. First, the family is the primary focus of education. All subsequent influence cannot wholly eradicate the deficiencies produced by early indulgence and insufficient guidance. But if the understanding has been trained and the passions reigned in, then a great flowering is possible.

A corollary theme suggests that money and a monied, class society lie at the base of this pernicious indulgence. Having been encouraged by their wealth and social position to think well of themselves, the upper classes fail to ground their pride properly in their understanding, judgment, and discrimination. Anne Brontë makes it evident that in moving to the Murrays' Horton Lodge, Agnes has enjoyed an accession of social prestige: 'The house was a very respectable one; superior to Mr Bloomfield's, both in age, size, and magnificence' (AG, 56). Mrs Grey has distinguished the Bloomfields from the Murrays terming the former 'purse-proud tradespeople and arrogant upstarts' while the latter are characterised as 'genuine thorough-bred gentry' (AG 44, 46). However, although the Murray's outrank the Bloomfields, they share their coarseness and crudity. There is more superficial polish but no increase in real elegance. And when Agnes finally visits that star in the social firmament—Rosalie Murray, now Lady Ashby—she remarks on departing:

It was with a heavy heart that I bade adieu to poor Lady Ashby, and left her in her princely home. It was no slight additional proof of her unhappiness that she should so cling to the consolation of my presence, and earnestly desire the company of one whose general tastes and ideas were so little congenial to her own. (AG 148).

We feel that Agnes, who cannot possibly envy Rosalie Murray nor desire her company, possesses a life both richer and more meaningful.

Growing out of Brontë's perception that money and power corrupt, is her recognition that the only real source of happiness lies in cultivating the spiritual life and pursuing the dictates of religion. Agnes tells Rosalie, by way of farewell: 'The best way to enjoy yourself is to do what is right and hate nobody. The end of Religion is not to teach us how to die, but how to live; and the earlier you become wise and good, the more of happiness you secure' (AG 148). We discover, then, that the religious theme is linked to the educational theme that controls the novel; religion helps teach us how to live the good life. It provides the foundation for moral principle, and it stands as a bulwark against despair. By thoroughly integrating the religious theme with the educational one, Brontë precludes the intrusion of any awkward or disruptive moral didacticism into her tale. When we finish the novel, we must feel that Brontë has accomplished her end of furthering our instruction through her protagonist's. But, perhaps more important, we feel that the process has gone on unobtrusively while we were fully engaged with the quiet story of an unassuming young woman.

And, once more, we are reminded of Brontë's triumph: her ability to take materials superficially so unengaging, so devoid of dramatic incident, and to involve us so deeply in them. Finally, Anne Brontë's achievement in Agnes Grey must be measured by her success in transforming a radical theme of women's education and independence into a subject matter so wholly reasonable. Brontë's next novel, to be her last, will demonstrate the as-yet-unexplored reach of her talent and suggest what might have been had she lived.


1 Charlotte Brontë, [Jane Eyre, New York, W. W. Norton., 1971], p. 96.

2 Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë, [London, Allen Lane, 1959; 1976], p. 176.

3 Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972), p. 370.

4 Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1974), p. 224.

5 Ibid., p. 225.

6 Ibid., p. 436.7 Ibid., p. 531.

Robert Liddell (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4421

SOURCE: "Agnes Grey, " in Twin Spirits: The Novels of Emily and Anne Brontë, Peter Owen, 1990, pp. 79-91.

[In the following essay, Liddell compares Brontë's development with that of her fictional counterpart, Agnes Grey.]

In Emily [Brontë's] birthday paper of 1845 (written a day late, on 31 July) Anne wrote: 'I have begun the third volume of Passages from the Life of an Individual. I wish I had finished it.' This is reasonably conjectured to have been her novel Agnes Grey, which was sent to the publisher a year later, or an earlier draft of it.

Anne is profoundly depressed: 'I for my part cannot well be flatter or older in mind than I am now.' She has recently returned to Haworth, thankful to have left her position as governess with the Robinson family at Thorp Green, but deeply distressed by Branwell's dismissal from the position of tutor in the same house, only a fortnight before. She is also unhappy for other reasons that she has not revealed. We do not know how deeply she had cared for her father's curate, William Weightman (d. 1842), but for long she had mourned his loss, and he would not be there to enliven life at Haworth:

The lightest heart that I haye known,
The kindest I shall ever know.

For Anne there seems to have been no more escape into the romantic fictions of Gondal—'The Gondals are not in first-rate playing condition'—although the same day Emily could write: 'The Gondals flourish bright as ever…. We intend sticking by the rascals as long as they delight us, which I am glad to say they do at present.'

Anne was to spend the winter at Haworth, with the drugged and drunken Branwell as another inmate of the parsonage. 'Ever since her experiences at Thorp Green she exhibited in all she wrote a view of life, much more realistic and more socially orientated.'1 In this view: 'All true histories contain instruction'—and Agnes Grey certainly does, though it is not literally true as autobiography.

It is the story of a young girl who goes out as a governess in the hope of helping her clerical family, ruined by financial loss. Anne had gone out as a governess six years before, in April 1839.

It will be well, in each of her situations, to isolate Anne's own experience (so far as it is known) from the experience of Agnes in the novel, sometimes too readily identified with it. This will be important in the case of her time at Thorp Green, a period so critical to herself and her brother.

Anne first went to Blake Hall, Mirfield, to the Inghams, a well-established Yorkshire family. They had young and undisciplined children, and Charlotte wrote that her life there was 'one struggle of life-wearing exertion to keep the children in anything like decent order.' There, though 'harassed and exiled', she kept up her own courage; it is related that she was once found writing at a table, with two small Inghams tied to two of the legs. She remained there for about a year, and her dismissal was disguised as a separation by mutual consent; thereafter she was remembered in the family as 'ungrateful', a typical employer's word.

Agnes Grey's first situation was at Wellwood with the Bloomfield family; it is strange that Anne should have given them so aristocratic a name, for she has otherwise revenged herself on her first employers, by making Mr Bloomfield a 'retired tradesman', a vulgar and violent person of whom even his wife was in terror. Mrs Bloomfield was 'cold, grave and forbidding'; but the children, Tom and Mary Ann, whom Agnes was expected to call 'Master' and 'Miss' Bloomfield were very lively, not to say unruly. We do not know if all Tom Bloomfield's hideous cruelty to birds is fact or fiction. Anne, with the love of animals that characterized all three sisters, might almost automatically attribute such conduct to a child that she was holding up to execration. She was even over-successful, for she inspired George Moore to invent a further atrocity2: 'the incident [not in the book] of the little boy, who tears a bird's nest out of some bushes, and fixes hooks into the beaks of the young birds so that he may drag them about the stableyard.'

Agnes Grey was (like her creator and all the Brontës) without the virtue that Jane Austen called 'candour': the gift of seeing the better side of other people's words or actions. Overhearing the grandmother asking Mrs Bloomfield if Agnes were a 'proper person' to have charge of the children—a reasonable grandmotherly enquiry—she was 'satisfied' that the old lady's evident sympathy for her had been 'hypocritical and insincere', and scorned to make herself agreeable by the small attentions and enquiries that were appropriate in their respective situations, as 'flattery' was against her principles.

Agnes's miserable life at Wellwood (we may hope) is now the lot of few people, though an analogous and very disagreeable experience must be endured by many a teacher in charge of large and haphazardly assembled classes:

… the misery of being charged with the care and direction of a set of mischievous turbulent rebels, whom his utmost exertions cannot bind to their duty; while, at the same time, he is responsible for their conduct to a higher power, who exacts from him what cannot be achieved without the aid of the superior's more potent authority; which, either from indolence, or the fear of becoming unpopular with the said rebellious gang, the latter refuses to give. (Chapter 4)

Those who administer what the Gondals might call 'Palaces of Instruction', may still treat their teachers (who are sometimes better educated than themselves) with no more consideration than governesses habitually received from their employers. Teachers, however, generally live outside; and even within school they may be helped and comforted by the loyalty of their colleagues. Nevertheless I have been told of classes in a lycée who were literally the death of their instructors; and there is no sign that discipline among the young is improving. Agnes's history still contains 'instruction'.

A governess, seldom required to produce proof of being well educated (not so easy to do in a time before degrees), might owe her appointment entirely to her recommendation as 'the daughter of a gentleman'. It was therefore necessary for her to insist on her 'gentry', as it was her one qualification. Those who would not have hired her without it were seldom prepared, once she was in their employ, to treat her as a lady, and as part of the family. Jane Austen's 'poor Miss Taylor' was deservedly respected, but her good fortune was exceptional. Nor need we think, complacently, that the almost proverbial experiences of the governess were 'old, unhappy, faroff things'. In the inter-war years I knew a household where the mistress had a new governess almost every year; her husband, a most amiable, retired military man, said to me, about the governesses' awkward position: 'they're like fellers risen from the ranks.'

Women in their walk of life were particularly exposed to snubs. An employer needed to be scrupulously polite, with the attention that Fénelon recommends almost as a further refinement of charity: 'que notre charity soit toujours attentive pour ne pas blesser le prochain. Sans cette attention la charité, qui est si fragile en cette vie, se perd bientôt. Un mot dit avec hauteur, un air sec ou dédaigneux peut altérer les esprits foibles….' Charlotte and Anne were 'esprits foibles' in this sense, if anyone were, and only too prone to take "attention' for condescension. Anne never applied her talents as a satirist to herself.

It appears that Anne probably went to her second situation in May 1840. She went to Thorp Green Hall, near York, to be governess to the three Misses Robinson, Lydia, Elizabeth and Mary, and to coach the boy Edmund in Latin. The Revd Edmund Robinson did not exercise his holy orders. At the time of Anne's arrival he was an enthusiastic member of the local hunt; but his health declined, and he was an invalid at the time of her departure. When after four months Anne wished to change her situation, she was induced to stay on; and when it was desired to provide a tutor for Edmund early in 1843, she arranged for Branwell to fill that post. She had a month's holiday at Christmas, and another in June, and after it accompanied the Robinsons on their yearly summer holiday to Scarborough. It is impossible to form a reliable portrait of Mrs Robinson, confused as we must be by the lyricism of Branwell and the recklessness of Mrs Gaskell. It is probable that there was (or appeared to be) a guilty relationship between her and Branwell from the beginning of 1845, and that Anne was greatly upset by it. She noted later that she had had some 'very unpleasant and undreamt of experiences of human nature', but did not reveal what they were.

On 17 July Edmund was brought by a servant to join his parents at Scarborough. The same day Mr Robinson wrote a letter to Branwell, who had returned to Haworth, sternly dismissing him, and threatening him with exposure. We do not know with what proceedings, 'bad beyond expression', Mr Robinson meant to charge Branwell, but these can hardly have included misconduct with his wife. It looks as though Mrs Robinson were acting with her husband in the dismissal of Branwell3 (who may have been becoming a nuisance, even a threat), though she did later send him money. It was a convenient moment to get rid of him, and the letter may have been mere bluster; Branwell would have crumpled up under any accusation, and was in no position to defend himself.

Anne's friendly relations with her pupils were maintained by a recommenced correspondence; the effect of this was to give her matter for thought on 'love, marriage, sin and its results and man's ultimate destiny',4 which bore fruit in her novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

After some months at home, Agnes set out for a second situation. She was to be governess in the family of Mr and Mrs Murray at Horton Lodge, where there were no nursery children, and many of the horrors of Wellwood were absent. The Murrays do not throw much light on Anne's employers at Thorp Green, and perhaps she had reason to avoid saying much about them. Mr Murray was 'a blustering, roistering country squire', usually on horseback, as Mr Robinson may have been at first. Mrs Murray was 'a handsome dashing lady of forty'. All she seemed to require from the governess was showy accomplishment for the girls, and as much Latin grammar as possible for the boys to prepare them for school—all to be acquired with the minimum of exertion on the part of the children.

Agnes, as she herself tells us, was 'the only person in the house who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty.' Rosalie, the elder daughter,

… had never been perfectly taught the distinction between right and wrong; she had, like her brothers and sisters, been suffered, from infancy, to tyrannize over nurses, governesses, and servants; she had not

been taught to moderate her desires, to control her temper, or bridle her will, or to sacrifice her own pleasure for the good of others. Her temper being naturally good, she was never violent or morose … (Chapter 7)

Indeed she came to have some esteem and even affection for Agnes.

As for the younger girl:

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding…. As a moral agent, Matilda was reckless, headstrong, violent, and unamenable to reason.

She swore like a trooper, but she was truthful, whereas Rosalie was capable of artfulness.

The elder boy, John, was almost eleven when Agnes came to Horton Lodge: 'frank and good-natured in the main', but 'unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable'. He was sent to school after a year. Charles, the second boy, was spoilt by his mother: 'a pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish little fellow', impossible to teach under his mother's eye, and Agnes's worst trial. He followed John to school a year later.

This was a world tolerable, if compared with Wellwood, and Agnes remained for more than four years. Her pupils were insolent, unmannerly and inconsiderate; they cared nothing for order or regularity, had meals or lessons when it pleased them, and obliged Agnes to submit to their lack of programme. But they were too old for the violence of the young Bloomfields.

Agnes was maturer than she had been at Blake Hall; her life had taught her to submit with more humility to its various indignities, and she can report with humour Mrs Murray's little sermon on 'the meek and quiet spirit, which St Matthew, or one of them says is better than the putting on of apparel.'

If she is to be judged as she judges others, the verdict on Agnes will be just but severe. She was aware that some of her sufferings were her own fault:

I frequently caught cold by sitting on the damp grass, or from exposure to the evening dew, or some insidious draught, which seemed to have no injurious effect on them [her pupils]…. But I must not blame them for what was, perhaps, my own fault; for I never made any particular objections to sitting where they pleased; foolishly choosing to risk the consequences rather than trouble them for my convenience. (Chapter 7)

Agnes seems to have been something of a hypochondriac, for her uncomfortable position in the family carriage, 'crushed into the corer farthest from the open window', and with her back to the horses, during a drive of only two miles to church on Sundays, might make her sick, and must be followed by a depressing headache.

She was unwilling to give her pupils credit for the better motives which in part influenced their behaviour. When the Misses Murray would 'amuse themselves with visiting the poor cottagers on their father's estate, to receive their flattering homage', it is conceded that their object might also be 'perhaps to enjoy the purer pleasure of making the poor people happy with their cheering presence and their occasional gifts, so easily bestowed, so thankfully received'. But without meaning to offend, the girls behaved very rudely on many such occasions.

Agnes's chief unhappiness came from living with 'unprincipled' people and she had a longing for persons of her own sort. (As we, worse corrupted by 'evil communications' may sometimes have a nostalgia for 'good' people—if we have ever known any.) Presently she was to be gratified. The rector, Mr Hatfield, however, was not likely to be of any comfort to her with his 'high and dry' sermons about such matters as church discipline and the apostolic succession.

It must be admitted that Agnes (rightly unashamed of her 'principles') wore them a little too ostentatiously, was too quick to reproach conduct that was no business of hers, and had not been offered for her approval. At a grand ball, Rosalie had danced with 'Lord F.', who obviously admired her: 'I had the pleasure of seeing his nasty cross wife ready to perish with spite and vexation.' Agnes, from whom only a civil smile was required, cried, 'Oh, Miss Murray! you don't mean to say that such a thing could really give you pleasure….' Rosalie answered good-humouredly: 'Well, I know it's very wrong; but never mind! I mean to be good some time—only don't preach now, there's a good creature.'

A new curate, Edward Weston, arrived; he preached evangelical sermons and read the service with reverence. Agnes soon met him, for sometimes when she was free she went to read to a cottager, Nancy Brown, whose sight was failing. One day Mr Weston appeared with Nancy's cat in his arms, having rescued it from the gamekeeper. At last Agnes had found a congenial spirit, and very soon he occupied much of her thought, though it would seem that he was not a recreation of William Weightman, from whom he is not only differentiated by his evangelicalism, but also by his seriousness and his physical characteristics.

Rosalie, of course, began to imagine a flirtation between the curate and the governess, of which there was none, though Agnes's heart had been touched. Rosalie herself, who was quite heartless, was half engaged to Sir Thomas Ashby, the most eligibile parti thereabouts, a debauchee, but a baronet, and the owner of a fine house and park. Meanwhile she amused herself by captivating poor Mr Hatfield the rector, a gallant and personable man, but without the means and the social position that Miss Murray thought her due. Agnes was sometimes posted as a watchdog by Mrs Murray, but Rosalie could always find ways of avoiding her and carrying on a flirtation. Unfortunately the rector was so much encouraged that he 'presumed' to make an offer of marriage, and had to be sent about his business.

Rosalie missed his attentions; she was now without an admirer, and decided to 'fix' Mr Weston. The unhappy Agnes took this with immense seriousness. "'Oh God, avert it!" I cried internally—"for his sake, not for mine."' Anne Brontë's next heroine, Helen Graham, will be too sophisticated to offer half-sincere explanations to the Almighty—and will have more knowledge of herself and others, and more sense of humour.

Rosalie became a frequent visitor to the cottage, where she hoped to meet the curate. She stole Agnes's seat in church, which commanded a view of the pulpit, to which Agnes must now turn her back; and chance meetings were arranged from which the governess was excluded.

There was as yet no reason to suppose that Mr Weston's happiness at all depended on Rosalie Murray or on Agnes Grey, but the latter's thought was full of him.

Besides my hope in God, my only consolation was in thinking that, though he knew it not, I was more worthy of his love than Rosalie Murray, charming and engaging as she was; for I could appreciate his excellence, which she could not: I would devote my life to the promotion of his happiness; she would destroy his happiness for the momentary gratification of her own vanity. (Chapter 17)

She also found it natural to 'seek relief in poetry', whether in 'the effusions of others, which seem to harmonize with our existing case or in attempts to give utterance to these thoughts and feelings….' She quotes one specimen: 'cold and languid as the lines may seem, it was almost a passion of grief to which they owed their being.'

Oh, they have robbed me of the hope
My spirit held so dear;
They will not let me hear that voice
My soul delights to hear.

This undateable poem5 raises several problems. It would appear to have been written before Weightman's death (September 1842), and 'the question of the identity of the "they" is not easily soluble.'6 It has been suggested7 that the occasion of these lines was the return of Anne to her situation at Thorp Green early in 1842. She had again intended to relinquish it, and may have hoped to remain at Haworth to keep house during her sisters' absence at school in Brussels (and perhaps to enjoy the society of Weightman). 'They' will then be her employers, who had entreated her to return, and perhaps her father.

The poem fits perfectly into its present position; 'they' are Rosalie Murray and her sister, who prevent Agnes from meeting Edward Weston. Though probably written for Weightman, it is now used for an imaginary character—thus, like other novelists, Anne can make use of the past.

Rosalie married, and travelled abroad with Sir Thomas Ashby. Agnes consequently was more thrown with Matilda, whom her mother was trying to have groomed into young ladyhood; unfortunately the governess's precepts and prohibitions went no way with the girl. Agnes had to endure some reprimands from Mrs Murray:

The young lady's proficiency and elegance is of more consequence to the governess than her own, as well as to the world. If she wishes to prosper in her vocation she must devote all her energies … to the accomplishment of that one object…. The judicious governess knows this: she knows that, while she lives in obscurity herself, her pupil's virtues and defects will be open to every eye; and that, unless she loses sight of herself in their cultivation, she need not hope for success. (Chapter 18)

Matilda, however, yielded in some degree to her mother's authority. It was the circumstances of her own life that made Agnes offer her resignation. She was called home by her father's illness, but got back too late to see him alive. She and her mother then formed the project of opening a school, with 'a few young ladies to board and educate', and as many day pupils as they could get. Agnes was to return to Horton Lodge after a short vacation to give notice of her final departure. During her last weeks there she had to say goodbye to Mr Weston, who also was leaving the place; she built fancies on his few and correct words. For some time afterwards she suffered from poor health, and low spirits, although she had achieved half of what would be a Brontë happy ending: a small independent school in partnership with a member of her own family, and in 'A -, the fashionable watering-place', that is in Scarborough particularly dear to Anne.

Her former pupil Rosalie, now Lady Ashby, invited her to stay at Ashby Park, where her unhappiness and boredom in the married state, despite her splendid surroundings, sent Agnes back with more satisfaction to her own house and duties. During the summer Mr Weston, now vicar of a neighbouring parish, appeared on the sands—and not long afterwards a final happy ending was achieved in his marriage with Agnes Grey.

The time at Thorp Green, so important in Anne's development, is very insufficiently documented. We can see at once that 'Agnes Grey' could not have written The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 'Those', says one writer, 'who insist that life with the Murrays of Horton Lodge is an accurate picture of life with the Robinsons of Thorp Green must follow the story through to its conclusion, and find the model for Henry Weston (sic)….'8 Why should they not stop before he comes in? And in any case he was 'Edward' not 'Henry'. Another writer, Winifred Gérin, who does identify the experiences of Agnes closely with those of Anne Brontë is at least obliged to mention the difference in composition between the Robinson and the Murray families. But she says, astonishingly: 'To read Wildfell Hall in the light of Anne's and Branwell's experiences at Thorp Green is the only way to realise the book's true purpose and inspiration—which was not the story of Branwell's downfall, but of the world that made such a downfall possible.'9 We knew Branwell well enough before he went there in 1843 to imagine that no place could make his downfall improbable.

We know very little about life at Thorp Green. Until the last year Anne seems to have been ready (if not always contented) to withdraw from time to time her attempts at leaving. It was the first time she had had to share her life with people of a different sort; at Blake Hall she had been little more than a nursery governess, and further excluded from family life. Here she had to adjust herself to life with persons who had not her 'principles', to live in what (compared with Haworth) must have been a more 'permissive' society. If we judge not only from the book, but from her later friendship with her two younger pupils, we can feel that she had won a certain admiration by her steadiness; she must have been rather impressive.

The Revd Edmund Robinson did not exercise his holy orders; nevertheless he was locally respected, and must have been enough of a clergyman to have an orderly house. Anne, some two years after her employment there, arranged for Branwell to be engaged as tutor for the boy Edmund, and a year after his appointment Charlotte could write: 'Anne and Branwell are both wondrously valued in their situations.' Life at Thorp Green does not appear to have been at all like that at Grassdale Manor, the home of the profligate Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant It is elsewhere that Branwell had learned to drink.

We do not know much more if we try to identify Mrs Robinson with Mrs Murray in Agnes Grey, though she is called 'a handsome, dashing lady of forty'; Arabella Lowborough, the adulteress in Wildfell Hall went 'dashing on for a season' after her abandonment—I do not know if we may associate the two characters. If the children (as we are told) threatened their mother 'to tell papa about Mr Brontë' there must have been at least some indiscretion; and it is not certain that Mr Robinson was perfectly faithful to his wife. Something must have gone wrong in 1845, when Anne had those 'unpleasant experiences'.

