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.
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.
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.