Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Even though I've moved six hours away from Captive Thoughts Book Club, I hope to keep up with their reading selections and return for the discussions as much as possible. April has been declared Bronte month - everyone will choose at least one of the seven novels written by the Bronte sisters, authors and novels that could be considered the epitome of our focus on women this year. Discussing such a number and variety of novels will be a new experience!

As for my choice of novels, I have previously read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, by Charlotte and Emily, respectively. So I wanted to read something by Anne, the youngest Bronte sister. Agnes Grey was the only available choice, since The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which was highly recommended by another book club member, wasn't available at my library. Though not my first choice, Agnes Grey offers a very realistic (from what I can tell) portrait of a 19th century governess, and it reminded me of the many things I love about classic literature! The quaint descriptions and old-fashioned sense of propriety are charming, the lack of innuendos is refreshing, and it is amazing to return to a time when Biblical references were a part of the very fabric of society and conversation.

Agnes Grey tells her own story in a first person narrative that is neither too introspective nor overly detailed. She begins with a comment that "All true histories contain instruction..." but in this case the instruction is very subtly conveyed through a simple and engaging personal history. Most obviously, Anne might have intended Agnes to provide a social commentary on the cultural stigmas imposed upon governesses, who were usually well-educated women from middle-class families. Unfortunate circumstances often forced these young ladies to earn a living, placing them in something of a social limbo between the servant class and their more wealthy employers. Agnes' story reveals the lonely and thankless task of attempting to educate and train spoiled children when the parents refuse to establish either their own or the governess' authority. Thus, instruction on child training is implicit within the anecdotes about her charges. Morality is also a prominent theme throughout the novel. Since Agnes was raised with high moral standards by her clergyman father and well-bred mother, she is shocked at the cruelty, duplicity, and shallowness of the upper-class. In contrast, her own standards of conduct are misunderstood and criticized by her superiors, but they do not go unnoticed by at least one observer, who serves as a redemptive figure among the predominately petty characters of Agnes' world. Agnes is not so tragic a figure as Jane Eyre, and the romantic ending concludes things neatly, even if it is a slight stretch of the realism that characterizes the rest of the novel.

I read the Modern Library Classics edition, which had a well-written introduction by Barbara A Suess and enough textual notes to explain unfamiliar terms but not so many as to be tedious. The introduction explains the ambiguous social standing of a governess in the mid-19th century, and notes the somewhat autobiographical nature of the novel, as several elements of the story mirror Anne's own life. Although it has been many years since I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Anne seems to be a much more straightforward writer than her sisters. Agnes Grey is less than 200 pages, but it still delivers sympathetic and despicable characters, sound moral instruction, a moving story, and a satisfying ending. There will be much to discuss at book club: the place of women as portrayed by the Bronte's, the personal elements each author imposed upon her novels, the contrast between ideals and reality. . .

For a review of Charlotte Bronte's The Professor, check out Captive Thoughts Book Club blog. If you have reviewed Agnes Grey or other Bronte novels, leave a comment and I'll put links here.


Chris said...

Anne is the underrated Bronte. I thought Tenant was a great book. I must read Agnes Grey soon.

Page Turner said...

Chris ~ what an apt comment! I agree wholeheartedly! Now that I've read Agnes, I want to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I'll have to check into inter-library loan.

Molly said...

I have not yet read Anne Bronte's work, but have both Agnes Grey and The Tenant on my TBR shelves. I just need to find more time to read all the books that I entice me.