Anne had the precious support of organized religion, without which her 'principles' might not have availed. It was the religion to which, no doubt, the Robinsons paid some sort of allegiance, of which Mr Robinson was a minister, and to whose charities Mrs Robinson contributed. In her own strong position Anne could live as an innocent in a rather unedifying world, and become felt as a moral influence. Her own evangelical position was becoming more assured, and she was to have a reformative purpose in writing her second novel, which was not yet developed in Agnes Grey.


1 Chitham and Winnifrith, Facts and Problems, p. 92

2 Cit. Ada Harrison and Derek Stanford, Anne Brontë: Her Life and Work, 1959, pp. 227-8

3 Winifred Gérin, Branwell Brontë, 1961, pp. 240ff

4 Edward Chitham, The Poems of Anne Brontë, 1979, p. 14

5 Ibid., no. 12

6 Ibid., p. 171

7 Harrison and Stanford, Anne Brontë, pp. 78f

8 Daphne du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë, 1972, p. 148

9 Gérin, Branwell Brontë, p. 317.

A. Craig Bell (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9387

SOURCE: "Agnes Grey," in The Novels of Anne Brontë: A Study and Reappraisal, Merlin Books Ltd., 1992, pp. 1-30.

[In the following essay, Bell studies the sources, structure, style, and characters of Brontë's "quiet, controlled, realistic" Agnes Grey.]

Like not a few novelists the Brontës began their career in the belief that they were first and foremost poets; and in fact their first work to be printed was their collective Poems, by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell published by Aylott & Jones in May, 1846. It was the complete failure of this little volume to make any impression on the literary world that drove them to try their fortunes yet again with novels. In Charlotte's words in her Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell:

Ill-success failed to crush us: the mere effort to succeed had given a wonderful zest to existence; it must be pursued. We each set to work on a prose tale: Ellis Bell produced "Wuthering Heights", Acton Bell "Agnes Grey", and Currer Bell also wrote a narrative in one volume1. These MSS. were perseveringly obtruded upon various publishers for the space of a year and a half; usually their fate was an ignominious and abrupt dismissal.

At last "Wuthering Heights" and "Agnes Grey" were accepted on terms somewhat improverishing to the two authors; Currer Bell's book found acceptance nowhere, nor any acknowledgement of merit, so that something like a chill of despair began to invade his heart …

I was just then completing "Jane Eyre", at which I had been working…. in three weeks I sent it off; friendly and skilful hands took it in. This was in the commencement of September, 1847; it came out before the close of October following, while Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, my sisters' works, which had already been in the press for months, still lingered under a different management….

Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey were finally brought out in one volume by Newby in the December of 1847—viz. two months after the publication by Smith and Elder of Jane Eyre.

The contrast between the two novels could not have been more startling: Wuthering Heights a blaze of febrile imagination, genius at white heat; Agnes Grey quiet, restrained, soberly realistic. And it was perhaps unfortunate for Anne that her tentative first essay as novelist should have been juxtaposed with one of the outstanding masterworks of fiction. Comparisons, generally odious, were made then and have gone on being made ever since. Yet, immature though Agnes Grey is, the novel has had, and still has, its admirers, notably George Moore, who in his Conversations in Ebury Street goes as far as to declare: ' … her first story, Agnes Grey, is the most perfect prose narrative in English literature…. It is the one story in English Literature in which style, characters and subject are in perfect keeping.' The critical reader and writer of today will no doubt shrug off such an assessment as adulatory, and only to be explained by Moore's saturation in French fiction and his passion for style and form—two aspects in which English novelists have always been indifferent. Be that as it may, so sensitive a critic, and a novelist, was not likely to throw bouquets where none was merited, and there can be no doubt that he would have been horrified by the treatment meted out to Anne Brontë at the hands of posterity. But before exploring the novel itself it may be as well to begin by querying an assumption which has generally been accepted as fact, namely, that the mysterious never-discovered Passages in the Life of an Individual to which Anne refers in her diary note of July 31st, 18452, is the original if cumbersome title of, and the same novel as, Agnes Grey. This may well be so; but if we go carefully into dates and references we shall find that there is no absolute and incontestable proof of the supposition, nor for assuming that Anne began on the work in 18423. All we know for certain of the Passages is that Anne had begun the third volume of it in July, 1845. Nothing else about it is known, and several queries remain unresolved.

In the first place, to assume the work to be identical with Agnes Grey implies that the 'Individual' of the title must necessarily be a feminine one. But it is already an arbitrary assumption in the light of Emily's statement in her diary paper dated the same as Anne's. She writes:

The Gondals still flourish as bright as ever. I am at present writing a work on the First Wars. Anne has been writing some articles on this, and a book by Henry Sophona. We intend sticking firm by the rascals as long as they delight us, which I am glad to say they do at present.

There is no reason why the imaginary writer Henry Sophona should not be the principle character of a narrative in much the same way that Charlotte had made Charles Wellesley both writer and character4: and though we have no certain ground for supposing that the 'book by Henry Sophona' was the Passages, we have no proof that it was not either. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that in her Birthday note of July 30th, 1841, Anne had written: 'I am now engaged in writing the forth volume of Solara Vernon 's Life.' What was this work? Again, might it have some connection. with the Passages? Like the Henry Sophona book it has disappeared into the limbo of the lost, and the Brontë student can only figuratively tear his hair in frustration when he considers on the one hand the wealth of material he might have had and on the other the little he actually has.

As regards the uncertain date of the composition of Agnes Grey then, we must renounce the Passages as giving us any firm clue; but taking all references into account, and particularly Charlotte's letter dated 6 April, 1846, to Aylott & Jones in which she states that 'C., E., and A. Bell are now preparing for the press a work of fiction consisting of three distinct and unconnected tales', the last months of 1845 and the first of 1846 would seen the most likely.

Whether or not Agnes Grey was the same novel as the Passages, after having been turned down by several publishers during the space of some eighteen months (according to Charlotte), it was accepted along with Wuthering Heights by Newby in the summer of 1847, and the two novels were published together by him in the December of that year as a three volume tome, Emily's novel taking up the first two volumes, Anne's the third volume.

Let us now turn to the novel itself which I propose to examine under three headings: (1) sources of inspiration (2) style and structure (3) characterisation.

I—Sources of Inspiration

Ever since the book's appearance it has always been assumed that it was strictly autobiographical, and Anne's own words and those of Elizabeth Gaskell tend to confirm the general belief. In her Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall Anne Brontë writes: 'As the story of Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant over-colouring in those very parts that were copied from the life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration, so …'; and in her Life Elizabeth Gaskell remarks: 'Agnes Grey'—the novel in which … Anne pretty literally describes her own life as a governess …' Nevertheless, too much weight can be given to this aspect of the story. For every writer, especially one of genius, however realistically he may transcribe a background and certain events which he knows from experience to be true, will inevitably bring to bear some touches to enhance and even distort plain fact. And that is why, as regards Agnes Grey, wherein fact goes hand in hand with fiction, we should be wary of trying to separate the two or to search for it in aspects of the author which would otherwise lie outside our knowledge of him or her.

Of course, this is not to deny that there is a strong autobiographical element in the novel. Like that of her creator, the childhood of Agnes Grey is spent in a vicarage in the North of England, and the walks taken with her sister Mary are among scenery reminiscent of the Haworth moors. A governess, too, like Anne, Agnes Grey also has two short successive posts, the one comparatively near her home, the other much further away: and like Anne, she is nineteen when she first leaves home. As for the Bloomfields and the Murrays, if we are to credit the general run of critics, Anne had no need of creative imagination to bring them to life—only her recollection of them as she found them. Again, this may be in part true, but only in part; for to take only one instance: we know for a fact that, quoting Anne, Charlotte in a letter to Ellen Nussey refers to Mrs. Ingham as being 'extremely kind', and in another as 'placid and kind', whereas in the novel Agnes describes Mrs. Bloomfield as 'cold, grave and forbidding'. Clearly Anne was simply taking novelist's licence here for the purpose of emphasising the lack of sympathy and understanding shown by the Bloomfields for her heroine. What was to prevent her from doing the same with the characters of the children in small or large degree in order to heighten the overall dramatic effect? This is even more apparent in her treatment of the Robinsons under the name of Murray. Had they been as inhumane as the latter are described in the novel, would Anne have risked, or even considered, suggesting her own brother, the impressionable Branwell, to them as tutor to their son? And even if—as we know she did—she left Thorp Green in disgust of her own accord, let it not be forgotten that in 1842 the Robinsons begged Anne to return to them, and that in fact she did go back for three more years. And finally we know for fact that in 1847, two years after Anne had left them, the two Robinson girls (one of them now married) began writing to her and making her their confidante, and in the December of 1848 even went so far as to go to Haworth to see their one-time governess—neither of which events suggests mutual abhorrence, to say the least.

Then too on the question of the clerics of the novel various theories have been put forward from time to time. Some have seen in Edward Weston, with whom Agnes falls in love and finally marries, a replica of Willie Weightman, even though there exists no positive proof that Anne did love him. But J. M. Dembleby5 and others have seen Weightman as being more nearly portrayed in Mr. Hatfield, pointing to the latter's ardour in courting Rosalie Murray, to his dandyism and to his High Church leanings as being known characteristics of Weightman. So there is room for doubt and speculation on this aspect too.

The influences referred to above may be considered as those of association. But others have also to be taken into account—literary influences above all. Like many young, inexperienced authors, for her first original published story Anne Brontë betrays in style, matter and form the influence of writers she admired and had taken to heart. Three works above all others can be singled out. These are Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, her father's Maid of Killarney and her sister Charlotte's The Professor. Let us consider each in turn.

The first had become an accepted 'classic' by the early 19th century, and we would have no reason to doubt the Brontës' knowledge of it even if Charlotte had not selected it in The Professor as the book used by M. Pelet's seminary 'because it is supposed to contain prime examples of conversational English'. The influence of Goldsmith's story on Agnes Grey is apparent both in the style and the matter. Take for example the opening passage:

All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut. Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge. I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others; but the world may judge for itself. Shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture; and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to my most intimate friend.

My father was a clergyman of the North of England, who was deservedly respected by all who knew him; and, in his younger days, lived pretty comfortably on the joint income of a small incumbency and a snug little property of his own. My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire's daughter and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her, that if she became the poor parson's wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady's maid, and all the luxuries and elegances of affluence; which to her were little less than the necessaries of life. A carriage and a lady's maid were great conveniences; but, thank Heaven, she had feet to carry her, and hands to minister her own necessities. An elegant house and spacious grounds were not to be despised; but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world. Finding arguments to no avail, her father, at length, told the lovers that they might marry if they pleased; but, in so doing, his daughter would forfeit every fraction of her fortune.

This is pure 18th century, with echoes of Goldsmith and Maria Edgeworth. It was only to be expected, of course, that first chapters should be the most uncharacteristic, those in which the young author would lean most heavily on her antecedents. But as she progresses, as she warms to her task and grows in confidence, a more natural, more contemporary style becomes apparent. One has only to contrast the above passage with—to take a random example—the account of Agnes's visit to the demesne of Lady Ashby, alias her one-time pupil, Rosalie Murray.

As we were strolling in the park, talking of what my companion had seen and heard during her travelling experience, a gentleman on horseback rode up and passed us. As he turned, in passing, and stared me full in the face, I had a good opportunity of seeing what he was like. He was tall, thin, and wasted, with a slight stoop in the shoulders, a pale face, but somewhat blotchy, and disagreeably red about the eyelids, plain features, and a general appearance of languor and flatness, relieved by a sinister expression in the mouth and the dull soulless eyes.

"I detest that man!" whispered Lady Ashby, with bitter emphasis, as he slowly trotted by.

"Who is it?" I asked, unwilling to suppose that she would speak so of her husband.

"Sir Thomas Ashby," she replied, with dreary composure.

"And do you detest him, Miss Murray?" said I, for I was too shocked to remember her name for the moment.

"Yes I do, Miss Grey, and despise him, too; and if you knew him you would not blame me."

"But you knew what he was before you married him."

"No, I only thought so; I did not half know him really. I know you warned me against it, and I wish I had listened to you; but it's too late to regret that now. And besides, mamma ought to have known better than either of us, and she never said anything against it—quite the contrary. And then I thought he adored me, and would let me have my own way; he did pretend to do so at first, but now he does not care a bit about me. Yet I should not care for that; he might do as he pleased if I might only be free to amuse myself and to stay in London, or have a few friends down here; but he will do as he pleases, and I must be a prisoner and a slave. The moment he saw I could enjoy myself without him, and that others knew my value better than himself, the selfish wretch began to accuse me of coquetry and extravagance; and to abuse Harry Meltham, whose shoes he was not worthy to clean. And then, he must needs have me down in the country, to lead the life of a nun, lest I should dishonour him or bring him to ruin; as if he had not been ten times worse in every way, with his betting-book, and his gaming-table, and his opera-girls, and his Lady This and Mrs. That—yes, and his bottle of wine, and glasses of brandy and water too! Oh, I would give ten thousand worlds to be Miss Murray again! It is too bad to feel life, health and beauty wasting away, unfelt and unenjoyed, for such a brute as that!" exclaimed she, fairly bursting into tears in the bitterness of her vexation.

This is different stuff altogether, and anticipates The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Nor is the influence of The Vicar of Wakefield confined only to style. Events, even, are copied with naive variation. Like Dr. Primrose, Agnes's father, in a despairing endeavour to enrich himself for the benefit of his family, entrusts all he can spare to a mercantile friend, the only difference being that in Goldsmith's novel the vicar loses his money through the dishonesty of the merchant, whereas in Anne Brontë's her father loses his because of the wreckage of the merchant's ships. Following which both families make heroic efforts in domestic retrenchment, the former by selling their two ponies, the latter parting with their 'useful phaeton … together with the stout well-fed pony' and making other domestic sacrifices.

From her father's modest little tale it is difficult not to believe that Anne took a hint from both the behaviours of Agnes and one of her clerics. The visits paid by Agnes to the poor widow Nancy Brown are strongly reminiscent of those of Flora Loughlean in The Maid of Killarney to the old and widowed Nancy. The similarity is underlined by the comparable circumstances of the two widows. Nanny, Irish and theoretically a Catholic, prizes the visits and Bible readings of Flora just as Nancy Brown does those of Agnes. Moreover Nancy, like Nanny, believes that the core of the Christian message is to be found in the Scriptures; but nevertheless hides her Bible under her pillow when the priest visits her. Like the priest, the High Church Hatfield does not approve of the hours devoted by Nancy to her Bible, and informs her that her time would be better spent attending church where she would hear the Christian truths expounded by those best fitted to interpret them.

Finally, The Professor. Study of these first novels of the two sisters can only strengthen belief that to begin with at least a strong mutual influence was engendered. We know from Elizabeth Gaskell's Life how 'The sisters … at this time … talked over the stories they were engaged upon, and described their plots. Once or twice a week, each read to the others what she had written, and heard what they had to say about it.' This being so, it is surely not far-fetched to believe that their communal ideas rubbed off, as it were, on one another, consciously or unconsciously. And if we analyse the two novels in question we shall find them analogous to two streams which run parallel to each other, now coming close but never merging, now diverging again, but always alike in direction. In both the common initial inspiration is to narrate the story of an ordinary human being who has to earn his living and for whom existence, largely for this reason, is an obscure, patient and courageous struggle. Added to which, even at this initial stage, there is the fact that the two 'subjects', or themes, were deliberately chosen by their authors because of their human veracity and moral force. In her Preface to The Professor, which remained unpublished until after her death, Charlotte declares that her 'hero' (William Crimsworth) would be an average working man and the story 'plain and homely'. In fact everything she has to say about Crimsworth and her novel can, with the mere substitution of the feminine for the masculine, be applied to the story of Agnes Grey. And it may be noted that both Crimsworth and Agnes are made to earn their living by the same profession—that of teaching. Not only so, but their love-life too follows similar paths, Agnes with Weston, Crimsworth with Frances Henri. In each of the novels circumstances separate the couples before they can declare their love—circumstances which change in the approved Victorian manner to allow the closing scenes to ring with harmonious wedding bells.

Other details too are mutually reminiscent. In the very first chapters Crimsworth and Agnes find themselves driven to seek work for comparable family reasons. Agnes's mother, daughter of an affluent squire, marries the poor clergyman Richard Grey against the wishes of her father, who disinherits her. Hard-pushed to live in reasonable comfort on Grey's stipend, they are brought face to face with poverty when most of his little capital disappears with the wreck of his business friend's ships. It is now that Agnes, though unfitted for the task, determines to earn her keep by becoming a governess. Similarly, when Crimsworth's father dies, a bankrupt, his widow can expect no help from her 'aristocratic brothers' who have never forgiven her for her mésalliance.

In chapter 13 of Agnes Grey, Mr. Weston picks flowers for Agnes; and in the next chapter deigns to give Mr. Hatfield the sprig of myrtle which he has begged for with such insistence. In chapter 12 of The Professor, Crimsworth persuades Zoraide Reuter to pick him a branch of lilac. In chapter 17 of Agnes Grey Rosalie and Matilda Murray plan to prevent Agnes from seeing Mr. Weston. In chapter 18 of The Professor, Mlle Reuter dismisses Frances Henri so that Crimsworth shall not see her again.

Some quite surprising parallels are to be noted too in the construction of the two novels. Both run to 25 chapters, similarly portioned out as regards the story of Crimsworth on the one hand and Agnes on the other. As already noted, the two characters begin their careers in similar circumstances. Chapters 2 to 5 of both novels narrate a check, a false beginning in the two characters' respective careers: Agnes failing to give satisfaction to the Bloomfields, who dismiss her; Crimsworth quarrelling with his brother after working for him for three months and leaving him. In chapter 6 Crimsworth and Agnes draw the lesson of their lack of success and prepare themselves for new experiences. In chapter 7 the scenes are set for different surroundings: Horton for Agnes, for Crimsworth Belgium and Brussels. In chapter 20 both leave their employers. The last five chapters see each in more secure and happier circumstances and fulfilled in their love-life.

All these parallels are too striking, too persistent, to be dismissed as coincidences. There must have been some degree of communication, even collaboration, between the two sisters. And this being so we are provided with further evidence that Agnes Grey is not just autobiography but in much greater degree than is generally reckoned a work of fiction, shaped to the demands of literary art rather than slavishly following a series of autobiographical events.

II—Style and Structure

The best way to substantiate the claim in the concluding paragraph made above, namely, that the novel is a work of fiction as much as an autobiography, is to give the reader a résumé of the story. Those who are already familiar with it may find new seed of thought for their assessment of the work; those who do not know it may perhaps be stimulated into reading it.

Agnes Grey is the younger of the two daughters of an Anglican clergyman, Richard Grey. She and her sister Mary enjoy a happy and protected childhood and adolescence. But this happiness and sense of security are shattered when her father loses all his invested capital by the wreck of his merchant friend's ships. In order to avoid being a drag on the family and to pull her own weight, Agnes, against the wishes of her family who have always 'babied' her and considered her unfit to cope with such a job, decides to become a governess—one of the few means in those days by which an intelligent woman could hope to earn a living. She anticipates with naive optimism the mental rewards of helping to train children in the paths of 'Virtue, Instruction and Religion'. In the home of the Bloomfields, her first employers, she is quickly disillusioned. The Bloomfields and their kin are ignorant, vulgar and pretentious, their children idle, coarse, undisciplined and vicious. After eight months of struggle with them Agnes is unable to improve their minds or their conduct, and Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield, considering her inefficient, give her notice.

Refusing to accede to defeat Agnes eventually finds a second post with a Mr. and Mrs. Murray of Horton Lodge. But there she soon discovers that she is regarded as little better than a servant and her pupils scarcely less tractable than the Bloomfields. There are four of them—two girls and two boys: Rosalie, Matilda, John and Charles, aged sixteen, fourteen, eleven and nine respectively. Like the earlier pupils at Wellwood, they resent their governess and are determined to make life as difficult and frustrating as they possibly can for her. A point worth observing is that while Anne's description of Mrs. Murray as 'a handsome, dashing lady of forty, who certainly required neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms,' may lay claim to being a likeness of Mrs. Robinson, that of Mr. Murray as 'a blustering, roistering country squire' devoted to fox-hunting, farming and drinking, can hardly portray her husband, the Rev. Edmund Robinson, 'soon to become a premature, valetudinarian and to die at the age of forty-six6'. In this one detail alone we see the mingling of fact with imagination on the part of Anne Brontë.

A new circumstance, however, enables Agnes to bear up against the trials and tribulations of her position. A young clergyman, Edward Weston, has lately become the curate of the parish of Horton. His quiet seriousness appeals to Agnes, and her growing secret love for him brings her unguessed happiness.

The weeks and months pass. Now eighteen, Rosalie 'comes out' and Agnes only has Matilda to educate. For her part, Rosalie has only one thought—to attract and flirt with men. Mr. Hatfield becomes one of her most ardent admirers, and she leads him on to such a degree that, believing she cares for him, he proposes to her: upon which she leaves him flat, then, out of boredom, proceeds, in front of Agnes, to make herself fascinating to Mr. Weston, leaving the poor governess in a state of dread lest she should succeed in taking him from her.

But some six months later Rosalie becomes Lady Ashby. She does not love Sir Thomas in the least, and marries him merely for his rank and fortune. Soon after this event Agnes learns that her father is dangerously ill. She leaves Horton at once only to arrive home too late and find that her father has died. Her mother, refusing to be dependant on anyone, decides to open a school at A——, a fashionable seaside place, and after a final six weeks at Horton, where she bids farewell to Edward Weston, she joins her mother at A——.

There, just under a year later, she receives an invitation from Rosalie, now mother of a baby girl, to visit her at Ashby Park. She finds her former pupil hard and cynical, with her marriage already in ruins.

Agnes returns to A——, and three days later, in the course of an early morning walk along the sands, she comes face to face with Edward Weston.

From him she learns that he left Horton and got the living of a parish bordering A——, and had been trying to locate her ever since his arrival. There is no obstacle now to prevent their happy union, and Agnes soon becomes Mrs. Weston. When she comes to recount her story she is the happy mother of three children.

