Sunday, January 18, 2015

Agnes Grey (1847)

At this late date it's not much surprise that Anne Bronte's first novel is the least of the three she and her elder sisters published in 1847 (with Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Emily's Wuthering Heights). It's not nearly as expansive nor as capable of achieving the heights they do. But it's still engaging and charming, the story of a governess of middle-class origins and her various adventures and sorties. The upper class is skewered as neatly and devastatingly as anything else I know, with detailed scenes of hypocrisy and deplorable behavior. Governess indeed is a particularly inspired vantage—part servant, part master, it's a position that only worked in the presence of good will all around (children excepted for the obvious reasons). It offers many interesting insights into 19th-century education, not yet taken as a state responsibility, simply by the clarity of her narrative. A year with one family and two with another supply the bulk of the action—I appreciated the panorama. Also, as I say, the unflinching reportage of the upper class, shockingly barbaric at times. One boy is mad at work continually torturing and killing small animals, which, it comes out, is the influence of a sadistic uncle who beats all his animals and loves to hunt. No one bats an eye—well, except our governess heroine, the Agnes Grey of the title—and the parents are willfully blind to much of what's going on. Thus the landed gentry. At the same time that's just one thread. There are some very nice character studies here and as usual much hope is invested in the existence of the good and noble, etc. It has a bit of a fairy tale arc, but it's also a short book. Her more ambitious The Tenant of Wildfell Hall would follow the next year and then her own death at the age of 29, the youngest of them in every way. All the Bronte sister writers died so young (Emily at 30, Charlotte at 38) it's almost sad to contemplate how good the work is that they managed to get done. There are better examples of social realism (going on naturalism) and sitting-room manners and fairy tales, but they are blended in Agnes Grey so skillfully and often so penetratingly that even with all its flaws I think it's eminently worth a look.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I still get plenty of Jane's and Tom's and David's and Anna's and Emma's and Henry's in my classes but can't say that I've ever had a Agnes or Silas. These characters are like the secret history of the 19th century.