Saturday, June 30, 2012

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


Another short Victorian, and hopefully a short review to accompany.  I bought this one several years ago in my quest to read everything by the Brontes, which was delayed after my extreme hatred of Wuthering Heights (I know, it's unfair to compare all three sisters as one entity, but I can't help it.  If it weren't for my love of Jane Eyre, I would have given up on the Brontes all together after reading WH).  This book languished on the shelves, though I did make a halfhearted attempt a couple of years ago when it was selected for my real-life Classics group.  I didn't finish it and the reaction among the group was just meh.  I decided to give it another go for the Victorian Celebration.

So, the setup:  young Agnes is growing up happy, though in somewhat difficult financial circumstances, with her sister, and parents.  Her father is a poor clergyman and her mother was from a wealthy family but abandoned them after she married downward for love.  Money is tight but they're happy, but an unwise investment with the family's savings turns out badly.  Agnes doesn't feel like she's contributing to the household so volunteers to take a position as a governess, basically the only job available to poor women of her social standing.

And what a crappy job it is!  Agnes is the governess of a rich but wretched family.  She has all the responsibility of educating the children, but no power to enforce any discipline.  The children are incredibly spoiled so she never makes any progress, and one of the kids is definitely a psychopath -- his parents think it's okay for him to torture little animals and are angry when Agnes tries to put a stop to it. Needless to say, this job doesn't work out and the reader is relieved when Agnes returns home to the rectory.

Her second job is only slightly better, the children are shallow and empty-headed and again, no discipline, yet the parents expect miracles.  The kids are older, only a little younger than Agnes herself. The oldest daughter is looking for a husband and is pretty heartless, toying with the affections of all the local men, though she pretends to treat Agnes as a friend.  Agnes is hopelessly lonely -- she'll never be on the same level as her employers; she's not the same social status of the servants, who don't trust her, so basically, she has no one to talk to, and she has almost no free time to make friends in the village anyway.

Basically, Agnes Grey is an autobiographical expose on the horrible life of the governess.  It's very short, but I ended up stopping halfway through and for more than a week I had no desire whatsoever to finish it, it was just so negative.  However, after I basically forced myself to pick it up again, I was able get through it pretty quickly.  The second half got better and there was an interesting plot development which actually made me wish the book had been longer.  It definitely felt like a first novel, or even a first draft -- I feel like if the story had been fleshed out more, it might have been as good as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or even Jane Eyre.  It's just too bad Anne Bronte died after writing only the two books.  I really would like to have seen what she'd come up with next.

So now I've read five of the seven complete novels by the Brontes, only Shirley and The Professor before I've completed them all.  Are they worth reading?

18 comments:

  1. I basically agree with you about Agnes Grey and Anne Bronte, even if you are wrong about Wuthering Heights. ;-) I thought Agnes Grey was a good book, I liked the first half more than you did, but not a great one. I think it's main interest today is the way it simply presents what life was like for so many young women like Anne Bronte. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is her best work. It does make you wonder how good her third book might have been.

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    1. We'll have to agree to disagree about Wuthering Heights. And I agree, life was crap for most Victorian women. I just watched Albert Nobbs last night and the prospects for working-class women were crap too. I'm so glad I wasn't born 100 years earlier!

      It is sad about the Brontes, all of them -- I would have liked to read more by Emily too. I disliked WH but would have given her another try.

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  2. Just like you, I was disappointed with Wuthering Heights, and have never had any interest in other Bronte's book. But maybe Anne Bronte's The Tenant would worth to try.

    Just curious, is Agnes Grey a bildungsroman? Or just an autobiographical story?

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    1. Well, Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorites, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is really worth reading. I wouldn't say Agnes is a bildungsroman, I don't think it covers enough her personal development and growth -- I know they tend to be longer stories. I think I'd call it an autobiographical story.

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  3. Like you, I love the Brontes but really didn't like Wuthering Heights. I keep meaning to try it again to see if my opinion has changed, but I doubt it.

    I read Agnes Grey recently and I actually really liked it. But then, I'm a primary school teacher so there was much for me to relate to and it was easy for me to identify with Agnes.

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    1. I definitely see your point about relating to a teaching job! I'd like to think that parents have improved since then but I hear too many stories about how the parents blame everything on the teachers to this day.

      Hopefully your life is better than Agnes'!! At least we have more choices in the 21st century.

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  4. Yeah, I really didn't like this one either. I haven't tried The Professor, but I've heard it's terrible, and Shirley was worse than Villette imo, but I only made it halfway through Villette and a quarter through Shirley, so what do I know?

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    1. I thought Villette was too long and dragged, and I hated the ending. Shirley and the Professor are not high on my list of to-reads at the moment. Too much Zola and Trollope to finish first.

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  5. I loved The Tenant and have this on the shelf but not in any hurry to read it, or Shirley. It's years since I read WH and liked it so probably should reread so see how I feel now.

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    1. Someday I should really give WH another try too. Maybe I just missed something the first time around.

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  6. I read Shirley again about 6 months ago & I enjoyed it but it's not one of the Bronte novels I love. I have a problem with Shirley's eventual love interest which really spoils the book for me. Lots of great things in it though, especially Caroline Helstone's dilemma as a single woman unlikely to marry. Charlotte wrote the chapter about Caroline's serious illness just after Anne's death at Scarborough & all her experience went into it. It's magnificent. I've only read AG & Professor once & really need to read them again.

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    1. Hm, well, maybe I'll give it a shot then. I also want to read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell, I really know so little about their lives.

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  7. I've only read Jane Eyre by the Brontes by absolutely loved it. I am definitely intrigued by Agnes Grey. To be a governess is this period sounds like rather a thankless job.

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    1. Yes, it sounds horrible, and there were so few choices. It's no wonder so many women of that class wound up as spinsters.

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  8. I'm not as familiar with the Brontes as most. I loved Jane Eyre and Villette, but haven't read Charlotte's other books. Wuthering Heights was alright...I really didn't like any of the characters, but I can see why the book might appeal to some. I haven't read either of Anne's titles, but I have both of them. I want to save Tenant, since it seems to be the better of the two. :)

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  9. I think all the Bronte books are worth reading. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books. I just love the inventiveness of the story telling, and the fact that Heathcliff was such an unlikeable hero. What didn't you like about?

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  10. You've come this far. Don't quit now. Go ahead and read them, and then you can say you've read all the Brontes wrote.

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  11. I'm with you on WH! And I had to read it forclasses at least three times. Thisone Iliked more than youseem to, but definitely notable favorite.

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