We have already commented on the construction of the novel, and to our own comments may be added the interesting analysis of W. A. Craik7. Craik contends that the novel is more complex and subtle than may appear at first reading and stresses the fact of its being the story of not simply one character, but of two, namely Agnes Grey and Rosalie Murray; that as regards the former, the two episodes narrating her governess posts first at Wellwood and then at Horton are aligned not simply by chronological succession as a superficial reading might suppose; and finally that to no small degree the first episode is made to serve as a deliberate prelude to the longer and more important second. Hence the apparent imbalance between the four chapters devoted to the Bloomfields and the fourteen chapters given to the Murrays. The characters of the respective families vindicate Anne Brontë's intention here. The Bloomfields, whether exaggerated or not, are 'grotesques', their vulgarity, stupidity and sheer egoistic cruelty make them scarcely human, and certainly beyond the softening influence of any governess; and Anne Brontë perceived clearly that to devote an equal length of time and as many chapters to them as to the Murrays would serve only to surfeit the reader8. She therefore hastily passes on to the still unpleasant but more human Murrays. From then onwards Rosalie Murray becomes just as important to the story as the titular heroine, and in fact may be said to steal the limelight. Moreover, even when Agnes has left Horton more than a year, Rosalie, now Lady Ashby, invites her to come and visit her. Anne Brontë needed Rosalie Murray to drive home to her readers the dangers of lax parental authority and to show to what tragic results they could lead. This is underlined, without any preaching, by letting the reader see the contrast in the marriages of the two principle characters: that of Rosalie made through vanity and self-interest and ending in impasse; that of Agnes made through genuine affection and respect and blessed by children and a happy fireside home.

The simplicity of the structure and the directness of its style are in part responsible for the general under-rating of the novel and for certain criticisms which I believe to be mistaken. A typical example is that of Melvin R. Watson. In the chapter 'Form and Substance in the Brontë Novels' which occurs in his From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad9 he criticises Agnes Grey for … "its false start in chapters II-V, its lack of pointing and emphasis, its failure to achieve the climax which should have occurred in chapter XVIII, and the coincidences which crowd the last chapters …". The second of his criticisms alone is justified: the rest are very dubious. I have already replied to the first by stating my conviction that the so-called 'false-start' was a deliberate plan on the part of Anne Brontë to make it a sort of prelude to the main body of the narrative. In my opinion there is nothing 'false' about it.

The 'climax' in chapter XVIII to which this critic refers is evidently the death of Agnes's father. On receiving her mother's letter telling her of his serious illness, she leaves Horton at once and makes all speed for home.

My mother and sister both met me in the passage—sad—silent—pale.

I was so much shocked and terror-stricken that I could not speak…..

"Agnes!" said my mother, struggling to repress some strong emotion.

"Oh, Agnes!" cried Mary, and burst into tears.

"How is he?" I asked, gasping for the answer.


It was the reply I had anticipated: but the shock seemed none the less tremendous.

And that is the sole account we have of the death of Richard Grey. Now in the sum total of the narrative Agnes's father plays a merely indirect and minor role. Why then, we ask, should his death be made 'the climax' of the novel? On the contrary, should not Anne Brontë be lauded for dealing with the event so tersely and for avoiding the dreadful deathbed so beloved of so many Victorian novelists? In addition to which we demand also by what authority, what literary dogma, must a novel, in order to be considered well constructed, follow a curve of ascent and descent—a curve Melville Watson criticises Agnes Grey for not following?

As for the 'coincidences' which, according to him, 'crowd the last chapters', they are at the most two. The first is the nomination of Weston as vicar to a parish neighbouring A—— a little less than a year after he and Agnes had parted at Horton. The second is the accidental meeting on the beach at A——. But can the two events really be accounted pure coincidence? By his words to Agnes on their meeting he makes it clear that he has been searching for and making enquiries about her in a determination to find her; and far from their accidental meeting being a stretch of coincidence, anyone with any experience of the contrariness of life must have been made aware that where directed, organised effort to achieve a thing has failed, chance frequently brings about the passionately desired end10. Anne Brontë, I think, had come to know this, and had the strength of her conviction. The means, surely, justify the end. And in any case, to reject Anne Brontë and accept Hardy on the score of coincidence is to strain at gnats and swallow camels.

III—The Characters

The characters in the novel play no small part in eliciting the lavish praise bestowed on it by George Moore. Passing over Agnes herself for the moment, they may be divided into three groups: her family, the Bloomfields and the Murrays. Edward Weston has a special niche to himself in view of the role he plays in Agnes's life.

As regards the first group—the family—it will be observed that Anne Brontë devotes comparably few pages to them. But it will be observed too that while Agnes's sister, Mary, remains a mere shadow in the background, her parents leave on the reader's mind a sense of complexity, particularly her father. Esteemed and beloved both by his parishioners and his family, generous to the needy, constantly occupied in carrying out his religious duties and doing good, there is nevertheless something in his character which Agnes, scrupulous in her veracity, sees as a vague imperfection. She notes a certain sombreness in his nature, an impulsiveness, an instability even, causing him to veer inexplicably at times from optimistic cheerfulness to obsessive sadness. He is impractical and imprudent, confounds reality with chimeras, contracts debts, risks his capital on the word of a friend. She even refers to 'his morbid imagination;' and his egoism allows him, when he is ruined and stringent economy becomes the watchword of the family, to be pampered with his favourite dishes and warmed by a fire they can ill afford.

His wife is in direct contrast, strong where he is weak. She had no hesitation in sacrificing rank and fortune in order to marry the man she loved. Richard and she were made for each other, she used to say after his death. The instinctive desire to protect a more delicate being, one who had need of her, must surely have played a strong part in her decision. To her two daughters Mrs. Grey was always a thoughtful mother, clever, active and strong. Agnes, indeed, did not hide from herself a wish that she had been less generously endowed with some of these qualities and had left more initiative to her daughters, both mental and physical, rather than treating them like children—she, Agnes, in particular, being the baby of the family and never allowed to forget it. So, on hearing Agnes's intention to earn her keep and become a governess, her mother can scarcely believe her ears, and she and her husband and Mary try to laugh the idea out of the girl's head, though she is eighteen at the time.

The Bloomfields of Wellwood are the first 'outsiders' Agnes has to live with, and the shock of discovering that such people exist at all comes as a shattering blow to her ignorance of human nature. The family consists of the two parents and four children—Tom, Mary Anne, Fanny and Harriet aged seven, six, four and two respectively. To consider the parents first.

Anne Brontë has made Mr. Bloomfield violently antipathetic and seemingly without a single likable trait. He is bad-tempered and boorish, and given to drinking. The children are afraid of him and cringe from his verbal explosions and sometimes, even, blows. He is a tyrant to his wife as the scene at the dinner table in which he criticises her cooking and her management shows. A successful retired business man, money and a climb up the social scale have served only to accentuate the fundamental meanness of his nature. In front of Agnes he speaks of Tom and Mary Anne as Master Bloomfield and Miss Bloomfield, treats her as a servant and clearly regards her as being of inferior rank, even blaming her before the children for failure to cope with her duties.

His wife is equally antipathetic, though in a different way. Seen through Agnes's eyes her salient characteristic is a marble-like coldness, at least towards her governess. This does not prevent her from being full of solicitude for the welfare of her children; but this solicitude is blind and makes her completely ignorant of their true nature. While confessing to Agnes that they are "not very advanced in their attainments," she labours under the delusion that "they are clever children, and very apt to learn"—an opinion that time shows to be utterly purblind, as the poor governess was to find to her cost. In fact from the very first day Agnes realised she could count on neither help nor understanding from the mother.

Many readers of the novel, especially those of our own time, have felt the Bloomfield brood to be crudely overdrawn. But as we have already seen11, Anne Brontë resented such criticism strongly and went out of her way to deny its truth. Monstrous though they are, there is no reason why her word should be doubted. Those who have had to do with children in the mass, even children from normal homes, know only too well the thoughtlessness and cruetly they can show towards one another. Given a background such as the Bloomfield parents, with no sense of moral or mental discipline, the most vicious conduct should occasion no surprise. From her first introduction to them Agnes is brought to realise that both Tom and Mary Anne, the two who are to be her pupils, are not only ignorant scholastically, but ignorant of the first elements of social behaviour, and idle and vicious into the bargain. Dissimulation, hypocrisy and lying are their normal means of escaping punishment and for getting the blame for their delinquencies placed on their governess. Mary Anne is stupid and lazy and, like the worst type of girl, affected and a born coquette. Tom is even more revolting. A male chauvinist, egoist and sadist in embryo, he considers himself the 'boss' of the classroom, and that everything and everyone belongs to him by right of sex and age. He is vain and sets out to monopolise all Agnes's attention at the expense of his sisters. A natural tyrant, he expects not only his sisters but Agnes as well to pander to his caprices, and when thwarted does not hesitate to hit and kick them. Worst of all is his repulsive sadism. Unreproved by his parents, who consider it manly to be cruel, he sets traps for moles, weasels and birds and takes a vicious delight in torturing them. He swears and even drinks, encouraged by Uncle Robson, a fatuous would-be dandy who idles his life away in drink and pleasure, regards women with contempt as inferior beings and helps to corrupt his nephew by declaring he is going the right way to show the world he is a real man.

The family picture is completed by the presence of a grandmother, Mr. Bloomfield's mother. At first, deceived, Agnes takes her for a dear old lady, but soon discovers that the old woman's apparent goodwill is only a hypocritical cover for a furtively nasty nature. When by a colder attitude Agnes lets her see she has fathomed what she really is, the old woman never forgives her; and it is not a little due to her snide remarks criticising Agnes that the Bloomfields decide to give their governess her notice.

Telling herself philosophically that no position could be worse than hers had been with the Bloomfields, Agnes, determined as ever to do her share in easing the family financial burden, in answer to her advertisement finds herself taken on as governess by the Murrays of Horton Lodge.

The milieu here provides Anne Brontë with characters and scene very different from those of Wellwood. The Murrays belong to the "gentry" class, and this allows her not only to describe the family itself but quite a few personages who gravitate round the Murrays. These can be divided into two groups: on the one hand the poorer working people like old Nancy Brown and the farm hand Mark Wood; on the other the relations and social acquaintances.

To take the family first. As might be expected, Mr Murray's role in the narrative and his personal contact with the governess or his family are slight. A typical husband in this, he leaves all the household organising to his wife. He is, besides, far too busy devoting himself to the serious pursuits of fox-hunting, racing and drinking to give any time and thought to such a triviality as the education of his children. That is a woman's business. The only time Agnes sees anything of him is on Sundays when they go to church. But unlike Mr. Bloomfield he does not criticise her, and even condescends to nod at her on the rare occasions he passes by and give her a short "Morning, Miss Grey".

His wife, too, is physically and mentally an equal contrast to Mrs. Bloomfield. Vivacious and attractive, she lives in a world of social rivalries, her 'chief enjoyments [being] in giving or frequenting parties, and in dressing at the very top of the fashion'. Yet under her gay exterior Agnes soon discovers an equal indifference and hardness to that of Mrs. Bloomfield along with similar delusions as to the true nature and capabilities of her children. These, Agnes finds very early, if not as vicious as the Bloomfields, are bad enough to make her job anything but a sinecure. Charles, the youngest, was his mother's 'peculiar darling,' and by far the worst of the four, being sly, sullen and utterly spoilt. John she found unruly, unprincipled and unteachable—at least by a governess and under his mother's eye. Only when the two boys were sent away to school could Agnes's job be described as anything less than an almost unbearable daily misery.

With only the two girls left on her hands her task became more endurable, though only slightly so, for neither is a willing or dutiful pupil. Their different natures are drawn with broad strokes: Rosalie, the eldest, at seventeen, obsessed by 'the ruling passion … the all-absorbing ambition to attract and dazzle the other sex'; Matilda, approaching fifteen, 'a veritable hoyden … as an animal … all right, full of life, vigour and activity; as an intelligent being she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational'. Taking her cue from her father and the stable men she swore like a trooper, and was only happy when riding her pony or romping with her brothers and her dogs12.

Rosalie's career runs its inevitable course. After flirting shamelessly with married and unmarried men alike, her vanity and social ambition lead her finally to marry Sir Thomas Ashby with his coveted rank, wealth and estate, though she does not love him in the least. A year after their marriage she is brought to the point of hating her husband and having no natural maternal affection for her baby girl. Her disillusionment is so vividly, so almost brutally conveyed13, that the reader cannot be other than moved by it to pitying the already cynical and disenchanted young woman, realising as he must that her behaviour, cynicism and marital failure spring as much from false principles inculcated in childhood by blindly egotistical and unprincipled parents as from her own defects. Moreover, she wins our sympathy to some point by one likeable trait, namely, her esteem and, as far as her warped nature allows, her affection for her governess, proved as we have already intimated, by her invitation to Agnes to visit her after her marriage14. From all this it ensues that Rosalie is the most important character in the novel after Agnes herself. Outside the Murrays the most important protagonists are the two clerics—Mr. Hatfield, the rector, and Edward Weston, his curate—and in them Anne Brontë has delineated two very opposite and antagonistic characters, the former a ladies' man, gallant and debonair, the latter simple and sincere and devoted to his calling. Hatfield falls into Rosalie's tantalising snare, but it is his pride rather than his heart that is hurt when she snubs him and throws him callously over. Agnes reads him as shallow and 'confident in his own graces,' but finds herself more and more attracted by the less prepossessing but more unaffected and intellectual Weston, who besides, far from regarding her as beneath his notice as does Hatfield, goes out of his way to be friendly and to talk to her. His kindness, not only for her but for his poorer and less fortunate parishioners, turns her high regard for him slowly into a stronger feeling. When the time comes for her to leave the Murrays in order to help her mother with the school she has started in A—— she knows she is deeply in love with him, and the parting from him on her last Sunday at Horton outside the church wrings her heart. But how does he feel about her?

… a low voice beside me said: "I suppose you are going this week, Miss Grey?"

"Yes," I replied …

"Well," said Mr. Weston, "I want to bid you good-bye—it is not likely I shall see you again before you go."

"Good-bye, Mr. Weston," I said. Oh, how I struggled to say it calmly! I gave him my hand. He retained it a few seconds in his.

"It is possible we may meet again," said he; "Will it be any consequence to you whether we do or not?"

"Yes, I should be very glad to see you again."

I could say no less. He kindly pressed my hand, and went.

And that is the sum of their parting. Clearly we are made to feel that Weston is already in love with Agnes; yet that is all he can say and do about it. The reader may well feel that he scarcely deserves to be given the reward of meeting her again. The circumstances deserve comment.

It was almost certainly the deliberate intention of Anne Brontë to make her heroine's lover as far removed from the romantic fictional type as possible—even anti-romantic. This tallies with her sister Charlotte's portrayal of Crimsworth and Frances Henri in The Professor—incidently yet another similitude—and with their mutual determination to have no truck with cheap sentimentalism, vapid alluring heroines and heroes too gallant and too romantic to be true. The reasons for Charlotte's bias is of course obvious. Plain, insignificant-looking and with no feminine figure and charm herself, she envied in her secret heart women who possess physical charm, and yet at the same time forced herself to despise them and the men who ran after them while ignoring women like herself who had what such insipid beauties lacked—intellect and moral strength. So, avenging herself on actuality, she created through the medium of her novels the fulfilment of her hidden desires. Her heroes and heroines, though triumphant in the end, are never handsome or romantic. In the Brontë code you could never have your cake and eat it: you can't be vivacious, handsome and attractive and still make a happy marriage. There must be a fatal flaw somewhere, some moral balancing of the unfair odds. So Rochester must pay for his sexual delinquencies: first by the madness of the dazzling, stimulating Bertha Mason, his Creole wife, then, as if that were not enough, by disfigurement and mutilation later. When Crimsworth discovers Zoraide Reuter's treachery, he finds solace in the love of the plainer but more sincere and literary Frances Henri and is happy; she has to fall back on the middle-aged man-of-the-world Peret with dubious prospects of married bliss. Similarly in Agnes Grey. The attractive, unprincipled Rosalie Murray must be made to pay for her promiscuous flirtations and conquests by a marriage of selfish social ambition and a ruined life.

But, decree the Brontës, true worth wins in the end; and so Crimsworth gets his Frances and Weston his Agnes, and they are blessed with contented homes and happy children while the more superficially exciting 'baddies' get their desserts. If this cuts no ice with us, it certainly appealed to the Victorian moral code for which the virtuous had always to be rewarded and the unprincipled punished.

A final comment on the novel. If the reader feels a certain lack of impact and sense of drama, let him reflect that this is due in part to the want of experience in the young author, but is at the same time deliberate. He must keep in the forefront of his mind the fact that she purposely set herself to pen (as did Charlotte with The Professor) a plain, unvarnished, realistic tale relating simply the life of ordinary everyday persons without exaggeration, without the invention of romantic scenes, sensational events or melodramatic sentiment. As far as it is possible for a writer to bring off such a story convincingly, Anne Brontë has succeeded in her aim; and her novel links itself as co-equal with that other similarly conceived novel The Vicar of Wakefield for its quiet restraint achieved by a simple, factual, disciplined style which is all of a piece with her narrative. This is what George Moore had in mind when he asserted it to be 'the most perfect narrative in English literature … the one story … in which style, characters and subject are in perfect keeping.' As already admitted, this will probably strike the modern reader as excessively adulatory bearing Jane Austen in mind (to say nothing of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cousin Phyllis and Cranford); but the last words of his encomium at least are undeniably true. It is a style wonderfully attuned to subject and mood. Like certain actors, Anne Brontë is a master of the throw-away line, the deliberately under-played role. A perfect example is the little duologue (chapter 8) in which Agnes tells Rosalie her sister is going to be married.

"Is she—when?"

"Not till next month …"

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"I've only got the news in this letter, which you stigmatise as dull and stupid, and won't let me read."

"To whom is she to be married?"

"To Mr. Richardson, the vicar of a neighbouring parish."

"Is he rich?"

"No, only comfortable."

"Is he handsome?"

"No, only decent."


"No, only middling."

"Oh mercy! What a wretch! What sort of house is it?"

"A quiet little vicarage, with an ivy-clad porch, an old-fashioned garden, and——"

"Oh stop!——you'll make me sick. How can she bear it?"

"I expect she'll not only be able to bear it, but to be very happy. You did not ask if Mr. Richardson were a good, wise or amiable man; I could have answered Yes to all these questions." …

That passage may be said to telescope Anne Brontë's attributes as a novelist—at least at this comparatively early apprenticeship period. (With The Tenant of Wildfell Hall she was to extend her range enormously.) Of course, those readers who prefer the more fullblooded melodrama of Jane Eyre will probably find her tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and quiet irony unsatisfying. Certainly it has to be admitted that, like some of the novels of Willa Cather5, arguably the greatest American novelist after Henry James, Agnes Grey is a flat landscape and lacking dramatic conflict. Yet as George Moore observed, it has its own restrained beauty nonetheless. And if Edward Weston's manner of making his love known appears formal and cold, one may be forgiven for preferring it to the factitious passion of the Rochester-by-moonlight wooing6.

In conclusion. Perhaps the most perceptive comments on Agnes Grey are the indirect and direct dicta respectively of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charlotte Brontë. Discussing Trollope's novels the former enthused: 'They … are just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all the inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.' While no balanced judgement can place Agnes Grey on a par with Trollope's best novels, Hawthorne's evaluation, down-scaled, fits it well enough. Charlotte's description of her sister's novel as being 'the mirror of the mind of the writer' too, though vague, is acceptable. That mind is a quiet, controlled, realistic, detached one, but searching nonetheless. Agnes Grey shows us that mind in its burgeoning. It had to await the cruel passage of time and the inspiration of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall before it could come into full flowering.


1 Viz. The Professor.

2 See [The Novels of Anne Brontë: A Study and Reappraisal, by A. Craig Bell, Merlin Books, Ltd., 1992, p. xi].

3 See Winifred Gérin's Anne Brontë, p. 176

4 See her Albion and Marina and My Angria.

5 See Dembleby, The Confession of Charlotte Brontë; as to the letter written by Charlotte to Ellen Nussey the 7th April, 1840.

6 Gérin: Anne Brontë.

7 W. A. Craik, The Brontë Novels.

8 George Moore was the first to point out this structural aspect of the novel. (See his Conversations in Ebury Street.)

9 Published by the University of Minnesota Press, 1958

10 A further resemblance here to The Professor. After searching all the likely places for Frances Henri, Crimsworth comes across her by pure chance in the Protestant cemetery.

11 See ["I—Sources of Inspiration"].

12 In passing one is unable to resist quoting a passage which Anne Brontë gives as an specimen of Matilda's coarseness of expression. This occurs in chapter 9 where we find this piece of dialogue between the mincing Rosalie and her hoyden of a sister:

"Well, now get along," replied Miss Murray; "and do, dear Matilda, try to be a little more lady-like. Miss Grey, I wish you would tell her not to use such shocking words; she will call her horse a mare, it is so inconceivably shocking! And then she uses such dreadful expressions in describing it; she must have learned it from the grooms …"

This is obviously almost direct reportage, and must take all the prizes as a specimen of Victorian prudery and hypocrisy.

13 See ["I—Sources of Inspiration"].

14 See ["I—Sources of Inspiration"].

15 E.g. Death comes for the Archbishop, Shadows on the Rock, The Professor's House, One of Ours.

16Jane Eyre, chapter XXIII.

Elizabeth Hollis Berry (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14722

SOURCE: "Agnes Grey: 'Pillars of Witness' in 'The Vale of Life,"' in Anne Brontë's Radical Vision: Structures of Consciousness, English Literary Studies, 1994, pp. 39-70.

[In the following essay, Berry surveys the imagery of Agnes Grey, evaluating its thematic significance and artistry.]

"All true histories contain instruction," reads the opening sentence of Agnes Grey.'1 This pointed assertion, linking truth with history and instruction, suggests a didacticism which, as Anne Brontë is careful to demonstrate at the outset, is tempered with an "entertaining" (3) or witty analysis of social structures. She addresses the reader directly in the opening paragraph, referring to the "kernel" of truth contained in the "nut" of her "history": a history which she thinks "might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others" (3). In this way Anne Brontë sets up the authentic base for her story and indicates a cogently defined balance between art and moral utility.

The cryptic suggestiveness of the opening "nut" image works well in securing the reader's attention, and it immediately becomes clear that the self-styled honesty or directness of her writing is not to be mistaken for simplistic moralizing or lack of conceptual depth. There is more to Agnes Grey than a simple moral tale. After illustrating Anne Brontë's controlled style and intellectual purpose in the reference to the "instruction" contained in "true histories," the first sentence continues: "though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut" (3). The mock self-deprecation of the nut image suggests that the metaphorical "treasure" in Agnes Grey will be anything but "dry" or "shrivelled." Evidently, Anne Brontë's images are meant to convey symbolic truths, and her social and moral observations are to be found inside their shells.

