(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

George Moore (essay date 1924)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Will T. Hale (essay date 1929)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan Brooke (essay date 1965)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Inga-Stina Ewbank (essay date 1966)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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W. A. Craik (essay date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Guy Schofield (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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Tom Winnifrith (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Winifred Gérin (essay date 1976)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Priscilla H. Costello (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Elizabeth Langland (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Liddell (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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A. Craig Bell (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elizabeth Hollis Berry (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Maria H. Frawley (essay date 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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....

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