65 pages • 2 hours readAnne Brontë
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Agnes Grey is the first novel by Anne Brontë (1820-1849), the youngest of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, who all wrote novels now considered classics of English literature. Anne drew on her experience as a clergyman’s daughter and as a governess in telling the story of a young woman looking for her place in the world. Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Acton Bell, Agnes Grey was read as an incisive commentary on the status of the governess and the isolation and disrespect that women in this position endured. Critic George Moore called Agnes Grey “the most perfect prose narrative in English literature” (Conversations in Ebury Street, Boni and Liveright, 1924, p. 222), appreciating the straightforward tale of a young woman’s maturation and the adherence to Christian virtues that lead her to peace of mind and romantic love.
This guide uses the Wordsworth Classics print edition published in 1998, which includes a short biographical note that Charlotte Brontë wrote concerning the works of her sisters, Emily and Anne.
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Agnes Grey lives with her clergyman father, resourceful mother, and older sister Mary in the north of England. When the family’s fortune is lost through a failed investment, Agnes offers to take work as a governess. Though 18, she is the family pet, and they do not believe she is ready to leave home.
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Agnes finds a position with the Bloomfields of Wellwood, a tradesman’s family, and she is dismayed to find that governessing does not live up to her romantic notions of guiding and shaping young minds. Mrs. Bloomfield is cold instead of nurturing, and the three children Agnes tutors are difficult, disobedient, and stubborn. Tom, seven, is aggressive and enjoys tormenting animals. Mary Ann, six, refuses to learn her lessons, and even four-year-old Fanny is uncooperative. Agnes is shocked when the parents scold her for their children’s bad behavior but refuse to punish them or provide proper guidance themselves.
Agnes is humiliated by the unkindness and suspicion she encounters from Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield, and she is horrified at the bad example that the children’s uncle sets for them. Once, he gives Tom a nest full of baby birds, and Agnes quickly kills the hatchlings before Tom can torture them. Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield decide that their children are not “improving” under Agnes’s instruction and let her go.
Resolved to try harder and prove her worth to her family, Agnes advertises for a new position and finds one with the Murrays, a squire’s family who live in Horton Lodge, some distance away. Agnes hopes the Murrays will prove kinder and their children less taxing since she does not enjoy being treated as a servant. Agnes is expected to teach the Murray girls to be attractive, accomplished, and well-behaved so they might catch good husbands. Rosalie is 16, beautiful, and very aware of her charms, while Matilda, 14, is a tomboy. Agnes struggles to teach the family’s two boys and is relieved when they are sent to school.
After two years with the Murrays, Rosalie is ready to debut into society and begin entertaining suitors. Quiet, modest Agnes is appalled by her attitude; Rosalie wants to have as much fun as she can flirting with the available men before she settles for the one with the most wealth. One of Rosalie’s conquests is Mr. Hatfield, the vicar, while Agnes is drawn to Mr. Weston, the new curate. Mr. Weston is a serious but sincere and principled man. When she learns how he helped a local cottager through a time of spiritual questioning, Agnes is impressed by his generous spirit as well as his excellent character.
Far from ignoring her as other gentlemen do, Mr. Weston shows Agnes attention by walking and conversing with her, picking her flowers, and offering her an umbrella during the rain. Agnes’s attraction to him deepens. Taught by her upbringing and her strong Christian morals to value inner qualities rather than outer beauty, Agnes admires Mr. Weston for his devotion to duty, his common sense, and his kindness, even as she harbors secret dreams of becoming his wife. In contrast, vain, heartless Rosalie is determined to gain as much admiration as she can. When she tries to fascinate Mr. Weston, Agnes is hurt and humiliated, fearing she is destined for a bleak, lonely future.
Rosalie accepts a marriage proposal from the wealthy but unattractive Sir Thomas Ashby, and Agnes hopes to be restored to the regard of Mr. Weston. But then her father dies, and Agnes leaves Horton Lodge to help her mother set up a boarding school. Agnes has a cordial parting with Mr. Weston, but he makes no promises. As the months pass, Agnes resolves to lay aside her hopes, resign herself to a colorless life, and take what comfort she can from being useful to others. She shares the same advice with Rosalie, who now regrets her marriage. But on a seaside walk one morning Agnes encounters Mr. Weston, who has gained a living in a small village nearby. With the blessing of her mother, he proposes, and Agnes joyfully accepts.
By Anne Brontë