Within the image patterns of her narrative are subtly intertwined motifs which operate cumulatively to create progressively deeper shades of meaning. The poetic aspect of Anne Brontë's writing lies in her imagery, and here her work shares certain similarities with that of Emily Brontë. But Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall differ from Wuthering Heights in their detailing of a spiritual passage towards a moral end.2 Anne Brontë is painstakingly careful to point out in the first lines of Agnes Grey that her illustrations of this particular pilgrim's progress have an instructional purpose. Yet, at the same time that she presents fiction as an instructional tool, she clearly exploits the complex allusiveness of image-filled poetic language and its embodiment of feeling. The combined expressive and structural function of her imagery simultaneously gives her fiction moral and poetical qualities.

Reflected in the analytical and confessional aspects of her lyric poems, Anne Brontë's recognition of poetry as a philosophical and therapeutic record of experience is echoed in the narrative of Agnes Grey. At a crucial point in Agnes Grey's spiritual development, she emphasizes the mediational value of poetry when "long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves … and which, yet, we cannot, or will not wholly crush" (153). In the chapter appropriately entitled "Confessions" Agnes describes poetry as both "penetrating and sympathetic" and explains how she uses it as experiential analysis, to recognize and cope with life's changing patterns:

Before this time, at Wellwood House and here [at Horton Lodge], when suffering from home-sick melancholy, I had sought relief twice or thrice at this secret source of consolation; and now I flew to it again, with greater avidity than ever, because I seemed to need it more. I still preserve those relics of past sufferings and experience, like pillars of witness set up, in travelling through the vale of life, to mark particular occurrences. (154)

The "vale of life" through which Agnes travels on her journey to self-discovery is described by the images of different houses and the spaces between them. These images of enclosed or open spaces are the metaphorical "pillars of witness" which are "set up" to mark her progress as she moves from the "old grey parsonage" (15) of home to the grander establishments of Wellwood House and Horton Lodge, and, finally, a "respectable looking house" (196) by the sea. Comparable to the settings that mark Jane Eyre's progress from Gateshead to Ferndean, the landscapes and elements which form the open spaces between the houses create the emotional atmosphere of Agnes's passage and mark the psychological and spiritual significance of each step along the way.

As Anne Brontë maps out the particular "vale of life" through which Agnes travels, the metaphorical "pillars of witness" which are used to chart her progress give greater insight into the character's consciousness than was commonly found in other works of the governess type.3 Unlike other protagonists from governess novels of the period, Agnes Grey is not a stereotype: she expresses an egalitarian individualism which is, like the landscape of her native hills and "woody dales" (112), roundly defined. In discriminating between Agnes's vigorous enthusiasm for the freedom of the seashore and her fear of "petrifying" (103) in the dark recesses of her employers' great houses, Anne Brontë refers to natural topography and seasonal change to illustrate a major thematic concern with the boundaries and limits imposed on the captive spirit by social structures of ownership within a repressive hierarchy. Lamenting the captive spirit's plight, Anne Brontë identifies herself as a "captive dove" in the poem of the same name, and her two fictional heroines are equally represented as captives whose awareness of what lies outside their confines adds to the "despair" of imprisonment until they escape from the drudgery of a soulless existence.4

Characters and relationships are repeatedly given definition, then, by reference to features of external setting. The choice of weather imagery for this purpose is one which Anne Brontë shares with her sisters, particularly Emily, and, as in Wuthering Heights, weather patterns are. carefully schematized throughout Agnes Grey and The Tenant. Chitham, after noting some of the obvious similarities between Wuthering Heights and The Tenant, remarks that these similarities "stem from common Brontë preoccupations."5 One such preoccupation was undoubtedly the weather, which appears as a major force in the letters of both Charlotte and Anne. Anne's poignant, cross-written letter (to Ellen Nussey) shortly before her death in 1849 makes particular mention of weather patterns. Here, as in her novels, she refers suggestively to the impact of weather on the inner landscape of the psyche when she agrees that May "is a trying month," for the "earlier part is often cold enough"; but with characteristic equanimity, she asserts that experience supports her belief in a natural pattern of mitigating warmth later: "we are almost certain of some fine warm days in the latter half when the laburnums and lilacs are in bloom."6

Agnes Grey's relationship with her employers and with Edward Weston can be charted through clearly linked weather images. Upon Agnes's arrival at the Murrays' house, the weather assures her of an oppressively limiting, ice-bound experience. She is shown rising "with some difficulty from under the super-incumbent snowdrift," which has been deposited on her by a "most bewildering storm" (60). Suggesting the kind of perilous, snow-covered pitfalls encountered by Lockwood in the third chapter of Wuthering Heights, the heavy load of this snow points to the bewildering and heavilytaxing experiences which await Agnes at Horton Lodge. Agnes is trapped by her social inferiority in the Murray household, just as she is restricted in her movements by the freezing snow.

The varying intensity of Agnes's relationship with Weston is also indicated by the weather. From the "bright sunshine and balmy air" (111) which sets the mood for their happy encounter over the primroses, the weather changes to "one of the gloomiest of April days, a day of thick, dark clouds, and heavy showers" (141) when Rosalie Murray determines to "fix that man" (139), and seems to be securing Weston's interest. Again, towards the close of the novel, weather imagery emphasizes the mounting apprehension and emotional "heat" which Agnes feels when she and Weston rediscover each other, feelings which are significantly displayed in the chapter's initial focus on "the heat of the weather" (203). The emotional tension of their reunion is then effectively released when both the weather and Weston's silence break. Weston's explanatory statement, "it was not my way to flatter and talk soft nonsense" (207), and his confession of love for Agnes both take place on a day when a "thunder-shower had certainly had a most beneficial effect upon the weather" (206). Agnes's growing inner sense of calm resolution is also correlated with the change in the weather: "a heavy and protracted thunder-shower during the afternoon had almost destroyed my hopes of seeing him that day; but now the storm was over, and the sun was shining brightly" (205). In this concluding chapter, where Anne Brontë recreates a sunny inner calm after the outer storm, the mild, sunny weather acts as a metaphor for the serenity of an integrated consciousness that balances life's problems with faith. Mirroring this preoccupation with spiritual reconciliation, a comparable concern with the weather's emotional import occurs in Emily Brontë's representation of a soft wind blowing peace over the sleeping spirits at the end of Wuthering Heights.

Anne Brontë also uses wind imagery in Agnes Grey for the delineation of character. Certain figures are characterized by images of winds blowing both hot and cold, the effects of hot and cold air also defining an imbalance in particular characters and metaphorically representing forms of communication. The unseasonably cold and windy weather upon Agnes's arrival at the Bloomfield residence in September implies that winter has begun early, signifying a wintry mood which, in emotional terms, accords with Agnes's new experience. Although Agnes's spirits are high with positive expectations, Anne Brontë stresses (through the meteorological specificity of a "north-easterly wind") that the miserable weather makes the journey noticeably longer and harder to bear: "the heavy clouds, and strong northeasterly wind combined to render the day extremely cold and dreary, and the journey seemed a very long one" (16). The cold, biting wind provides emphatic metaphorical support to Agnes's experience of Mrs. Bloomfield's bitterly unwelcoming reception and also emphasizes her vulnerability as the young governess in the hands of a new employer. Mrs. Bloomfield's way of speaking to Agnes evokes an emotional winter: she is "chilly in her manner" (17), and to her newly-arrived employee she directs "a succession of commonplace remarks, expressed with frigid formality" (17).

Anne Brontë's choice of wind imagery here combines with the physical description of Agnes to show her blighted both by the actual physical cold without and the emotional cold within. Her exposure to the "bitter wind" has left her hands "almost palsied" (18) by the numbing cold, in an enactment of the psychological chill that freezes her faculty of speech and reduces her to an inarticulate nonentity. Agnes later recalls that the few words she is able to speak are "spoken in the tone of one half-dead, or half-asleep" (17). Echoing the expression of those forlorn, imprisoned Gondal figures in Anne Brontë's poetry, Agnes's description of her impaired voice emphasizes the silencing and numbing effect of her passage to this alien place. Agnes's distress is marked by feebly self-deprecating humor: "'My hands are so benumbed with the cold that I can scarcely handle my knife and fork,"' apologizes Agnes, "with a feeble attempt at a laugh" (18). Mrs. Bloomfield's words maintain the icy imagery in an answer meant to silence the underling: "'I dare say you would find it cold,' replied she with a cool, immutable gravity that did not serve to reassure me" (18). In this metaphorical embodiment of social barriers, Agnes is emotionally left out in the cold.

Yet, moving beyond the limited emotional scope of the Gondal poems, this part of the narrative reveals Anne Brontë's wry humor. In an acutely rendered psychological representation of shame, she creates a scene where Agnes's childlike discomfort is countered by an ironic, detached perspective of the adult. She achieves this through her choice of diction: Agnes is "sensible that the awful lady was a spectator to the whole transaction" of her inept attempt to cut the tough meat (18). The elevated formality of the language that presents a powerful authority figure set against the absurdity of the situation indicates two disparate levels of experience which recreate a psychological paradox. On one level, Agnes recognizes herself as a dependent child, sitting with a fork in her fists, "like a child of two years old," grappling with her dinner; on another level, she recalls the daunting impression of authoritarian pomposity in the "awful lady" growing proportionately more grandiose as she witnesses the absurd "transaction" (18).

Anne Brontë uses this dramatization of discomfort in combination with the winter imagery to indicate Agnes's alienation from her employers, her laconic self-representation firmly contained within the context of oppression. Agnes's "palsied" hands (18) and her inability to converse refer metaphorically to the recurring theme of freedom versus restraint. Through these details, Anne Brontë demonstrates how the power of self-expression is taken away from Agnes, and her active self is held in check, prevented from any freedom of expressive action by the deadening bonds of social tyranny.

Throughout Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë's use of weather imagery provides an analogous commentary on characters and their methods of communication. The way in which certain characters blow hot or cold like the wind suggests their inherent distance from, or proximity to, a golden mean of spiritual balance. In her method of signifying, one feels that Brontë grasped a notion comparable to that of the redefining semiotic force within language,7 for radical redefinitions emerge from her acute representation of the ways in which different characters communicate. Encoded in the way her characters speak or maintain silence is a wealth of information about role, power, gender and intellect. While Mr. Murray, a florid "hearty bon-vivant" (63), puffs away stoutly in his own milieu, he is almost devoid of expression when faced with a lowly female minion such as Agnes. Hatfield, too, is all expressive energy when he comes "flying from the pulpit in such eager haste to shake hands with the squire" (84), or "sweeping along like a whirlwind, with his rich silk gown flying behind him, and rustling against the pew doors" (85), but he can find barely a murmur of comfort for the impoverished family of "poor Jem" (his dying parishioner) or for a sadly troubled Nancy Brown (100-101).

What emerges from Mr. Murray's failure to communicate (other than by extremes) is a demonstration of hierarchical boundaries. Both his limits as a man and his powerful position at the head of the squirearchy are encoded in the scant greeting reserved for Agnes. This barely acknowledges her existence and offers a form of silent dismissal for that female sub-species, the governess. His "'Morning Miss Grey,' or some such brief salutation," is delivered with an "unceremonious nod" (63); whereas his "blustering" personality is known to Agnes from other sources and from the sound of his raucous laughter in the distance or his frequently voluble blaspheming against the hapless male servants. In Agnes's significant remark that she never sees him "except on Sundays," when he joins other highly-respected but similarly unsympathetic members of the community in church, Brontë points to the hypocrisy of a fixed social order.

Like Arthur Huntingdon in The Tenant, Mr. Murray is a representation of what Juliet McMaster calls "the masculine ethos of the Regency";8 by setting off his meagre dialogue with the earnest governess against the rough profusion of his speech with the male servants, Brontë's rendering of this ethos is instructive. Her analysis of social structures indicates that it is not simply a question of Agnes's being culturally unworthy of his conversation: what Brontë implies is, rather, a psycho-social dysfunction on the part of Mr. Murray which prevents either rational or affective dialogue. This inability to speak the same language as their young employee places both Mr. and Mrs. Murray firmly in the old order, whereas the enlightened governess, with her concepts of equality and moral integrity, heralds a new era which is altogether foreign to the Murrays and their unquestioning ilk. Thus the only sounds to penetrate Agnes's isolated world echo an intemperate roughness which violates the gentle humanitarian values she holds dear. In Agnes Grey, then, the lack of meaningful dialogue between master and servant, mistress and governess, demonstrates the supposed insignificance of the "hireling" (69): in these scenes, Anne Brontë's images re-enact the voicelessness of those who do not signify within an unbalanced social structure.

This concern with the influence of social structures on forms of expression and types of character emerges again in Anne Brontë's use of facial imagery. Pointing to the thematic emphasis on balance according to a divinely ordained natural order, Brontë also delineates her characters' emotional states through her depiction of facial coloring. The ability to hide feelings with practised ease, as Rosalie Murray does, is countered in the narrative by a moral lesson on the price to be paid for artifice of any kind. When Hatfield's hot and misguided pursuit of Rosalie ends in her rejection of him, the first indication of his pain is shown in his loss of color, which implies a loss of face. In contrast, the coquette's controlled dissimulation enables her to keep her "countenance so well that he could not imagine that I [Rosalie] was saying anything more than the actual truth" (127). The effect is given further emphasis when it is reported through Rosalie's callous recollection: "You should have seen how his countenance fell! He went perfectly white in the face" (127).

Although such facial images are used by other novelists (such as Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth—whose work she well knew), Anne Brontë indicates a keenly observed awareness of the blush as psychological marker. Giving a slight twist to the symbolic link between warm coloring and healthy vitality, Brontë shows some characters with heightened color as they exert an unnatural or excessive control over others. The extremely violent passions and "insensate stubbornness" of Mary Anne Bloomfield are marked by the "high colour in her cheeks" (32,19); and Rosalie's news of her dishonest conquest is conveyed "with buoyant step, flushed cheek, and radiant smiles showing that she, too, was happy, in her own way" (126). Resonating with the moral implications suggested by earlier narrative depictions of guilty pleasure, this image of the blushing check recalls the unhealthy flush of "distemper" which signals Eve's downfall after she has eaten the fruit in Paradise Lost.9

In the case of Rosalie, this changing facial imagery embodies the destructive tendencies of her character and indicates how she sufers through her misuse of power. A similar embodiment of destructive energy is presented in the grim portrait of Rosalie's ill-chosen husband, whose face, "pale, but somewhat blotchy, and disagreeably red about the eye-lids," is a physiognomical map of debauchery (192). Brontë furthers the impression of their marriage's devastating impact on Rosalie through images that recollect the former vitality of the young bride:

a space of little more than twelve months had had the effect that might be expected from as many years, in reducing the plumpness of her form, the freshness of her complexion, the vivacity of her movements, and the exuberance of her spirits. (184)

This list of Rosalie's former glories, preceded by the verbal "reducing," has the effect of a flashback which demonstrates through the syntactic shape of the sentence a measurable reduction of her vital self. Although the character of Rosalie is ultimately treated in a relatively sympathetic light, these metaphorical pointers to her physical and moral flaws unobtrusively imply the value of a thinking woman (Agnes), set against the dubious worth of one who is frivolous and unprincipled. Brontë makes this implicit comparison between the two by showing Rosalie's thoughtless actions focalized in Agnes's pained but caring reactions to her former pupil. Thus when Agnes counsels Rosalie to be a dutiful wife and a loving mother, to find "genuine affection" (194) at least from caring for her unwanted daughter, "the unfortuate young lady" (195) recognizes the "wisdom and goodness" (194) in Agnes's views but refuses to acknowledge their relevance in a life she feels is "wasting away" for want of youthful passion (193). Although clearly self-made, the thoughtless Rosalie's plight is subtly emphasized by Agnes's shrewdly ironic perspective, combined with her "heavy heart" at the young woman's tearful clinging and "intreaties," as "poor Lady Ashby" desperately begs for "consolation" from the governess

whose general tastes and ideas were so little congenial to her own, whom she had completely forgotten in her hours of prosperity, and whose presence would be rather a nuisance than a pleasure, if she could but have half her heart's desire. (195)

Equally effective in its subtle emphasis, Brontë's use of heat imagery suggests the moral gulf between two spiritually antithetical male characters: Murray and Weston. Revealing a social paradox in her representation of these two figures, Brontë portrays Weston as the ideal of manhood, whose character emphasizes, in Winifred Gérin's words, "the silent worth of a deeply charitable nature,"10 and exemplifies the thematic interest in spiritual balance. Weston's fiery defence of Nancy Brown's lost cat in the face of the angry Squire Murray and his gamekeeper offers an ironic comment on different kinds of emotional heat.

Supposing that Murray is "accustomed to use rather strong language when he's heated" (108), Weston explains his confrontation with the greedy landowner in words which imply that his own warmth is of a softer genus than that of the hot-tempered Murray:

"Miss Grey," said he .. "I wish you would make my peace with the squire, when you see him. He was by when I rescued Nancy's cat, and did not quite approve of the deed. I told him I thought he might better spare all his rabbits than she her cat, for which audacious assertion, he treated me to some rather ungentlemanly language, and I fear, I retorted a trifle too warmly." (107-108)

Placed in this context, the heat image becomes more than an indication of temperament and takes on more widely reaching social and moral implications. Clearly, Murray's heat has nothing to do with a burning concern for fellow beings, the kind of heartfelt warmth evinced by the three characters who sit discussing the incident in the gentle glow of Nancy's cottage fire. In his egalitarian attempt to redress the social balance, Weston's warmly indignant retort contrasts the "ungentlemanly" response of Squire Murray who is hotly defending his territorial rights as landowner. Murray's is the unbalanced heat of a choleric and irrational tyrant, a sign of his excess in contrast to the warm indignance of one who would challenge social inequities. Unlike the Murray family, whose unjust use of wealth and position cannot be excused, Weston represents the kind of warm character who is blameless and needs no apology. Weston's egalitarian mentality will allow the possibility of conciliation, but the squire's extreme nature and position will not. With wry significance, Anne Brontë gives Weston the final comment: "then with a peculiar half-smile, he added, 'But never mind; I imagine the squire has more to apologise for than I.' And left the cottage" (108).

Central to the middle chapter (12) in which these scenes take place is the archetypal symbol of the hearth or fireplace, the source of other kinds of "warmth." Signaled by its obviously pivotal situation in the narrative, the health is a key image in Agnes Grey, just as it in The Tenant. The hearth not only recurrently defines the importance of family within Anne Brontë's scheme, but it also offers a focus for her ethical inquiry into the contradictions of a society that houses the frigid, overindulged "superiors" in far better circumstances than those of the caring, disenfranchised workers.

Early in the novel, the warmth of loving devotion which fuels Agnes Grey's exemplary family is suggested in the reference to her parents' bond: "if she [Agnes's mother] would but consent to embellish his humble hearth, he [Agnes's father] should be happy to take her on any terms" (4). The mutual respect expressed in Agnes's parents' marriage is of primary importance in enabling them to deal with the financial misfortunes that leave their hearth humbled to the point of emptiness. Agnes recalls the family's united response to a period of ill-fortune when her father's mercantile investments are literally sunk in a shipwreck:

then we sat with our feet on the fender, scraping the perishing embers together from time to time, and occasionally adding a slight scattering of the dust and fragments of coal, just to keep them alive. (8)

Although short of physical heat, Agnes's family is rich in emotional warmth, and the close family ties are actually heightened by their scant rations. In the Grey family the valued commodity of warmth is "carefully husbanded" (8), and because they look after the fire (as they look after each other) the "perishing embers" of family life are kept alive.

The warm farewells of these loving people she has left at home emphasize the bleakness of Agnes's reception at Wellwood. Her "bright hopes, and ardent expectations" (13) are abruptly shattered by her discovery that Mrs. Bloomfield is not the "kind, motherly woman" (16) she hoped would meet her. Her employer is as cold and dreary as the autumn weather. Again, arriving at Horton Lodge in a snow storm that mirrors the emotional climate, Agnes discovers icy desolation, as the "kind and hospitable reception" which she naively anticipated is coolly withheld (60). The imagery stresses that this pilgrim endures a cold and "formidable passage" (59) from place to place, and her movements are not eased by any nurturing warmth from the hierarchical establishment.

The governess's enforced isolation and lowly status are immediately brought home to Agnes by the distant situation of her allotted living quarters. The bleak space reserved for her is placed away from the warm core of the house: "up the back stairs, a long, steep, double flight, and through a long narrow passage" (61). Even more suggestive of her removal from human warmth is the "small, smouldering fire" (61) whose paucity of flame offers a poignant comment on the lack of a great blaze of warm comfort to greet the solitary traveller. What awaits her is a visibly deadening, disturbingly blank "wide, white, wilderness" of the "alien" unknown (62). This inhospitable landscape suggests a winter of the soul, where her imprisoning servitude is metaphorically reinforced by the cold, cramped room, in which Agnes's spirit must smoulder like the fire until it is released and given the freedom to burn brightly.

Mrs. Murray's attitude and stance implicitly exclude Agnes from any warm acceptance. She is pictured standing by the fire, while commenting tersely on the weather and the "rather rough" (64) journey of the previous day. Brontë gives us the spatial impression of the mistress standing between the fireplace and her new governess, effectively blocking any warmth from Agnes who ruefully compares herself to a "new servant girl" accorded scant consideration (64). Agnes points out that this treatment differs markedly from the comfort or welcome offered to a newcomer by her own mother (also a "lady"), who, in contrast to Mrs. Murray, "would have seen her immediately after her arrival … and given her some words of comfort" (64). Within the compass of Anne Brontë's tale, however, the comfort never comes from the rich: the gentlefolk avoid gentle acts of kindness when a poor family needs help, leaving an impoverished curate to provide the consumptive laborer "poor Jem" with the life-sustaining warmth of a good fire. The worldly cleric, Hatfield, offers no help other than "some harsh rebuke to the afflicted wife," or a "heartless observation," but Weston reacts with thoughtful generosity, as Nancy Brown reports: "when he seed how poor Jem shivered wi' cold an' what pitiful fires we kept … he sent us a sack of coals next day; an' we've had good fires ever sin"' (101).

From Brontë's differentiation between the cottages' honest warmth and the frigidly "proper" (39) households of the ill-bred rich, emerges a trenchant dialectic that runs beneath the surface of her apparently quiet narrative. Within the "shells" of these images of the hearth and fireplace is a discussion about innate divisions in the mainstream Victorian sensibility. Contemporary belief systems incorporated a strong sense of moral endeavor within an apparently incompatible stress on material gain. The fireplace stood at the core of the Victorian home, and became a popular symbol for the sort of solid virtues and lofty idealism which are noticeable by their absence from the rich houses of Agnes Grey. The sustaining warmth and hearty strength associated with the hearth are more likely to be found in the humble cottages of characters such as Nancy Brown, than in the "great" houses of the Murrays or the Bloomfields. These carefully placed images reveal the radically charged perception that whereas the cottage fireside is closed to nobody, only a privileged inner circle is invited to share the manorial hearth.

