Reading ‘Agnes Grey’ brought with it the memories of reading ‘Jane Eyre’. And, it is an irony that ‘Agnes Grey’ was written a year before ‘Jane Eyre’; though published around the same time in the year 1847, the latter became a more popular Classic.
Perhaps the Cinderella twist in ‘Jane Eyre’, Mr.Rochester riding on a horse sweeping the dreamy heroine off her feet held a greater appeal. There are many parallels between the two narratives, both chronicle the story of a young and poor Governess, not befitting the societal notions of beauty and moralistically headstrong. Anne Bronte addresses ‘the reader’ just like Charlotte Bronte.
“I began this book with the intention of concealing nothing; that those who liked might have the benefit of perusing a fellowcreature’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 amongst them.”
Agnes is the younger of the two daughters in the Grey family. Her mother was ousted from the family’s wealth for marrying a poor clergyman. However, Mrs.Grey is happy in her humble abode teaching her two girls to be industrious and morally right. Mr. Grey lacks financial inklings and further plunges in debt after a bad investment decision. As Mr.Grey’s health condition deteriorates, Agnes’ elder sister Mary decides to sell her paintings to support the family. As her part, Agnes thinks of becoming a Governess even though she had been the pet of the family, treated almost like a fifteen-year-old at the age of nineteen.
Nonetheless, Agnes decides to prove her mettle and is placed with the Bloomfield household through a family friend. Her first work expedition turns out nothing like what she had anticipated. The Bloomfields are mean and arrogant and this becomes Agnes’s first brush with the outer world and the shattering of her naïve optimism.
Agnes is relieved of her position from the Bloomfield family in less than a year. On her return, Agnes is keen to take up another position as a Governess and advertises for it, this time Agnes and her mother finalize the Murrays after much deliberation. In the Murray household, the elder two boys have left for school and Agnes is responsible for educating the two girls – Matilda and Rosalie. Agnes and her mother feel that these girls being about the age of sixteen would be easier to handle and educate. However, the unfortunate luck follows Agnes as she once again faces a mean and conniving wealthy household.
But, it is during this stay at the Murray household that Agnes meets Mr.Weston, the Parson at the Church and is in love.
“The gross vapours of earth were gathering around me, and closing in upon my inward heaven; and thus it was that Mr.Weston rose length upon me, appearing like the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness; and I rejoiced that I had now a subject for contemplation that was above me, not beneath. I was glad to see that al the world was not made up of Bloomfields, Murrays, Hatfields, Ashbys & c.; and that human excellence was not a mere dream of the imagination.”
Through the ordeal of handling the Murray girls and realizing her dreams of becoming an independent woman, Agnes opens her heart to the readers.
The Theme of a Plain, Poor and an Independent Woman
Agnes Grey is plain and poor. There is a chapter titled ‘Confessions’ where Anne Bronte tells how a young girl is drawn towards a little bird feeling it to be helpless and harmless. Can she be drawn to a toad, likewise, which is also small, helpless, and harmless? In our society, a woman is judged based on her physical attributes; there is an instinctive dislike for the one ‘unfavoured by nature’. If the qualities of a woman outweigh her looks then the recognition of it is limited to her immediate connections. Probably this was the bitter truth Anne Bronte, herself, was dealing with, the lack of acceptance by the society for her prolific writing skills.
At the age of nineteen, Agnes is financially independent in the times when opportunities for women were limited. Agnes has two experiences to share – the Bloomfield family and the Murray family. At Bloomfield family, Agnes deals with younger children and at the Murray household, she has grown-up girls. It is open upon us as readers to judge whether she succeeded as a Governess or not? The stumbling blocks in her way were far too heavy to have overcome. But I think the olive branch here would be Rosalie’s letter to Agnes for wanting her company on return to Ashby Park post her marriage to Mr.Ashby.
The Motif of Cruelty to Animals
At the Bloomfield household, Agnes is responsible for the seven-year-old Tom and four-year-old Mary. Agnes is terrified to know Tom finds amusement in torturing small animals and birds. At such a young age, he sets up traps for sparrows, mice, and rats in the garden, destroys bird nests and isn’t reproached by his family members for this hideous act. On the contrary, Tom’s father and Uncle encourage and laugh at these actions and his mother doesn’t care for such things.
Agnes is not allowed to reprimand the children on any account so she is not able to change in their behaviour. I think these horrendous acts on small living creatures stand as a metaphor for the rich exploiting and crushing the weaker, vulnerable sections of the society.
Agnes Grey’s yearning to go back to her family and friends
Agnes has immense love and respect for her family; she awaits their letters during her stay as the Governess at wealthy households. Anne Bronte pitches the Grey family, poor and loving against the rich, conceited, and stony Bloomfield and Murray families.
The Murray sisters torment Agnes with their nonsensical chatter, insensitive remarks on poverty, and lack of refined living. Agnes’ solace in this difficult situation is the letters written by Mary and her mother that seem utterly boring to Rosalie. Agnes can never voice her opinion that the qualities of education, creativity, hard work, and family ties are enough to dwarf Rosalie’s skill set of malicious flirtations and wealth.
Good triumphs in the end?
Agnes Grey is rewarded for her hardships with the love of Mr.Weston, the not so handsome but benevolent clergyman. Rosaline is married too but her marriage to the wealthy man has only resulted in a caged, dependent life.
The Bloomfields’ household isn’t mentioned after Agnes’ departs from there.
After Agnes’ father dies, her mother plans to start a school. Agnes finally finds happiness in being industrious in shaping young children at this school, quite similar to Jo’s contentment in the end in ‘Little Women’.
Comparing Agnes Grey to Jane Eyre
‘Jane Eyre’ stands taller than ‘Agnes Grey‘ in its complex plot. ‘Agnes Grey’ to a great extent seems like the first draft to ‘Jane Eyre’, more autobiographical sans the adornments.
Agnes has a loving home and Jane Eyre, as an orphan, readily takes the sympathy of the readers. Surely, Agnes contributes towards the financial necessities of her family and become an independent woman. Where it deviates from ‘Jane Eyre’ is in the continuous dissatisfaction brewing inside Agnes Grey in both her employments. The book chronicles how the rich employers literally enslave a Governess to do many other chores, not just limited to educating the children at their home. There is bitterness in Agnes seeing children growing up devoid of any values of empathy or human emotion in rich, prosperous homes.
Agnes is a subdued character, benevolent and the one who braves it all to become independent. The world isn’t nice to her; she is at the receiving end of worst possible behaviour from her employers and even Mr.Weston is not the proverbial ‘knight in shining armour’.
Recently, I wrote a piece on ‘The Girl with the Blackened Eye’, the short story by Joyce Carol Oates…it is a featured post on ‘Women’s Web magazine’. I will be glad if you drop by and share your thoughts on ‘Joyce Carol Oates’ Story ‘The Girl With The Blackened Eye’ Fills You With Terror And Leaves You Angry At The Same Time!