Implicit in Anne Brontë's variations on the hearth motif is an indictment of society's hypocritical endorsement of two such mutually exclusive notions—that of loving one's neighbors, and that of boldly exploiting them either for personal gain or in the name of maintaining the established order. The Evangelical emphasis on duty, which was so stringent a part of Anne Brontë's consciousness, led to an awareness of the need to conform socially. Yet, a mind and heart attuned to the egalitarian doctrines of non-conformist theology could not avoid the troubling conclusion that the existing structure was dangerously riven. The hearth, as the functional heart of family life, is an effective focus for her examination of social and spiritual divisions.

After years at Horton Lodge with the Murrays, denied the nurturing warmth of the family hearth, of acceptance as an equal, of "real social intercourse" (102), or even of companionship, Agnes understandably (perhaps even inevitably) experiences an inner death. Identifying as "a serious evil" (102) the savage influence exercised on her moral consciousness by such "ignorant" (102), restrictive employers, she begins to fear for her soul:

Already, I seemed to feel my intellect deteriorating, my heart petrifying, my soul contracting, and I trembled lest my very moral perceptions should become deadened, my distinctions of right and wrong confounded, and all my better faculties be sunk, at last beneath the baneful influence of such a mode of life. (103)

The terms "petrifying," "contracting," and "deteriorating" suggest the sort of forensic observations which might be used for scientific purposes to record the inexorable destruction of life by the "baneful influence" of blind external forces. The statement is not simply that growth is inhibited in the absence of warmth or light: what makes the imagery memorable is that these objectively distancing terms are applied to something as intensely subjective as the internal anguish of a soul in torment.

Anne Brontë does, however, make it clear that relief and sustenance can be found for the "contracting" soul (103) in the living glow of Nancy Brown's kitchen fire, where "there's room for all" (106). This openly shared fire offers a comforting respite from the artificial restraints of Agnes's almost "deadened" (103) existence in the frigid environment of the mansion house. By juxtaposition, Brontë demonstrates how Agnes's cry from the very heart she fears is "petrifying" is immediately answered in the spiritual and moral reassurance of the scene where Nancy's cat is restored to its fireside place by Mr. Weston. Both Agnes's and Weston's commitment to a truly benevolent ideal of service takes them to the heart of Nancy's predicament and to a fireside which welcomes all—regardless of rank or fortune. The conviction that all are entitled to share the fire is borne out in a series of concerned protestations, from Nancy's "Won't you come to th' fire, miss?" to Weston's "But it strikes me I'm keeping your visitor away from the fire" (107). Their love of and concern to share the fireside (specifically mentioned in Thackeray's definition of a "gentleman")" identify the happy trio seated by Nancy's humble fire as nobler souls. Regardless of rank, these three are clearly closer to the lofty ideals of well-bred gentility than anything evinced by the ironically styled "angles of light" (90) up at the manor.

This spatially differentiated detailing of the natural nobility to be found in the cottage as distinct from the Lodge is ironically reinforced in the narrative by references to misplaced acts of charity. Agnes specifies the ways in which the "grand ladies" misconstrue the very meaning of nobility in the shabby condescension of their pretence at charitable actions. Focusing on Rosalie Murray's hunger for a noble title, Brontë comments scathingly on the ignoble practices of those like Rosalie, who would wish to be ennobled without any true understanding of the social implications or moral responsibilities associated with privilege. Brontë's sharp recognition of the gulf between inner and outer enrichment shows the largesse distributed by the grand ladies to be entirely devoid of Agnes's genuine benevolence. The controlled outrage in Agnes's double-edged comments reveals the ladies' charity as cold indeed:

I could see that the people were often hurt and annoyed by such conduct, though their fear of the "grand ladies" prevented them from testifying any resentment; but they never perceived it. They thought that, as these cottagers were poor and untaught, they must be stupid and brutish; and as long as they, their superiors, condescended to talk to them and to give them shillings and half-crowns, or articles of clothing, they had a right to amuse themselves, even at their expense; and the people must adore them as angels of light, condescending to minister to their necessities, and enlighten their humble dwellings. (90)

Adroitly emphasizing the glaring absence of fine qualities in these ladies and gentlemen, Brontë's technique of ironic signifying dwells on light images here in order to stress the darker side of privilege. The irony gains its bite from the realization that behind the conventional light imagery linking angels—or spirituality— and enlightenment lies the truth that blind hypocrisy's damaging reality is neither angelic nor enlightening. Here Anne Brontë's language figures forth the ideal of enlightened humility rewritten in scenes emblematic of humiliation. For these ladies and gentlemen, as the narrative unfolds, the hearth is manifestly lacking in heart; the fireside is not the hub of solidly virtuous, Christian family life. Instead, we see it in Anne Brontë's terms, as a focal point for the realization that behind the condescending mask of virtue lurks a material, selfserving beast.

Referring at certain points in the narrative to the beastly or brutal aspects of the aspiring gentlefolks' ways, Anne Brontë (not surprisingly) uses animal imagery. Her interpretation of the word "animal" has, however, two aspects: she shows human brutality as animal-like, belonging to a lower order of beings, yet at the same time she also allows for the acceptance of all animals as God's "creatures" (86). In one system (the natural order) all are worthy; in the other (the social order) only the powerful or the beautiful signify. From the debased value system of a class which prizes external appearance above all else comes a catalogue of worth such as young Master Bloomfield's classification of species with its inherent endorsement of cruelty: "it's a pity to kill the pretty singing birds, but the naughty sparrows and mice and rats I may do what I like with," he chillingly recounts (22). Brontë thus divides her animal imagery to illustrate two separate elements in her thinking: the general admission that all God's creatures are worthwhile, set against the inhuman beastliness of some human behavior. Agnes makes this distinction in her comments on Matilda Murray: "As an animal, Matilda was all right … as an intelligent human being she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational" (68).

The roots of a punitive social structure are suggested in the picture of ruthlessly destructive behavior which Anne Brontë presents through her references to animals. Little Fanny Bloomfield is so hopelessly overindulged that she spits in the faces of those who cross her and bellows "like a bull" (34) when she is not humored. John Murray is "as rough as a young bear" (69) to the extent that he proves to be "unteachable— at least for a governess under his mother's eye" (69). That last, almost parenthetical, comment says everything about the problems Agnes encounters with her charges. The parents pass on their debased values to their children, who, in turn, pass them on to all they meet. Tom Bloomfield's father plays an instructive role in his son's brutal treatment of the young sparrows. When young Bloomfield pulls off "their legs and wings and heads," to which savagery his father's only comment is that "they were nasty things, and I must not let them soil my trousers," the elder Bloomfield confirms sick disequilibrium in a harshly materialistic social order (22).

These implications in the animal imagery move towards a culminating sense that such unprincipled materialists as the Bloomfields are really more the embodiment of predatory animals than civilized beings. Presenting the reader with images of feral opportunism, Brontë's language demonstrates that the scene at the Bloomfield house is oddly redolent of a den of wolves: when visitors arrive, the children clamber over them like a litter of hungry cubs. As Agnes observes, "they would indecently and clamourously interrupt the conversation of their elders, roughly collar the gentlemen, climb their knees uninvited, hang about their shoulders, or rifle their pockets, pull the ladies' gowns, disorder their hair, tumble their collars and importunately beg for their trinkets" (51). Agnes's allusion to her pupils' wild antics offers a precise reference to the untamed world they embody when she sees them, in animal terminology, "quarreling over their victuals like a set of tiger's cubs" (42). Similarly, although the figure of Uncle Robson has a comic touch with his "foppery of stays," Brontë suggests that something sinister and bestial lurks about his "little grey eyes, frequently half-closed" (46). In the manner of a predator, he brings his bird-nesting "spoils" to the children, who in turn run hungrily "to beg each a bird for themselves" (47).

With some irony, in view of her own status as brood mare to a noble sire, it falls to Rosalie Murray (one of the "ignorant wrong-headed girls" [102]) to demonstrate the contrasting usage of the words "beast" and "creature," when, in the insensate prattle of a grasping coquette she crudely assesses the comparative worth of the men present at the "odious" Sir Thomas Ashby's ball. In the space of two sentences she refers to Agnes as a "good creature" and to Sir Thomas as "young, rich, and gay, but an ugly beast nevertheless" (81), a distinction which proves to have moral as well as physical implications. For Rosalie herself Brontë reserves the most unpleasant animal metaphor to express the mindless rapacity of her determination to "fix" Weston, once Agnes's devotion to him is clear, largely to prove her superior force in a crass sexual power game. Agnes falls victim to a society which keeps her powerless, while Rosalie—indulging in "excessive vanity"—relishes the freedom to enact her cruel urge to snare and enslave. Through the eyes of painful frustration Agnes sees Rosalie take on the vicious animal shape of Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw."12 Agnes's bitter observations place Rosalie at the level of a greedy, gloating dog:

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. (149-50)

Similarly revealing, the careful juxtaposition of Rosalie's urge for a noble title with her sister's allusion to horse breeding allows Brontë to illustrat the dehumanizing effects of the marriage market. She shows that Rosalie's fascination with pedigree has more to do with the breeding animal conjured up in Matilda's reportedly "shocking" reference to her "fine blood mare" (78) than it does with vigorously independent womanhood. Although Rosalie insists that her sister's use of the word "mare" is "so inconceivably shocking!" (79), in the same instant she launches into an inventory of the noble pedigrees present at her ball: "two noblemen, three baronets and five titled ladies!" (79). Anne Brontë's positioning of these images of "breeding and pedigree" (79) implies that Rosalie's chosen role is ultimately debasing: that of a brood mare, mated with the most prestigious sire.

Equally informative is the way people treat their animals. In complete contrast to the harsh treatment meted out to the family pets of the Bloomfield and Murray families, the cherishing care given by Nancy Brown to her cat is an exemplar of domestic harmony and affection. In an expression of mindless barbarity, Uncle Robson's favorite dogs are dealt with "brutally" (47), and Miss Matilda inflicts upon her erstwhile pet Snap "many a harsh word and many a spiteful kick and pinch" (118) before he is taken away from Agnes (who loves her "warm-hearted companion") and "delivered over to the tender mercies of the village ratcatcher, a man notorious for his brutal treatment of his canine slaves" (155). As an enactment of the brutality meted out to all lesser beings (human or animal), Rector Hatfield's treatment of the hapless terrier is a deplorably cruel reflection of the hierarchy: "Mr. Hatfield, with his cane, administered a resounding thwack on the animal's skull, and sent it yelping back to me, with a clamorous outcry that afforded the reverend gentleman great amusement" (121). The irony in "reverend gentleman" is obvious to the reader, who is by now fully aware that his conduct throughout is neither gentlemanly nor worthy of reverence.

Nancy's cat, by contrast, is her "gentle friend" (91), and the affectionate bond between them serves to confirm the gap in awareness which separates the poor cottager from her supposed moral and spiritual superiors. The cat, which is pictured lovingly "with her long tail half encircling her velvet paws, and her half-closed eyes dreamily gazing on the low, crooked fender" (91), appears in a far more sympathetic light than the man of the cloth who unceremoniously knocks her off his knee, "like as it may be in scorn and anger" according to Nancy (97). Brontë infuses with irony Nancy's comment, "you can't expect a cat to know manners like a Christian, you know, Miss Grey" (97), since the cat appears at this moment more one of God's creatures than the clergyman.

The social tensions and inequities within the "shells" of Brontë's animal images are also outlined in two distinct images of enclosed space which are established as opposing structures of consciousness at the beginning of Agnes Grey. A significant source of antithetical imagery in the novel, the contrast between the material confines of the large houses and the spiritual freedom to be found in humbler dwellings reinfores the novel's psycho-social commentary. This symbolic use of setting was briefly touched upon in an unsigned review from the Christian Remembrancer of 1857: the kitchens of Anne and Emily Brontë are, it says, "low, and tell a tale."13 Although clearly pejorative in purpose, this little remark comes unintentionally close to defining Anne Brontë's method of fusing the outer setting with the inner world of her characters in order to advance the psychological process and, as the anonymous reviewer suspected, "tell a tale," or, as Brontë herself intended, a "true" history (3). Early on in her tale she shows that Agnes's mother is pulled toward the "elegant house," but the humble "cottage" (4) draws her in the opposite direction and wins: "An elegant house and spacious grounds were not to be despised: but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world" (3-4). Although focalized in the character of Agnes's mother, this emphatic comment anticipates Agnes's own character, revealing her pragmatic but passionate consciousness linked to that of her sensible, loving mother.

From its placement at the beginning of the novel, this glimpse of a "good" woman who knows the value of a "good" man presents in miniature a set of images that figure prominently later in the narrative. The picture of contrasting spaces and the figurative meanings attached to them gives an indication of the novel's themes, and, in this way the spatial and architectural images (common metaphors for consciousness) suggest a human need to be attuned to spiritual as well as material levels of being in order to achieve inner growth or balance. The superficial splendor promised for Rosalie's coming-out ball, for example, is immediately countered by an image of a small house, a "quiet little vicarage, with an ivy-clad porch" (77), which, unlike the rich estate of her intended husband, offers Rosalie more likelihood of real fulfillment. From her instructive use of these contrasting images, Anne Brontë makes it clear that the woman who develops as a whole person does so only on the basis of self-reliance. Agnes says of her mother: "A carriage and a lady's maid were great conveniences; but thank Heaven, she had feet to carry her, and hands to minister to her own necessities" (3). Her mother's autonomy prefigures Agnes's own journey towards independence and selfhood. Emerging from the expository spatial imagery in the early part of the novel is a suggestively configured picture that indicates ongoing thematic concerns. The last glimpse Agnes has of her home as she leaves for her new life is one which shows the solid "old grey parsonage" and the "village spire" together, illuminated by a "slanting beam of sunshine" (15). This image, which shows earthly structures linked to heaven by a beam of light, indicates the spiritual pathway ahead.

Throughout Agnes Grey interiors are not described in detail, but their contained inner spaces delineate boundaries or limits on the corporeal if not the spiritual freedom of those who live within. The restraint on Agnes is manifestly powerful when she reveals how she has been kept effectively a prisoner in the school-room. Although it is delivered with characteristic understatement, her comment on the deliberate curtailment of her free time betrays an abusive situation which amounts to covert enslavement, couched in the language of powerlessness: "my kind pupil took care I should spend it neither there [with Nancy Brown] nor anywhere else beyond the limits of the school-room" (147). The irony of the words "kind" and "care" indicates Agnes's bitterness without laboring the point about being held captive, for it becomes clear that there is no space for any expansion of the self in a world where she has no choice.

Yet, by careful juxtaposition, Anne Brontë also points out the illusory nature of the Murray sisters' physical liberty which they flaunt at every opportunity for selfdisplay, while Agnes is kept indoors, her person judged to be insignificant, unworthy of public space or approbation. Closely following the picture of Agnes's confinement to the school-room is a penetrating summary of what Rosalie expects from her "inauspicious match" (147) with Sir Thomas Ashby. Beneath Rosalie's catalogue of social and material advantages is Brontë's unspoken belief that inner freedom counts for far more than the feigned liberty of profligate materialism. Brontë's representation of the marriage market's psychological crux here is acute. Although Rosalie is prepared to trade marital happiness for material gain, she fears the "inauspicious" coupling with a lugubrious character whose conjugal ownership of her will be irrevocable. No amount of positive effusions about power and property can hide the underlying suspicion that she is herself property, trapped in a position of powerlessness. Beneath Rosalie's fluttering anticipation that the marriage will broaden her social horizons is the quiet dread of its restrictive finality. Brontë reveals Rosalie's ambivalence in a paragraph that opens with her looking forward to an expansion of her world:

Rosalie was pleased with the thoughts of becoming mistress of Ashby Park; she was elated with the prospect of the bridal ceremony and its attendant splendour and eclat, the honeymoon spent abroad, and the subsequent gaieties she expected to enjoy in London and elsewhere. (147)

Later in the same paragraph, Brontë implies that despite the triumphant expectations of the bride-to-be, her world, like her courage, actually appears to be shrinking. These expressions of wealth and freedom are rapidly undercut by the negative observations that "she seemed to shrink from the idea of being so soon united" and "it seemed a horrible thing to hurry on the inauspicious match" (147). That such words as "horrified," "warnings," and "evil" follow the reference to Rosalie's pleasurable "thoughts" and "prospects" shows the disparity between any sort of spiritual "union" and the dismal actuality of the marriage market (147). In combination with the spatial and architectural imagery, this passage re-frames the double-edged maxim that walls do not a prison make. Anne Brontë's judicious use of irony suggests that the Murrays are locked into a system of self-seeking materialism which can only stifle any nascent spirituality and must ultimately prove destructive to the soul.

Through recurring imagery of roads, lanes, walls, and windows, Anne Brontë introduces the realization that, counter to any outward appearance, the Murrays' world is actually severely limited. Within that socially delimited space, various forms of emotional control heartlessly restrict the growth of its occupants in a way repugnant to Anne Brontë's egalitarian consciousness. "But why can't she read it in the park or garden?" asks an anxious Mrs. Murray, when her nubile daughter seems to be escaping the set bounds of her genteel existence by taking her book to the field, "like some poor neglected girl that has no park to walk in, and no friends to take care of her" (119-20). Here the idea of the park where the friends ironically "take care of her" suggests a curtailment of true freedom, for, unlike Agnes who is free to cross social barriers when she is allowed to go out, the Murray daughters are entirely trapped in the limiting prejudices of the landowning class. Subsequently, the contradictions in Mrs. Murray's peculiar brand of caring are fully revealed. That the maternal interest smacks more of property management than love, is attested by Agnes's reaction to the coldly commercial exchange of this ill-fated marriage. When considering Rosalie's "inauspicious match" with the ugly Sir Thomas Ashby, Agnes confesses, "I was amazed and horrified at Mrs. Murray's heartlessness, or want of thought for the real good of her child" (147). Agnes's dismay emphasizes a maze-like confusion in social structures where human values are mixed up with property, and caring is confused with acquisition or control.

Rosalie's flirtation with Hatfield and her persistent ramblings "in the fields and lanes that lay in the nearest proximity to the road" (124) implicitly represent a flirtation with potential freedom and real life. Since she rejects Hatfield, whom Agnes believes would be far better than the sinister Sir Thomas, it only remains for her ramblings to be curtailed within the confines of yet another, grander, park—the funereal sounding Ashby Park—and an unhappy but "princely" home (195). "I'm bound hand and foot" (122), says Rosalie before her marriage, lamenting the cessation of her flirtatious activities now that Sir Thomas is on the scene, and her remark is actually prophetic. Her seigneurial aspirations, however, plainly override any rational consideration of the dreadful consequences: "I must have Ashby Park, whoever shares it with me" (123). With these petulant words, Anne Brontë demonstrates a fundamental absurdity in the language of acquisition, for Rosalie is evidently marrying the space rather than the man, a pathetic misprision which reveals the bride's blindness about who is actually acquiring what or whom. The desperate tone of this statement suggests that in society's upper echelons the real passion is reserved not for human feeling, but for property. Altogether the most trenchant irony is that this foolish young woman will be the possessed, rather than the possessor of all this wealth.

The difference between Rosalie or Matilda's life and that of their governess is not just the difference between riches and poverty or between advantage and disadvantage. It is, rather, the difference between mindless superficiality and a spiritually profound, intelligent consciousness. In her characterization of Agnes, Brontë offers her reader a subtle definition of individual initiative: Agnes takes charge of her own life and seizes her opportunity with gusto "to go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance" (12). As with Helen Huntingdon in The Tenant, Agnes's road to self-realization has its "snares and pitfalls."14 She can be kept in the schoolroom by her demanding pupils or "crushed" into the corner of the carriage where she is continually reminded of her inferior place in life, since even personal spaces are defined for her by the often thoughtless, sometimes hostile actions of her employers. "Such a nasty, horrid place, Miss Grey; I wonder how you can bear it," says Rosalie of Agnes's place in the carriage (72), and one understands that the "place" described in such terms of disgust gestures beyond the particular corner to a generally undesirable situation in society.

However, the restraints placed on the governess are (by dint of her moral and spiritual integrity) less farreaching than those placed on her pupils. Despite her boisterous ways—she is "full of life, vigour, and activity" (68—Miss Matilda's world is ultimately as narrow as her elder sister's, contained as it is within the boundaries of the park and the marriage market. Agnes observes that as soon as Rosalie is married off, the next hapless daughter to fall victim to her mother's matrimonial schemes is an unwilling Matilda:

Now also she was denied the solace which the companionship of the coachman, groom, horses, greyhounds and pointers might have afforded; for her mother, having notwithstanding the disadvantages of a country life so satisfactorily disposed of her elder daughter, the pride of her heart, had begun seriously to turn her attention to the younger. (158)

Again, through the double meanings implied by the words "denied," "solace," "disadvantages," "satisfactorily," "heart," and "attention," the language in this sentence details the underlying corruption of human relations in an acquisitive society. Inherent in the subjection of women, whose role as chattels is actually upheld by mothers such as Mrs. Murray, is the sad fact that this conniving, material heart denies maternal solace to her daughters and refuses them the healthy attention they need.

In this limited, closed world, it is, then, hardly surprising that the window represents some form of release. Mary Wollstonecraft had pointed to the promise of freedom evoked by an open window in chapter 11 of The Wrongs of Woman in 1798, and Charlotte Brontë also gave the window a powerful place in the imagery of Jane Eyre, where it functions not only as an aid to looking out but also to let strong, supernatural influences into Jane's world. Similarly, in Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë shows the window as a place where the boundaries between this world and the afterlife can be crossed, a place where searing truth comes into the containing structures of social intercourse and souls can depart; it is also a place where, in Virginia Woolf's comment about Emily's novel, the reader experiences a "suggestion of power underlying the apparitions of human nature."15

When Agnes first arrives at Horton Lodge, she views the alien scene through a window that reveals the "unknown world—a wide, white wilderness," symbolizing the tabula rasa of her new existence upon which the marks of her future life are yet to be inscribed (62). After her disastrous marriage, Rosalie's increasing awareness of her self-made shackles gains pointed emphasis, as she looks "listlessly towards the window" (133). By means of the window image, Anne Brontë demonstrates that in scorning her chance of a relatively fulfilled marriage only to lose herself in material bondage, Rosalie feels a loss she cannot confront. The promise of an unfettered life that beckons beyond the window is bound to confirm the dreariness of her days within: "There's no inducement to go out now; and nothing to look forward to" (133), she laments. The finality in her tone suggests that while she refuses to perceive the full import of what lies beyond the window, her complaint about the lack of future prospects contains more than a grain of truth.

Again, later in the narrative, when Agnes visits Rosalie— now Lady Ashby—freshly ensconced in her stately mansion, Agnes's seat by a "wide, open window" (186) puts her within sight of light and liberty as she looks out from a darkening and enclosed world: "I sat for a moment in silence, enjoying the still, pure air and the delightful prospect of the park, that lay before me, rich in verdure and foliage, and basking in yellow sunshine …" (186). Unencumbered by worldly possessions or concerns, Agnes is manifestly more at liberty to enjoy the spiritually rich prospects of an enlightened existence because she can truly see what life sets before her through the window of the soul.

Agnes's imaginative response implies that whatever is seen through the window has much to do with the heart and soul of the viewer. Thus Agnes's description of the "prospect" is suffused with a glow of inner vitality, as opposed to the "languor and flatness" and "dull, soulless eyes" (192) of Sir Thomas Ashby or the "dreary composure" (193) of his bride who openly detests him. By contrast, Agnes is a thriving, soulful character who has gained vision and meaning from her experiences. This descriptive passage, like the longer one that follows, confirms the impression that with the inner depth of loving faith (an enlightened consciousness), the life and light beyond the walls are never quite extinguished:

The shadow of this wall soon took possession of the whole of the ground as far as I could see, forcing the golden sunlight to retreat inch by inch, and at last take refuge in the very tops of the trees. (189)

As Agnes sits by the window, looking out from Rosalie Ashby's "elegant mansion" (or prison) at the inspirational "golden sunlight" significantly retreating to the treetops, two major image clusters reveal the difference between Agnes's broadly balanced outlook and Rosalie's severely limited consciousness. These two prominent sets of images both emphasize the salutory effects of the outdoors: one is light imagery (which is paramount and which I shall examine later), and the other is nature imagery.

The curative influence of nature and the restorative effects of being outdoors resound throughout Anne Brontë's writings. In the poems examined earlier, flowers, in particular, provide a focal point for several instances of self-evaluation and healing. Floral images in different poems and passages in the novels show a sound Victorian awareness of the language of flowers and, at the same time, they are a generic representation of divine benevolence—a God-given source of strength and beauty. The poem "In Memory of a Happy Day in February" echoes this confirmation of a divine continuum which Anne Brontë identifies in nature as a whole. More specifically, in her poem "The Bluebell" she points to flowers as individual reflections of personality: "A fine and subtle spirit dwells / In every little flower," each one breathing "its own sweet feeling" that reflects the onlooker's perception "With more or less of power" (Poems 73). Here the bluebell offers a "silent eloquence" which speaks of Anne Brontë's own recollections of childhood freedom: "Those sunny days of merriment / When heart and soul were free" (Poems 74). Similarly, in Agnes Grey the paradoxically "silent eloquence" of flower and nature images speaks volumes about characters and their emotional states. Agnes might compare herself with a "thistle seed borne on the wind to some strange nook of uncongenial soil" (62), but what actually forms her character has more to do with the "rugged regions" (16) where she was born. Brontë explores this concept of a rugged individualism, set against the "depressingly flat" (71) preserves of the conventional establishment, in her comparison of the landscapes surrounding the great houses where Agnes, though superior in spirit, serves as a social inferior. While the Bloomfields' grounds are distinguished by a parvenu plot with a "smooth shaven lawn" and a "grove of upstart poplars," the Murrays' park is less nouveau riche, but still "depressingly flat to one born and nurtured among the rugged hills" (71) of "the north of England" (3).

Anne Brontë pointedly structures this grand but uncongenial setting to demonstrate how Agnes experiences the unnerving effects of social imbalance, enacted through elitist attitudes in the "tyranny and injustice" (73) of her young charges and the social isolation imposed on her by their unfeeling snobbery. Their refusal to acknowledge her presence is an attempt to dehumanize her, to reduce her to a "vacancy" (111). But Agnes resolutely refuses to accept her invisible status and finds confirmation of her own individual worth (and emotional warmth) in the beauties of the hedgerows. She escapes from her enforced position of servitude by concentrating on the flowers: "along the green banks and budding hedges … my spirit of misanthropy began to melt away beneath the soft, pure air and genial sunshine" (112).

Agnes's longing for some familiar visual link with her childhood—"some familiar flower that might recall the woody dales or green hill-sides of home" (112)—is gratified by the sight of the primroses: "At length I descried, high up between the twisted roots of an oak, three lovely primroses, peeping so sweetly from their hiding place that the tears already started at the sight" (112). This poignant response is a silent recognition of her own vitality and "sweetness" which she is forced to suppress in her lonely drudgery. It is also a tearful acknowledgment that the cheerful spring flower, like the primrose in "Verses by Lady Geralda" or the flowers in "Lines Written at Thorp Green," recalls a certain confidence and youthful promise which Agnes now feels is blighted. Mr. Weston's role in reaching up to gather the 'primroses is also deeply symbolic because in one gesture he is restoring to Agnes both the freedom of her lost youthful self and her hope for the future.

According to Victorian flower lore, these dual symbols of Agnes's past and future—the oak and the primrose—represent strength, youth, and love's doubts and fears. Traditionally, the primrose image has an ambiguous meaning. In her book Flower Lore (1879), a Miss Carruthers of Inverness (sic) wrote that the primrose is associated with "modest unaffected pride" (201).16 But one of several meanings is also "early youth," given in Kate Greenaway's The Illuminated Language of Flowers (1884), offering another interpretation of the primrose image with which Anne Brontë would have been familiar.17 As far as Agnes Grey is concerned, the choice of image is particularly appropriate. The floral allusion to youth parallels Agnes's own yearning for the open spaces of a happy, unfettered childhood, and the reference to a flower which conveys both pride and modesty accords with the tenacity which attends the primrose's (and Agnes's) ability to survive the more inhospitable reaches of icy health and moorland.

This association with tenacity, rugged isolation, and sweetness, signified by the wildflowers preferred by both Agnes and Mr. Weston, indicates shared characteristics of tenderness and independence. That the flowers are guides to character is borne out in flower language when Mr. Weston questions Agnes about violets—which mean "steadfastness" according to Miss Carruthers (204) or "modesty," "faithfulness" and "watchfulness" according to Greenaway (56). Agnes, surprisingly, denies having any connection with violets: "I have no particular associations connected with them, for there are no sweet violets among the hills and valleys round my home" (113). Her favorite flowers are "Primroses, blue-bells, and heath-blossoms," which signify early youth, constancy, and solitude (Greenaway, 48, 22, 34). Agnes's curious dissociation from the "sweet violets" indicates something of her rugged background and suggests that Brontë's heroine is no shrinking violet; nor is she modestly, faithfully, watchful (which implies dependency): once her painful obsession with Edward Weston is overcome, Agnes turns away from watchful dependence towards a solitary path, where she strives for autonomy and selfsufficiency.

Unlike her pupils, Agnes exhibits a plain, simple honesty (suggested by her love of wild flowers) which counters the manipulative dishonesty indulged in by Rosalie Murray in the course of her amorous adventures. When Rosalie is playing her calculated game of dalliance with Mr. Hatfield, she is shown holding a sprig of myrtle—traditionally carried as a symbol of love by a bride in her wedding bouquet. However, Anne Brontë uses this floral emblem with an ironic twist to reveal Rosalie's superficiality, for she is clearly unaware that there is any meaning attached to it other than an entirely frivolous one: "a graceful sprig of myrtle, which served her as a very pretty plaything" (120). The image of the brideflower as plaything indicates that love—in the sense of mutual respect and caring—has no serious place in the life of someone like Rosalie: nubile sweetness is just another piece in a power game which allows her vanity to be gratified at the expense of others. An even more overt demonstration of her foolishness is presented in Rosalie's final reaction to her abject suitor, Hatfield: she impatiently gives the myrtle away with a toss of her head, metaphorically tossing away the opportunity for loving reciprocity in a marriage of equals. Even though she recognizes Hatfield's worth as superior to the "ugly" rake Sir Thomas Ashby, she is adamant that "poor Mr. Hatfield" (122) could never be a serious contender for her acquisitive "preference" because his income barely amounts to seven hundred a year: "I never should forget my rank and station for the most delightful man that ever breathed… . Love! I detest the word! as applied to one of our sex, I think it a perfect insult" (122). Rosalie's misunderstanding of the word "love" demonstrates figuratively the blind materialism that confuses superficialities with true meaning and restructures lives according to the empty reckonings of commercial exchange.

In contrast to the mindlessness of Rosalie—who presents a perfect foil to the character of Agnes—the profoundly sensitive, Christian consciousness of Agnes is conveyed through images of light and shade. A conventional metaphor for consciousness, light here conveys the brightly transcendent potential of a love that reflects the divine presence, showing Agnes linked to the higher ideal. As the representation of a caring, spiritual person linked to the ideal of receiving God's love and the responsibility of dispensing that love to those she meets in life, Agnes takes the idea of love (both in its sacred and profane senses) very seriously. The confirmation of a "divine truth" identified by Anne Brontë in light generally is echoed in the poem "In Memory of a Happy Day in February":

It was a glimpse of truths divine
Unto my spirit given
Illumined by a ray of light
That shone direct from Heaven!
(Poems 82)

Light also as a symbol for love and hope is a poetic staple, but Brontë's psychologically probing language, as she examines Agnes's developing consciousness, imparts a compelling spiritual inquiry to the interplay of light and shade.

As Agnes Grey struggles to reconcile her anguish at the lack of human love in her life with her spiritual beliefs, her mind is so numbed by loneliness that she can no longer see the heavenly light. Her wearisome isolation causes her to become unbalanced and fearful that the light of spiritual inspiration is virtually clouded out: "the gross vapours of earth were gathering around me, and closing in upon my inward heaven" (103). In her troubled state Agnes is earthbound, and Brontë shows that Agnes's preoccupation with her earthly love for Mr. Weston forces her (like the stifling Earth spirit in "The Three Guides") to lean dangerously in the direction of an obsession: "And thus it was that Mr. Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness" (103).

Towards the end of the novel, when faced with the loss of her love, Agnes finds it hard to relinquish the spiritual sustenance she has derived from him. Weston has become the only "bright object" on a gloomy horizon: "How dreary to turn my eyes from the contemplation of that bright object, and force them to dwell on the dull, grey, desolate prospect around, the joyless, hopeless, solitary path that lay before me" (155). Central to this embodiment of depression, however, is Anne Brontë's point that Agnes has sufficient intelligence to recognize how her desperate need—"a painful troubled pleasure, too near akin to anguish"—is unhealthy enough to be "evil," for it hinders true development and effectively keeps her in "fetters" (155). She is also given the foresight to comprehend that she cannot progress until this "troubled pleasure" is relinquished, allowing the total experience of a solitary life. Like Jane Eyre, who also determines to follow a solitary path after wrenching herself away from Rochester, Agnes experiences a profound insight, seeing the fullness of wisdom intervene and guide her away from spiritual destruction: "It was," Agnes perceives pragmatically, "an indulgence that a person of more wisdom or more experience would doubtless have denied herself" (155). Agnes learns to walk the "solitary path" (155) with joy and hope before she is finally enabled to join Mr. Weston.

Part of this learning process puts Agnes into the deeply contemplative state we see when she sits at Rosalie Ashby's window. The dismal lethargy into which she has sunk calls forth one of the more purple passages in the novel, and Brontë's writing here carries an air of spiritual hiatus which is emotionally fitting at this point in her heroine's development. Again, the light and shade images are crucial:

The shadow of this wall soon took possession of the whole of the ground as far as I could see, forcing the golden sunlight to retreat inch by inch, and at last take refuge in the very tops of the trees. At last, even they were left in shadow—the shadow of the distant hills, or of the earth itself; and, in sympathy for the busy citizens of the rookery, I regretted to see their habitation, so lately bathed in glorious light, reduced to the sombre, worky-day hue of the lower world, or of my own world within. For a moment, such birds as soared above the rest might still receive the lustre on their wings, which imparted to their sable plumage the hue and brilliance of deep red gold; at last that too departed. (189)

What stands out in this passage, apart from the rather florid prose, is that the shadows of structures (such as walls and buildings) are shown to have taken "possession" of the open spaces and to have obliterated the sunlight. Agnes is "observing the slowly lengthening shadows from the window," in such a way as to suggest that her vision of social constrictions is gaining clarity. As the imagery here implies, she must move away from earthly entrapments and the danger of being "possessed" by the shadows of earth, towards a higher, more enlightened spiritual plane.

The use of dramatic coloring or chiaroscuro in this verbal picture succeeds in evoking Agnes's spiritual dilemma. Anne Brontë highlights the darker brush strokes (suggesting both Agnes's and Rosalie's blighted dreams) with lustrous touches which imply a stubborn spark of hope gleaming only in the eye of the believer. The elongated vowel sounds recall arcs of flight (Agnes's flights of fancy) and the encroaching shadows correspond with Agnes's increasing awareness that her dream of a life with Mr. Weston must be allowed to fade in the realism of "the sombre, worky-day hue of the lower world."

Yet at this climactic moment, she still retains a glimpse of something "so lately bathed in glorious light" that promises a glimmer of hope for the future. As Brontë shifts her focus from the contemplative person within to the busy scene without, she develops a tension between movement and inaction, introversion and extro-version, thought and deed. We are left with the suspicion that, unlike Rosalie Ashby whose active self has been obscured by the shades of materialism, Agnes will not opt for a passive role: she will resolve her dilemma by actively stepping out of a "quiet, drabcolour life" (189), and reaching for the higher ideal, she will be liberated like one of the birds that soars above the rest to catch the closing brilliance of the day.

An interpretation such as this accords with Anne Brontë's own beliefs, and within the context of her religious philosophy it is perhaps predictable that Agnes must make peace with her Maker before she can progress much further. Yet, the description of Agnes's epiphany is not simply given in limited religious or moral terms. Deeply religious though she was, Anne Brontë gives us an inspirational view of more than the god-head revealed in nature. She also shows us selfhood discovered in a way that echoes the radical affirmation of feminine selfhood proposed by Mary Wollstonecraft fifty years earlier: Agnes is presented primarily as a complex person who is finally put in touch with all aspects of herself.

As in The Tenant, the image of the sea reflects this limitless personal potential. The sea represents an agent of liberation for Agnes, who finds release in its ceaseless, unrestrained activity: "it was delightful to me at all times and seasons, but especially in the wild commotion of a rough sea breeze" (196). Agnes's expansive world, with its sea breezes and freedom beyond time or season, is an instructive contrast to the incarceration of Lady Rosalie Ashby in her elegant mansion where the lifeless, material images speak of passing time and death.

Compared with the "delightful" dynamism and freedom of the seashore (shaped by "foaming and sparkling" waves, "dimpled pools, and little running streams" [197]) where Agnes is liberated, Rosalie's surroundings are dully limited, joylessly defined by static objects and oppressive walls. Within the "splendid house and grounds" for which Rosalie has bargained away her life, having coveted it "whatever price was to be paid for the title of mistress" (181), she is surrounded by conspicuous materialism with "many elegant curiosities" (185) but is altogether lacking in love. She cynically estimates her baby girl's place in all this as "only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog" (194). Confirming the inherent imbalance of this position, the young mother's "melancholy sigh" signifies the fruitlessness of her acquisitive existence, "as if in consideration of the insufficiency of all such baubles to the happiness of the human heart, and their woeful inability to supply its insatiate demands" (186). This blind obeisance to things—"baubles," as Agnes comments in the reductive language that shows Anne Brontë's own snort of disapproval (186)—again shows Rosalie to be less the possessor than the possessed; she is clearly owned by her own vapid materialism. The marble busts that surround her are metaphors for truncated, captive selves, captured in cold, white stone, while the little timepiece and "little jewelled watch" (186), which Rosalie ironically shows Agnes with unknowing "animation," mark the empty passage of her wasted life.

This sterile, soulless world presents the antithesis to Agnes's now sunny, purposeful life. Juxtaposed against these interior scenes of Rosalie's suffocating union with a man she detests are Agnes's sea-side escapades, in which her healthy delight in autonomous action identifies her as a woman free from the bondage of dependency. Unlike Rosalie Ashby, Agnes no longer needs a man to validate her existence; she becomes fully self-actualized. Signalling the transformation from a "drab-colour life" (189) which oppresses Agnes at Ashby Park, the imagery in the later seascape radiates light and color. "No language can describe," writes Anne Brontë, although she succeeds in doing so admirably,

the effect of the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean, the bright morning sunshine on the semi-circular barrier of craggy cliffs surmounted by green swelling hills, and on the smooth, wide sands, and the low rocks out at sea—looking, with their clothing of weeds and moss, like little grass-grown islands— and above all, on the brilliant, sparkling waves. (196-97)

These images of light bouncing from the different tac-tile surfaces of sea to shore and back again recreate the electrifying vitality of a divinely empowered life force. Seen through Agnes's eyes, the scene on the sands is sparkling with sunlight and bursting with energy, its expansive vigor indicating her own expanding sense of self. This liberating energy creates a peculiarly balanced environment: "Just enough heat to enhance the value of the breeze, and just enough wind to keep the whole sea in motion, to make the waves come bounding to the shore, foaming and sparkling as if wild with glee" (197). Through the repeatedly modified images of heat and wind, with the boundless action of the living waves below—reflecting "brilliant" light— Brontë's imagery allows the reader to experience a divinely balanced still point at the center of motion, a Miltonic echo of creation's "bright essence."18 Both Agnes and the personified waves embody the effervescent "glee" of a being who has finally broken free from shackles; Agnes has become an empowered entity, a vital person in her own right.

Appropriately, this transcendent state occurs in solitude, when "nothing else was stirring—no living creature was visible besides myself (197). As well as the suggestive Miltonic echoes of creation in these images, Agnes's psychic rebirth is also likened to the birth of Aphrodite from the waves. The sense that the sea becomes a source of spiritual renewal is reinforced also by the early morning setting, with the pristine beauty of a freshly renewed landscape: "My footsteps were the first to press the firm, unbroken sands:—nothing before had trampled them since last night's flowing tide had obliterated the deepest marks of yesterday, and left it fair and even" (197). At this point Agnes is not only physically refreshed but spiritually transfigured, feeling as though she had wings on her feet and "could go at least forty miles without fatigue" (197). The euphoria of her self-discovery gives her courage to venture out onto the slippery rocks where she is poised on a "little mossy promontory" (197), surrounded by a sea of living water. Similarly, when Edward Weston proposes to her, they are symbolically poised on the edge of a precipice, from which they watch "the splendid sun-set mirrored on the restless world of waters" at their feet (208). Their union, unlike that of the ill-matched Ashbys, is demonstrably blessed when it is defined by all these profoundly resonant images of power and creation.

In these contrasting scenes, language evokes seasonal change, and image perfectly mirrors the psychological development of character. The correspondence between the outer landscape and the inner life of Brontë's characters is of paramount importance in her writing. Thrughout Agnes Grey imagery of nature and open spaces reflects the successive stages through which Agnes passes as she moves from the rugged hills of her childhood, through the "depressingly flat" spaces of her governess years, to the personal high point on that sea-cliff which affords a prospect of creative union in the fulfilment of marriage to her equal. Countering the images of buildings and their lifeless contents, images which relate to nature and open spaces add a spiritual dimension to the narrative; together, they act as "pillars of witness," testifying to the actualization of Agnes's escape from social degradation and the "indignities" (74) which limit her existence in the socially structured establishments where she serves.

Admittedly, Agnes Grey is restricted in focus, concerned as it is with the psychological development of one main character within the scope of Brontë's original title for the novel— Passages in the Life of an Individual, mentioned in her birthday note of 31 July 1845. Yet it has a textual richness which could be identified as a peculiarly feminine grasp of "the intricacies of personal relationships" (as Ian Watt says in his analysis of the supremacy enjoyed by the woman novelist). Such psychological acuity combined with moral vision places Anne Brontë firmly within the literary heritage of other great women writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, and Jane Austen.19 Anne Brontë's bold analysis of realistic relationships through interconnected poetic images exemplifies an elaborately structured and affectively subtle technique which reveals her as a writer who was ahead of her time. Robert Barnard's comparison of her writing with that of her sisters contains the lucid observation that her work "looks forward," and he places her at a literary crossroads that leads towards psychological and social realism.20

In Agnes Grey Anne Brontë's technical achievement lies in the creation of a closely-woven textual fabric, the apparent simplicity of which is deceptive. With this first novel, she does not explore the more complex turns of plot or dramatic enigmas that shape her sisters' works and that are to give the dimension of instructive parody to The Tenant.21 The "instruction" promised at the beginning of Agnes Grey is present in both novels, but the narrative development of Agnes Grey shows a straightforward approach which accords openly with its plainly stated moral purpose. But, while the "quietness" and "realism" of this direct method are important,22 Anne Brontë's achievement in Agnes Grey goes beyond a simple representation of scenes from a life; her keenly rendered psychological enquiry is powerful in its quiet intensity. From the cryptic thoughtfulness of the opening nut metaphor to the succinct finality of its closing statement, "And now I think I have said sufficient" (208), Agnes Grey combines an intentionally straightforward style with iterative images that both entertain and instruct. In addition to setting the novel's boundaries of restraint, the two framing statements indicate the formal structure of the text and provide an ideal vehicle for exploring major themes of balance and imbalance, oppression and liberty, restraint and growth. Terry Eagleton's perception accurately characterizes the final line of Agnes Grey which, in his words, "neatly captures the laconic modesty of the whole, the sense of a work attractively reserved in feeling without any loss of candid revelation."23

This reserve is both a stylistic and thematic feature of Anne Brontë's work. The apparent stillness of her writing, compared with that of her sisters, is not, however the stillness of creative timidity or inarticulation. One image from late in the novel effectively answers the plethora of critical suggestions that her writing lacks power. Her reserved but poetic style bears comparison with the calm but not inactive surface of the sea, above which Agnes stands on her "mossy promontory" (197), exulting in the contained power and unseen depths of the tidal water:

and then I turned again to delight myself with the sight and sound of the sea dashing against my promontory—with no prodigious force, for the swell was broken by the tangled sea-weed and the unseen rocks beneath; otherwise I should have been deluged with spray. (198)

Life imitating art in this instance, the experience of the reader parallels the experience of the heroine who turns again to delight herself with the sensory impressions of the scene. The reader does not emerge from the sight and sound of Anne Brontë's narration "deluged with spray," but one is left with an abiding sense of its assiduous swell—of intertwined image patterns embedded beneath and controlling its surface movement.

Yet, Brontë's method is an entirely self-conscious one, as can be seen from carefully placed authorial statements referring to form and content. These have, moreover, a dual function. First, the self-reflexive comment mid-way through the narrative, "Had I seen it in a novel, I should have thought it unnatural" (149), together with repeated references to the "benefit" (36) or "patience" (36, 63) of the "reader" (63, 146) and the "prolixity" (36), "prosing" (146), "reflections" (146), "design" (36) or "arguments" (146) of the writer, combine to undermine the separation between narrator and story, drawing the reader into the fictional world. This effectively questions the borderline between reality and fiction, giving the impression of lived personal experience which supports the novel's didactic, moral purpose. But such comments also testify to an awareness of the writer's rhetorical method and the careful underpinning of theme with image, a deliberate artistry which conjoins poetry with moral instruction and is the structural base of her style. In Anne Brontë's ordering of thematic motifs within the interlocking image patterns of structural imagery one finds every sign of the unobtrusively crafted textual fabric which George Moore saw as "simple and beautiful as a muslin dress."


1 Ed. Hilda Marsden and Robert Inglesfield (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1988), 3.

2 Although I would question Inga-Stina Ewbank's assertion that Anne Brontë is a "moralist first and a woman second," it is clear from the prefatory statements in both Agnes Grey (at the beginning of Chapter 1) and The Tenant (in the preface to the second edition) that her purpose was to make moral sense of social problems. In response to suggestions that Wuthering Heights does not have a sense of good and evil, Ewbank emphasizes that it is an exploration of the "human condition" and its characters are "in various ways, presented as moral beings." I believe that an equally strong case can be made for reading Anne Brontë's fiction as an exploration of the "human condition" which, no less than the work of her sister, requires an unbiased and thorough approach. See Ewbank, Their Proper Sphere (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966), 85, 96.

3 One thing the other governess novels share is an emphasis on social inferiority. The governesses in Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook (1839) and Mrs. Sherwood's Caroline Mordaunt (1835) are stereotypes of angelic self-sacrifice. See Ewbank's survey of the governess novels, Their Proper Sphere, 59-60.

4 The dove in the poem is, like Agnes, confined within a prison-like structure, and its view of the world beyond emphasizes the "despair" of its imprisonment:

In vain! In vain! Thou canst not rise—
Thy prison roof confines thee there;
Its slender wires delude thine eyes,
And quench thy longing with despair.

"The Captive Dove," 31 October 1843, in Edward Chitham, ed., The Poems of Anne Brontë (London: Macmillan, 1979), 93.

5 See Edward Chitham and Tom Winnifrith, Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems (London: Macmillan, 1983), 99.

6 From a facsimile copied at The Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth. See also T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, eds., The Brontës: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, 2 vols. (Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1980), I:321.

7 I refer here to Julia Kristeva's idea that the radical linguistic force of the semiotic inside language redefines meanings through silence and contradiction. See, for example, "Stabat Mater," trans. Arthur Goldhammer, in The Female Body in Western Culture, ed. Susan Rubin Suleiman (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985), 109.

8 "'Imbecile Laughter' and 'Desperate Earnest' in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, " Modern Language Quarterly, 43 (1982): 354.

9 John Milton, Paradise Lost, in Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey, 1981), IX:887, 1036.'

10 Winifred Gérin, Anne Brontë: A Biography (London: Penguin, 1976), 145.

11 William Makepeace Thackeray, The Four Georges, ed. Hannaford Bennett (London: John Long, 1923), 149.

12 Tennyson, In Memoriam, in Poems of Tennyson, ed. Herbert Warren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1921), 349.

13 Unsigned review, Christian Remembrancer, 97 (July 1857): 87-105; in The Brontës: The Critical Heritage, ed. Miriam Allott (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 369.

14 In the Preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, ed. Herbert Rosengarten (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992), Anne Brontë asks her critics, "Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?" (xxxviii).

15 Virginia Woolf discusses both Charlotte and Emily Brontë in this essay on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Collected Essays, 4 vols. (London: The Hogarth Press, 1966), 1:189.

16Flower Lore (1879; rpt. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1972), 197, 201.

17 Jean Marsh indicates that many early nineteenth-century dictionaries of the language of flowers gave confusingly mixed meanings. But the confusion of entries in the dictionary part of Kate Greenaway's The Illuminated Language of Flowers, published in 1884, is sorted out by Marsh's cross-indexed entries in the modern reprint (London: Macdonald and Jane's Publishers, 1978), 17, 48, 56.

18Paradise Lost, 111:6. Milton's invocation of God's "holy Light" was clearly in Anne Brontë's mind as she wrote Agnes Grey, for she also refers (twice: 63, 208) to the dark and deep "world of waters" (III:11) invested by that Light; see Hilda Marsden's and Robert Inglesfield's notes to the Clarendon edition.

19 See Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), 337-40. On the woman as moralist, see also Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 228.

20 Robert Barnard, "Anne Brontë: The Unknown Sister," Edda 78 (1978): 33-38.

21 For elements of parody in The Tenant, see Edward Chitham and Tom Winnifrith, Brontë Facts and Brontë Problems (London: Macmillan, 1983), 104.

22 P. J. M. Scott, "Agnes Grey: Accommodating Reality," chapter 1 in his study Anne Brontë: A New Critical Assessment (London: Vision Press, 1983), 31, 43.

23 Terry Eagleton, Myths of Power: A Marxist Study of the Brontës (London: Macmillan, 1975), 126.

Maria H. Frawley (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8518

SOURCE: "'An Alien among Strangers': The Governess as Narrator in Agnes Grey," in Anne Brontë, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 82-116.

[In the following excerpt, Frawley probes the narrative technique and themes of social isolation and alienation and of female voicelessness in Agnes Grey.]

Agnes Grey and the Family Plot

The domestic ideology to which Brontë responded in her novel represented the nuclear family as a panacea for most social ills. In many ways, the married woman and mother stood at the center of this idealized family, for she was keeper of the home and selfless beholder of the moral virtues associated with family life. In its evocation of Agnes's family life, Agnes Grey participates in an important cultural moment in the history of the family, one that complicates this sentimental picture of the traditional Victorian family. Through the structure of the novel itself, as well as in the selection of materials she attributed to Agnes, Brontë ensured that her heroine's experiences as a governess would be read as related to—even an outgrowth of—her experiences within her family.

First and foremost among these is her experience as a daughter. After the opening paragraph that invokes the novel's claim to "true history," Agnes situates her self in relation to her parents. Significantly, she begins with her father, subtly linking his moral character with his economic position: "My father was a clergyman of the north of England, who was deservedly respected by all who knew him; and, in his younger days, lived pretty comfortably on the joint income of a small incumbency and a snug little property of his own" (AG, 1). Of her mother, Agnes writes:

My mother, who married him against the wishes of her friends, was a squire's daughter, and a woman of spirit. In vain it was represented to her that, if she became the poor parson's wife, she must relinquish her carriage and her lady's-maid and all the luxuries and elegances of affluence; which to her were little less than the necessaries of life. (AG, 1)

The way in which Agnes positions her parents enables Brontë to demarcate several class boundaries. Her father clearly belongs to the middle class, although at its lower end; he is a respected person by the standards of his own neighborhood, if a poor parson by the standards of those above him on the social scale. Whereas Agnes characterizes her father by the dual standards of his morality and his economic position, her mother's class is modified by a characterization of her personality. Twice in her opening narrative she refers to her mother's "high spirit," representing it as that which, in combination with her aversion to the attraction of riches, accounts for her otherwise unthinkable decision to "bury herself in a "homely village" (AG, 2). Agnes's narrative of her parents' marriage tells an ambiguous story of social slippage. She proclaims that "you might search all England through and fail to find a happier couple" (AG, 2), evidently wanting her readers to respect the standards by which her mother chose to live. Yet, at the same time, she documents the process by which her family and especially her father were tempted to speculate away their little wealth in hopes of improving their economic standards, and describes the "bitterness" and "distress" that ensue (AG, 5).

Emphasizing self-sacrifice, Brontë uses Agnes's narrative to show the ways that she defines herself as sub-missive. She relates this submissiveness to Agnes's sense of daughterly duty. Agnes carefully documents the family's lowered living conditions and the sacrifices made as a result of her father's mistakes:

The useful pony phaeton was sold, together with the stout well-fed pony—the old favourite that we had fully determined should end its days in peace, and never pass from our hands;… Our clothes were mended, turned, and darned to the utmost verge of decency; our food, always plain, was now simplified to an unprecedented degree— except my father's favourite dishes; our coals and candles were painfully economized—the pair of candles reduced to one, and that most sparingly used; the coals carefully husbanded in the half-empty grate: especially when my father was out on his parish duties, or confined to bed through illness…. As for our carpets, they in time were worn threadbare, and patched and darned even to a greater extent than our garments. (AG, 5-6)

Agnes's catalog of sufferings stands out from other episodes recounted in her narrative both in its precision and in its breadth; on few other occasions does she pay so much attention to supplying her readers with so many specific instances of the point she wants to make. Noteworthy in her account is the attention she pays to the sacrifices her family makes in order that her father's pride not be further damaged. Significantly, their sacrifices involve more than simply relinquishing material goods; their morality itself is compromised, Agnes implies, in several ways. Giving up plans to save a horse from overwork or early death is, in Agnes's mind, comparable to a spiritual sacrifice, as later passages detailing her intense feelings about cruelty to animals reveal; wearing clothes that hover near the "verge of decency" places her family in a precarious moral status as well.

Brontë paves the way for Agnes's account of life as a governess via this story of her parents and her life at home during her formative years. Just as Agnes's mother survives her journey down the social ladder through a combination of middle-class resourcefulness and evangelical morality, so too does Agnes illustrate her own ability to withstand economic and social hardships by enacting the very same virtues her mother represented.18 This opening portion of the novel further enables Brontë to introduce a theme of social isolation. Although Agnes carefully accounts for the temptations that led to her father's unfortunate financial mistakes, the focus of her narrative of family history is on their social isolation, first that endured by her mother after she had agreed to marry a "poor parson," and later by the entire family as they deliberately alienated maternal relations by refusing offers of financial help that were contingent on an admission that the marriage was illfounded. In both instances, the social isolation is imposed on them by outsiders but is willingly accepted as well. Just as Brontë's poetic personas found that situations of exile facilitated an exploration of self, so too does Agnes Grey eventually discover reasons to embrace the isolation she experiences as a governess.

Brontë suggests that Agnes is able to accept the social isolation of governessing because it is part of her heritage. One of the features of her family life that Agnes selects for emphasis is her rural heritage, which Brontë presents through the familiar rhetoric of solitude and isolation. Agnes presents her rural heritage as a function of her father's position—and hence, indirectly, her family's social isolation—but also as a more essential part of her identity. As the narrative progresses, Brontë implies that Agnes's rural heritage helps to account for her naivete and lack of preparation for the world that awaits her as a governess. Indeed, at first they threaten to prevent her access to that world: awaiting a response to her inquiries regarding governess work, she writes, "But so long and so entire had been my parents' seclusion from the world, that many weeks elapsed before a suitable situation could be procured" (AG, 9). Her sense of an experientially impoverished background continues to haunt her once she leaves. As she explains to herself upon arrival at the Bloomfield residence, "True, I was near nineteen; but, thanks to my retired life and the protecting care of my mother and sister, I well knew that many a girl of fifteen, or under, was gifted with a more womanly address, and greater ease and self-possession" (AG, 12). These concerns are reiterated in her account of life with the Murray family, where she writes, "But this gives no proper idea of my feelings at all; and no one that has not lived such a retired, stationary life as mine can possibly imagine what they were: hardly even if he has known what it is to awake some morning and find himself in Port Nelson, in New Zealand, with a world of waters between himself and all that knew him" (AG, 49).9

Significantly, Brontë locates Agnes's experience with social isolation not just with her parents but with her rendering of childhood itself. Agnes's sense of her secluded childhood leads her to long for its metonymic equivalent in nature—the "woody dales or green hillsides" or "brown moorlands" that she reminisces about (AG, 88). More often, though, she refers obliquely to the social isolation that characterized her own upbringing. As she explains early in the novel:

Mary and I were brought up in the strictest seclusion. My mother … took the whole charge of our education on herself, with the exception of Latin—which my father undertook to teach us—so that we never even went to school; and, as there was no society in the neighbourhood, our only intercourse with the world consisted in a stately tea-party, now and then, with the principal farmers and tradespeople of the vicinity (just to avoid being stigmatized as too proud to consort with our neighbours), and an annual visit to our paternal grandfather's; where himself, our kind grandmamma, a maiden aunt, and two or three elderly ladies and gentlemen, were the only persons we ever saw. (AG, 2)

As Brontë has Agnes explain it, the social isolation endured by the family is partly chosen and shapes Agnes's experiences as a child in several ways. Although her account of family heritage had earlier emphasized her mother's disregard for the social hierarchy of which she was a part, this anecdote, by distinguishing between "neighbours" and "society," reveals just the opposite. Agnes implies that her family's encounters with local farmers and tradespeople were artificial, designed to hide the social pride that they really felt.

Most important, Brontë links the social isolation of Agnes's family not only to Agnes's developing classconsciousness but also to her own sense of a private life. Although Agnes hints at regret at not attending school as other children in the neighborhood do, her account reveals a more tangible level of discomfort with her background:

Sometimes our mother would amuse us with stories and anecdotes of her younger days, which, while they entertained us amazingly, frequently awoke—in me, at least—a secret wish to see a little more of the world. (AG, 2)

Agnes admits here to a latent attribute of her identity, a desire for experience beyond that provided within the confines of her home. She ensures that this desire is unknown to those closest to her. Brontë's use of italic to emphasize Agnes's sense of separation from her sister ("in me, at least,") is also noteworthy, underscoring as it does divisions within the seemingly homogeneous unit of the family. Agnes's sense of her self as separate from her family parallels as well certain moments in the text when she reveals her discomfort with the kind of attention her family gives her.

Throughout the opening portion of the novel, Brontë uses rhetoric to reveal that Agnes commands little respect as an individual within her family. Agnes occupies—in her own mind, at least—an almost invisible place in the family. Early on in her narrative, Agnes explains that being the youngest child, and only one of two from an original group of six to survive "the perils of infancy and early childhood," she "was always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family," a designation that resulted in making her "too helpless and dependent—too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life" (AG, 2). When the financial woes brought on by her father's speculations begin, opportunities for her sister Mary to help out by painting are encouraged, but Agnes is passed over without a word, told only to "Go and practise [her] music, or play with the kitten" (AG, 6). As Agnes explains, "though a woman in my own estimation, I was still a child in theirs" (AG, 6).

The Grey family's reaction to her suggestion, revealing the extent to which her lack of status has become deeply inculcated in their thinking, is a key feature of Brontë's critique of the family, which shows the extent to which Agnes's sense of self is at stake in the debate about whether she should work as a governess. When Agnes initially announces her presence by saying, "I wish I could do something," her family reacts negatively both to the idea of working as a governess and, significantly, to the idea of Agnes's working at all. As Agnes writes, "My mother uttered an exclamation of surprise, and laughed. My sister dropped her work in astonishment, exclaiming, 'You a governess, Agnes! What can you be dreaming of'"' (AG, 7). Further countering her suggestion, her mother says, "'But, my love, you have not learned to take care of yourself yet: and young children require more judgment and experience to manage than elder ones"' (AG, 7). Recollecting her father's reaction, Agnes writes: "'What, my little Agnes a governess!' cried he, and, in spite of his dejection, he laughed at the idea" (AG, 8). In the first two of these instances, Mary's emphasis on you and Mrs. Grey's emphasis on yourself call into question Agnes's status as an autonomous individual with her own independent identity, which she had put forward with her own emphasis on I. Although attuned to the implications of her family's behavior (at least in retrospect), Agnes absorbs some of their patterns of thought—patterns that deny her an independence and maturity comparable to her age, and result in her seeing herself as somehow less than fully developed and able to act on her own.

The family plot that opens the novel introduces other themes as well, among them Agnes's affinities with the natural world and especially with animals. Clearly the most important theme, in terms of setting the stage for her subsequent experiences, has to do with the sense of self that Agnes develops within her family and with how it determines the effect her work experiences will have on her. In many ways, the novel's emphasis on Agnes's subsequent psychological development once she has left home becomes a commentary on the home life she left. In doing so, Brontë deepens the interpretive interest of Agnes's subsequent governess experience by linking it to a broader critique of the domestic ideal and of related ideologies of gender and class that sentimentalized the family and that restricted societal understandings of a woman's capacity for self-determination.

"A Stranger in a Strange Land": The Governess Story

The phrase "a stranger in a strange land" would seem at home in almost any episode in Agnes Grey devoted to the heroine's life as a governess. It comes in fact from the correspondence of Brontë's father. In response to a letter he had received from a fellow clergyman expressing sympathy on the death of his wife, Maria Branwell Brontë, Patrick Brontë wrote, "Had I been at D[ewsbury] I should not have wanted kind friends; had I been at H[artshead] I should have seen them and others occasionally; or had I been at T[hornton] a family there who were ever truly kind would have soothed my sorrows; but I was at H[aworth], a stranger in a strange land" (BLFC, I, 58). The phrase captures his sense of exile as an Irishman living in Yorkshire as well as the overwhelming emotional alienation of losing his wife, an alienation only partially mitigated, his later comments imply, by his religious faith.

It is this combined sense of geographic exile and emotional or psychological alienation that plague Agnes Grey as she struggles to survive in a world that she feels is radically unfamiliar to her. Perhaps no other theme so preoccupied Brontë. As the title implies, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would bring exile and alienation to the foreground: Helen Huntingdon is both physically banished from her home and alienated, by virtue of her alias as the widow Mrs. Graham, from her self. Just as Brontë in her poetry created characters who were exiled from their home and family to explore the process of self-examination that inevitably ensued, so too in Agnes Grey she uses Agnes's sense of alienation as a springboard for self-scrutiny. Indeed, Agnes describes the "strange feeling of desolation" with which she greeted her first morning in the Murray home as follows:

I awoke … feeling like one whirled away by enchantment, and suddenly dropped from the clouds into a remote and unknown land, widely and completely isolated from all he had ever seen or known before; or like a thistle-seed borne on the wind to some strange nook of uncongenial soil, where it must lie long enough before it can take root and germinate, extracting nourishment from what appears so alien to its nature: if, indeed, it ever can. (AG, 49)

Although Brontë has Agnes reveal a cynicism born out of her difficult experiences with the Bloomfield family, the young woman who commences a career as a governess is not yet disillusioned. The young woman who leaves her home to begin work as a governess is not simply one who has not been provided with sufficient opportunities to establish an autonomous identity. Brontë represents Agnes's condition in almost pathological terms; she is passive—at least on the outside—to an extreme degree. Although she expresses her inward determination to persevere in her plans for work despite the obstacles presented at home, she manages to act on that determination only indirectly, pressuring her mother to approve her plans and obtain her father's consent. Significantly, when the plans finally come to fruition, Brontë uses the passive voice; Agnes says, "At last, to my great joy, it was decreed that I should take charge of the young family of a certain Mrs. Bloomfield" (AG, 9). Most often, Brontë establishes Agnes's passivity by calling attention to her voice—or, more precisely, to her lack of voice. Upon hearing her family's arguments against her desire to work, she writes, "I was silenced for that day, and for many succeeding ones" (AG, 8). Perhaps more pointedly, Agnes's sister asks her "Only think … what would you do in a house full of strangers, without me or mamma to speak and act for you— … ?" (AG, 8).

Such comments help the reader to understand that because Agnes's background is so empty of opportunities for autonomous action, or self-government, she is especially unprepared for governess work—for work that will, literally, require her to govern others. Brontë ironically suggests that her awareness of what she lacks ultimately drives her to governessing. Imagining herself as a governess, Agnes writes:

How delightful it would be to be a governess! To go out into the world; to enter upon a new life; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my unknown powers; to earn my own maintenance, and something to comfort and help my father, mother, and sister, beside exonerating them from the provision of my food and clothing; to show papa what his little Agnes could do; to convince mamma and Mary that I was not quite the helpless, thoughtless being they supposed. (AG, 8)

The dire economic circumstances of her family and her potential role in alleviating their stress function within this passage as little more than an afterthought. Her primary incentive, Brontë implies, is self-oriented; she wants to establish independence and to prove that her identity is not that which her family has accorded her.

Adding to the reader's sense of Agnes's unrealistic optimism are the naiveté and idealism that Brontë reveals in her anticipation of her actual duties as a governess:

And then, how charming to be entrusted with the care and education of children! Whatever others said, I felt I was fully competent to the task: The clear remembrance of my own thoughts in early childhood would be a surer guide than the instructions of the most mature adviser. I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections: how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid, and console the afflicted; how to make Virtue practicable, Instruction desirable, and Religion lovely and comprehensible. (AG, 8-9)

Undercutting the domestic ideology that revealed itself in 19th-century conduct books and works of instruction for women, Brontë ensures that Agnes uses the same idealistic rhetoric to approach the task of governessing.'10 According to Agnes's internal logic, the skills she already possesses as a woman will be exactly the skills that she will need in her work. In this passage Brontë foreshadows as well the impact that Agnes's negative experience as a governess will have on her self-esteem; anticipating only success, she draws here on her "own thoughts," likens her future pupils to herself, and fantasizes about proving others wrong. The narrative that follows is at least partly predictable: Agnes discovers that her own childhood has little prepared her to understand the childhood experiences of others, still less to impart her own values to those children. But just as Agnes's anticipation of life as a governess revolves at least as much around her own potential growth as around issues of work, so too does the narrative of her experience turn inward. In the process, Brontë reveals the ways in which Agnes's expectations about selfdevelopment are both achieved and disappointed.

While Agnes delineates her goals for governessing along two distinct lines—one having to do with her success as a teacher, the other involving more personal goals—Brontë shows that the important thing was that the strands are interwoven. On one level, for instance, Agnes evidences a strong desire for children of her own, which reveals itself early in her encounter with the Bloomfield family when she meets the children: "The remaining one was Harriet, a little broad, fat, merry, playful thing of scarcely two, that I coveted more than all the rest—but with her I had nothing to do" (AG, 14). Her desire for a child of her own turns more bitterly ironic late in the novel when she is confronted with Lady Ashby's indifference to her own infant girl. Since Agnes is unaware during these episodes that she will in fact one day have children of her own, she is reduced first through her role as a governess and later as a teacher to accepting a very limited role in relation to children.

Another way that Brontë relates Agnes's personal and career goals for self-development is through the concept of reform. Brontë stresses the extent to which Agnes approaches governessing as an opportunity for self-reform, a chance to develop those attributes she feels confident that she has but has yet to develop and perfect. While she recognizes that the children for whom she will be responsible pose serious challenges, she is—at least for a time—confident that she will be able to alter their personalities and to reform their characters. The language and behavior of the Bloomfield children shock her, but, she writes, "I hoped in time to be able to work a reformation" (AG, 15). Later, of "Master" Bloomfield she writes, "in time, I might be able to show him the error of his ways" (AG, 17). Despite continued failure to achieve her goals, she persists in her belief that reformation of character is possible: "irksome as my situation was," she writes, "I earnestly wished to retain it. I thought, if I could struggle on with unremitting firmness and integrity, the children would in time become more humanized" (AG, 27).

Agnes's efforts at reform enable Brontë to analyze the expectations that domestic ideology placed on the middle-class woman by virtue of her role as moral educator. Brontë shows that Agnes is most frustrated by her sense that what reformation she does achieve is fragile at best; bad examples from a father or uncle are all it takes to negate the progress she thought she had achieved. Although Agnes gradually relinquishes her belief in her own powers to effect fundamental change, Brontë shows the impact of her subsequent sense of failure. The attraction that Agnes eventually develops for the curate Edward Weston may be related to his own desire to reform his parishioners and his relative success at it; at the conclusion of her narrative, for instance, Agnes reports with pride that "Edward, by his strenuous exertions, has worked surprising reforms in his parish" (AG, 164). Her sometimes excessive admiration of her mother may also relate to her sense that her mother manages others more effectively than she herself is able to do. The possibilities and problems of reform— of self, of the children one supervises and instructs, or of the parishoners one oversees—manifest another way in which Brontë used her writing to question the stability of selfhood over time. In Agnes Grey, Brontë shows that failure to change—literally to re-form and to better one's self—can have disastrous consequences.

Agnes's relative failure to achieve the reforms she had so desired in her students is not surprising. Brontë provides so much evidence of the horrific behavior of Agnes's charges and the physical hardships she endures that the reader cannot doubt that she was faced with an impossible task. Although Agnes hints at her own lack of confidence, Brontë ensures that Agnes's readers will not doubt her. The children she tends pull her hair, threaten to destroy her personal belongings (including her cherished writing desk), affront her conscience and sensibilities with their abhorrent conduct toward the natural world (e.g., maliciously whipping horses, beating dogs, and torturing young birds), and ignore her warnings and threats. Throughout these episodes, Brontë draws the reader's attention not to the children themselves (who seem larger than life in their faults) but to Agnes as she reacts to her experiences and develops as a result.

Brontë signals the emotional implications of Agnes's experiences through her physical changes, which her family notices when she returns home on vacation and, at the end of the novel, after permanently resigning from her position. Brontë prepares readers to anticipate that Agnes will be "a good deal paler and thinner than when [she] first left home" (AG, 44), through a series of references to her hunger. Agnes's stint at the Bloomfield residence is marked by many occasions during which she fails to eat: when she arrives for the first time after an arduous journey she is presented with "beefsteaks and half-cold potatoes," which she finds inedible (AG, 13); later in her stay she notes the "frugal supper of cold meat and bread" she is invited to partake of (AG, 18); on still another occasion, after struggling to get the children dressed and prepared for breakfast, she finds the breakfast food cold on the table. In these and other instances, the cold food that Agnes fails to eat parallels the frigid demeanor of her employers, and particularly of Mrs. Bloomfield, whom she describes as "cold, grave, and forbidding—the very opposite of the kind, warm-hearted matron my hopes had depicted her to be" (AG, 18). Her subsequent stay at Horton Lodge, the Murray family residence, is little better. Of her first meal there, Agnes writes: "Having broken my long fast on a cup of tea and a little thin bread and butter, I sat down beside the small, smouldering fire, and amused myself with a hearty fit of crying" (AG, 48).

In these instances, Brontë invokes a trope of nourishment common in women's writing of the 19th century. Agnes herself recognizes that the nourishment she needs is emotional, writing at one point in her stay with the Bloomfields: "Kindness, which had been the food of my life through so many years, had lately been so entirely denied me, that I welcomed with grateful joy the slightest semblance of it" (AG, 31). Later, she describes a short stay at home as "quiet enjoyment of liberty and rest, and genuine friendship, from all of which I had fasted so long" (AG, 41). The references in Agnes Grey to nourishment, both physical and emotional, are legion and help Brontë to show the impact of Agnes's diminished social status as a governess. Indeed, the process by which Agnes literally becomes thinner parallels the process by which the reader becomes increasingly aware of her social invisibility.

Throughout the novel, Brontë marks Agnes's social invisibility in two important and interrelated ways, both of which reveal the dissonance of class status for the governess. Agnes's sense of her status manifests itself through her preoccupation with her visible presence or lack of it. She discovers as a governess that her presence in a variety of public settings is necessary to make manifest the social status of her employers, but that her presence must also be unacknowledged. The situation that Brontë depicted in Agnes Grey was, in fact, fairly realistic; explaining the dilemmas of social status introduced by the figure of the governess, one historian has written, "So excruciating was the problem to all concerned that many employers and their friends adopted the cowardly, though effective, tactic of simply pretending not to 'notice' the governess on those occasions when she was obliged to be in their company" (Hughes 1993, 99-100). Brontë presents similar situations, using them. to reveal the emotional anguish that they engender in her heroine. For example, describing Mr. Robson—Mrs. Bloomfield's brother— Agnes writes, "He seldom deigned to notice me; and, when he did, it was with a certain supercilious insolence of tone and manner that convinced me he was no gentleman: though it was intended to have a contrary effect" (AG, 36). Although Agnes seems on the surface to recognize and disparage the pretensions of Mr. Robson and others like him, the very frequency with which she notes encounters like this point to an unresolved bitterness as well.

Another strategy that Brontë uses to manifest Agnes's social invisibility is emphasizing her lack of an effective voice. Agnes's awareness of her own sense of "voicelessness," for which she accepts partial responsibility, becomes a major subject of the narrative itself and ultimately enables Brontë to explore through her representation of Agnes, situated as she was in the private sphere, the unempowered position of middle-class women. The related issues of social invisibility and voicelessness so dominate Agnes's narrative that they—rather than, for example, the physical conditions of her life as a governess—become the actual subject of the novel.

Brontë's preoccupation with Agnes's developing sense of presence and voice reveals itself early on in her account of governessing—in fact, in the same episode in which she is first presented with a meal that she is unable to eat. While she attempts out of politeness to eat her meal, she becomes self-conscious about the conversation with Mrs. Bloomfield, noting both that lady's "succession of commonplace remarks, expressed with frigid formality" as well as her own failure to respond: "I really could not converse," she writes (AG, 13)—a statement that she would echo at several other points in her narrative. Introducing a situation that would recur in other portions of the narrative, Brontë exacerbates Agnes's sense of self-consciousness by making her the object of another's gaze. Adding to her sense of discomfort at this point is an awareness that Mrs. Bloomfield is watching her eat: "sensible that the awful lady was spectator to the whole transaction, I at last desperately grasped the knife and fork in my fists, like a child of two years old" (AG, 13). In her own estimation, Agnes is reduced to a child—just the thing she had hoped to disprove through her venture into governessing in the first place. She accounts for her behavior in several ways: she is physically cold from her journey and her hands are literally "benumbed" from the long drive (AG, 13). At the same time, she is nervous about what her new life will be like and already disheartened by her encounters with Mrs. Bloomfield. Most obviously, though, she begins to become conscious of her self as powerless.

Agnes's self-consciousness escalates as the weeks go on. Her difficulties with the unruly Bloomfield children are made worse by her worry about what their parents will think, or—to be more precise—see. Struggling to keep up with Tom and Mary Ann on a walk outside, she thinks: "But there was no remedy; either I must follow them, or keep entirely apart from them, and thus appear neglectful of my charge…. I was in constant fear that their mother would see them from the window, and blame me…. If she did not see them, some one else did" (AG, 19). Agnes's fears seem justified: her actions and behaviors are closely monitored. Brontë repeatedly represents the Bloomfield estate or rooms within the estate as panoptic; no matter what her position, Agnes is subject to the constant surveillance of her employers. Just as Mrs. Bloomfield watched her in the dining room, Mr. Bloomfield watches from the window as the children play outdoors and is "continually looking in to see if the schoolroom [is] in order" (AG, 34). Even visitors to the home scrutinize Agnes's actions; she spitefully characterizes the senior Mrs. Bloomfield as "a spy upon my words and deeds" (AG, 31).

Brontë counterbalances in several ways Agnes's painful sense that she is being watched. Although Agnes doesn't directly acknowledge the irony of it, her work policing her charges entails a good deal of espionage as well. She at one point characterizes her job as one of "instruction and surveillance," implying that the two were equally weighted. Some of this is, in fact, commanded of her, as when Mrs. Murray directs her to follow Rosalie in the park to ensure that she doesn't have an "unsightly" encounter with the Reverend Hatfield. Yet from her ostensibly invisible position Agnes also monitors the behavior of those around her and records it, often in minute detail.

The emphasis that Brontë narrative places on Agnes's sense of presence, of watching and being watched, shifts slightly in the second half of the novel, when the character Edward Weston is introduced. Some of Agnes's self-consciousness about her lack of presence persists, as for example when she records Hatfield's failure to notice her while handing the Murray girls into their carriage after the church service. In characteristic fashion, Agnes accepts some of the blame for her situation, attributing it in part to her personality and in part to her role as a governess: "I liked walking better, but a sense of reluctance to obtrude my presence on any one who did not desire it always kept me passive on these and similar occasions," she writes. "Indeed, this was the best policy—for to submit and oblige was the governess's part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils" (AG, 87).

Nonetheless, Agnes wants her readers to blame others; describing the "great nuisance" of walking home from church with others, she notes:

As none of the before-mentioned ladies and gentlemen ever noticed me, it was disagreeable to walk beside them, as if listening to what they said, or wishing to be thought one of them, while they talked over me, or across; and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy— as if they either did not see me, or were very desirous to make it appear so. (AG, 87)

The passage clearly reveals Agnes's self-consciousness about her lack of social visibility, but it also suggests that she, too, is driven by pride. Rather than simply walk at the pace that would occur naturally, she refuses to do anything that would allow others to think she cared what they said. As she continues:

It was disagreeable, too, to walk behind, and thus appear to acknowledge my own inferiority; for, in truth, I considered myself pretty nearly as good as the best of them, and wished them to know that I did so, and not to imagine that I looked upon myself as a mere domestic, who knew her own place too well to walk beside such fine ladies and gentlemen as they were. (AG, 88)

At this point in her narrative, Agnes "shamefully" acknowledges that she worked hard "to appear perfectly unconscious or regardless of their presence" (AG, 88)— an ironic confession, given her bitterness about similar treatment on their part.

Part of the role that Weston serves is to allow Brontë to curb what Agnes at one point refers to as her "spirit of misanthropy" (AG, 88). Significantly, he does so by noticing Agnes, thus enabling Brontë to symbolically subvert the class-consciousness that would make her, as a governess, unworthy of public attention. Not surprisingly, Agnes registers his notice immediately. She describes their accidental encounter at the cottage of Nancy Brown, for example, as follows:

"I've done you a piece of good service, Nancy," he began: then seeing me, he acknowledged my presence by a slight bow. I should have been invisible to Hatfield, or any other gentleman of those parts. (AG, 84).

Brontë stresses Agnes's level of self-esteem by having her insist on remaining hidden from view, refusing to accept a chair by the fire with Weston and Nancy Brown and continuing to sew silently by a window in the corner of the cottage. But it is significant that she gradually takes measures to make her presence known. In chapter 17, "Confessions," she writes, "I may as well acknowledge that, about this time, I paid more attention to dress than ever I had done before" (AG, 114). Her success in doing so is established in the narrative when the Murray sisters effectively bar her from going with them to church, ensuring that she won't be seen by Weston and that all of his attention will thus be reserved for them. When Agnes finally does meet him again after this point, she writes, "it was something to find my unimportant saying so well remembered: it was something that he had noticed so accurately the time I had ceased to be visible" (AG, 129).

Although throughout the narrative Brontë shows Agnes struggling with an inability to make her presence felt, this passage suggests that her sense of presence is tied to a sense of voice. Both are intimately connected to a sense of self that, at this point in the narrative, is beleaguered at best. From the very beginning of Agnes's account of life as a governess, Brontë emphasizes viocelessness as the distinguishing feature of her work. Remembering some warnings from her mother, she vows to "keep silence" on the faults of her charges (AG, 18), a decision reinforced early on by Mrs. Bloomfield's directive in regard to handling problems with the children. She effectively censors Agnes by saying, "If persuasion and gentle remonstrance will not do, let one of the others come and tell me; for I can speak to them more plainly than it would be proper for you to do" (AG, 52). Brontë reintroduces the theme of censorship with Mrs. Murray. As Agnes writes, "Having said what she wished, it was no part of her plan to wait my answer: it was my business to hear, and not to speak" (AC, 127). Although Agnes is "roused to speak" in her own defense on more than one occasion with both the Bloomfield and the Murray families, she consistently decides to "subdue" and "suppress" her impulses (AG, 27). What makes governessing difficult, she implies, is less the physical hardships or the embarrassment of lowered social status than the stress of having to continually restrain herself.

The emphasis on repression that is at the heart of Brontë's account of Agnes's experiences as a governess is central to the novel's romance plot as well. Like other Victorian writers, Brontë understood the power of sexuality and of sexual impulses to determine behavior and yet at the same time appreciated its "fugitive nature," its "resistan[ce] to definition, examination, and regulation."11 Brontë showed further how the challenges of understanding and regulating erotic impulses were especially formidable for a woman like Agnes Grey, whose gender and status as a governess combined to render her passive. The challenge of exercising restraint in the presence of her charges and superiors becomes exacerbated for Agnes by the necessity of repressing her feelings for Weston. Listening to Rosalie chatter about her conversation with Weston during one of the Sundays in which she had been prevented from attending church, Agnes thinks:

I was accustomed, now, to keeping silence when things distasteful to my ear were uttered; and now, too, I was used to wearing a placid smiling countenance when my heart was bitter within me…. Other things I heard, which I felt or feared were indeed too true: but I must still conceal my anxiety respecting him, in indignation against them, beneath a careless aspect; others, again, mere hints of something said or done, which I longed to hear more of, but could not venture to inquire. So passed the weary time. (AG, 120)

Although Agnes's situation is clearly painful, Brontë heightens the reader's appreciation of the intensity of Agnes's desire by focusing on the extent to which she controls that desire, choosing to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself rather than risking an open confession. Agnes's repression becomes a mechanism of self-control and a means of self-identification. In another important passage, she admits that not even her mother or her sister could be privy to her thoughts:

I fear, by this time, the reader is well-nigh disgusted with the folly and weakness I have so freely laid before him. I never disclosed it then, and would not have done so had my own sister or my mother been with me in the house. I was a close and resolute dissembler—in this one case at least. My prayers, my tears, my wishes, fears, and lamentations, were witnessed by myself and Heaven alone. (AG, 121)

Curiously, Agnes does not explore why she felt so strongly about keeping her emotions to herself. Providing a small source of consolation is her religious faith, which enables her to feel that even in this silence she is not alone.

Brontë shows that, although silence is partially imposed upon Agnes, it is also a position that she adopts in self-defense. The politics of speaking out or choosing not to speak enter Brontë's narrative in other ways as well, as for example in the story of Rosalie's flirtation with Hatfield. When the flirtation comes to its end, Hatfield requests that Rosalie "keep silent" about his proposal of marriage, threatening her by remarking that "if you add to [my injury] by giving publicity to this unfortunate affair, or naming it at all, you will find that I too can speak" (AG, 101). The self-deprecating Agnes cannot, of course, wield power through speech in the same way as Rosalie. When she is dismissed from the services of the Bloomfield family, for instance, she writes:

I wished to say something in my own justification: but in attempting to speak, I felt my voice falter; and rather than testify any emotion, or suffer the tears to overflow that were already gathering in my eyes, I chose to keep silence, and bear all like a self-convicted culprit. (AG, 41)

Brontë advances her study of the social and psychological implications of Agnes's silence in several ways. On many occasions throughout the narrative, Agnes admits that she cannot hold others entirely responsible for her silence. Of Mrs. Bloomfield's failure to allow her more than two weeks' vacation time during her first earned holiday, she notes:

Yet she was not to blame in this; I had never told her my feelings, and she could not be expected to divine them; I had not been with her a full term, and she was justified in not allowing me a full vacation. (AG, 28)

Such self-critical gestures recur throughout Agnes's narrative and enable Brontë to bring to the foreground the issue of Agnes's reliability as a narrator and enhance the reader's understanding of the extent to which the nature of subjectivity itself is under scrutiny in the novel. Of the Murray children's desire to take lessons in the open air and on damp grass, which frequently made Agnes catch a cold, she writes, "But I must not blame them for what was, perhaps, my own fault; for I never made any particular objections to sitting where they pleased; foolishly choosing to risk the consequences, rather than trouble them for my convenience" (AG, 58-59). Here as elsewhere Agnes conveys an attitude of both martyrdom and self-deprecation.

Weston's role is again crucial to Brontë's exploration of Agnes's self-deprecating nature, for he openly expresses that which Agnes only partially accepts about her own role in representing herself as beleaguered. On one of the occasions when the two walk home together after church, he introduces the topic of social disposition and when she complains that her position denies her opportunities to make friends, he responds, "The fault is partly in society, and partly, I should think, in your immediate neighbours: and partly, too, in yourself; for many ladies, in your position, would make themselves be noticed and accounted of (AG, 108). Although Weston is not saying here anything that Agnes has not already thought to herself, it is significant that he voices her thoughts, that he feels open enough with her to do so, and that he is unencumbered by social decorum, a trait she appreciates. As she subsequently thinks, "such single-minded straightforwardness could not possibly offend me" (AG, 109).

Nonetheless, it is precisely the fact that Weston is not what he initially seems that makes him attractive to Agnes. Although she is immediately drawn to him as a clergyman, approving his style of delivering a sermon and revering his "strong sense, firm faith, and ardent piety" (AG, 83), it is not until she hears of his attentions to the poor cottager Nancy Brown that he becomes "like the morning-star in [her] horizon" and a "subject for contemplation" (AG, 82). As Agnes explains it, "when I found that to his other good qualities was added that of true benevolence and gentle, considerate kindness, the discovery, perhaps, delighted me the more, as I had not been prepared to expect it" (AG, 83). Shortly after this admission, Agnes recollects her encounter with Weston at Nancy Brown's cottage and reminds her readers that he—unlike others—openly acknowledges her presence and speaks to her. Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Brontë stresses the importance of such attention in encouraging Agnes to distinguish Weston from others. As she had earlier emphasized, "Mr Hatfield never spoke to me, neither did Sir Hugh or Lady Meltham, nor Mr Harry or Miss Meltham, nor Mr Green or his sisters, nor any other lady or gentleman who frequented that church: nor, in fact, any one that visited Horton Lodge" (AG, 67).

The story of Agnes's visits to Nancy's cottage and to other homes of poor laborers also enables Brontë to explore how Agnes represents herself to others when divested of the governess role. Just as her family's fall into poverty had seemed to Agnes to be an opportunity to better herself, so too does her friendship with Nancy Brown allow her to improve herself. Even before the arrival of Weston, Agnes recognizes that Nancy Brown is the one person that she is open with, the one to whom she could "freely speak [her] thoughts" (AG, 81). Importantly, Agnes sees her relationship with Nancy as mutually beneficial; she seeks to help her, but she also realizes that Nancy's "conversation was calculated to render me better, wiser, or happier than before" (AG, 81). Like Helen Huntingdon in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes worries that her association with people unworthy of her respect will inevitably exert an adverse influence on her, that the alliance with the Bloomfields and Murrays "[will] gradually bring [her] feelings, habits, capacities, to the level of their own" (AG, 82). Here again Agnes's expression of self-doubts exemplifies the ways that Brontë used her writing to question the stability of selfhood. Whereas earlier in the narrative Agnes had felt dismayed at her failure to reform her charges, here her frustration with govemessing concerns the malleability of her self. Nancy Brown unwittingly enables Agnes to believe in its stability.

Brontë fulfills a variety of additional functions through the character of Nancy Brown. Nancy's story enables Brontë to invert the commonly held association of poverty with immorality by suggesting that Agnes's sense of morality is better served in the company of the impoverished. She also facilitates Agnes's growing recognition of what it means to speak "freely," as she apparently does with Nancy Brown, and as Weston eventually does with her. The story of Nancy Brown thus indirectly reintroduces the thematic of voice and voicelessness that runs throughout Agnes Grey, and indeed throughout all of Brontë's writing. Although Agnes does not realize it, her readers have become increasingly aware that while governessing has censored Agnes's public voice, it has also facilitated the emergence of an important internal voice. Agnes does speak "freely" with someone other than Nancy Brown, in other words; as her narrative progresses, she develops an ongoing conversation with her self.


8 The connection between Agnes and her mother and their description of kindred willingness to approach their reduced conditions with enthusiasm are interesting in light of Anne Brontë's own connection to poverty via her mother. Maria Branwell Brontë wrote an essay titled "The Advantages of Poverty in Religious Concerns" that sought to disavow the association of poverty with moral evil and to advocate "the instruction and conversion of the poor" (27). Although this essay was never published in the Brontë's lifetime, it is printed in BLFC, I, 24-27.

9 Agnes's reference to New Zealand here may reflect Anne Brontë's family's affiliation with Mary Taylor, a schoolmate and friend of Charlotte's who traveled to New Zealand to find work. For more on this connection, as well as on the influence of Robert Southey's works on Brontë's use of New Zealand, see Jane Stafford's "Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey and New Zealand," Brontë Society Transactions 20, 2 (1990), 97-99.

10 For a thorough discussion of the ideological work performed by conduct and advice manuals in Victorian England, see Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987).

11 For an excellent overview of Victorian attitudes toward sexuality, see "Victorian Sexualities," a special issue of Victorian Studies edited by Andrew H. Miller. The quoted passages come from Miller's brief introduction to major aspects of the topic, entitled "Editor's Introduction," Victorian Studies 63, 3 (Spring 1993), 269-72.

12 The term "private speech" is drawn from literature on Bakhtin's Vygotskian psycholinguistics and has correlates in Bakhtin's theories of narrative and voice. For a good discussion that bridges Vygotskian psycholinguistics and literary theories, see James Wertsch's Voices of the Mind (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Works Cited

Brontë, Anne. Agnes Grey. 1st ed., 3d of 3 vols. In Emily Brontë and Anne Brontë. Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. London: T. C. Newby, 1847. In-text citations appear as AG.

Hughes, Kathryn. The Victorian Governess. London: Hambledon Press, 1993.

T. J. Wise and J. A. Symington, eds. The Brontës: Their Lives, Friendships and Correspondence, 4 vols. Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1932. Reprint, Philadelphia: Porcupine Press, 1980.

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Critical Evaluation