Monday, August 2, 2010

{review} agnes grey

Anne Brontë (1847) Agnes Grey.

Agnes Grey (Penguin Classics)

I've been admiring the cover of my Penguin edition of Agnes Grey, which features this painting from the V&A (Richard Redgrave's 1844 The Governess):


I thoroughly enjoyed Agnes Grey - and [spoiler!] what a delight to find an unambiguously happy ending in a Brontë novel. It is a more accessible (and shorter) read than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which, while a very good book, contained, I'm afraid, rather too many religious minutiae for my taste.

Poor Agnes Grey, a 'lady' through and through, decides that she can earn some money for her impoverished family by becoming a governess. Her first experience is deeply unhappy - the Bloomfield children are wild and difficult and it is the ill-equipped governess who is blamed for the family's wider failings. The descriptions of the children's brutality are vivid and shocking (how much is based on Anne Brontë's own experiences?): they are cruel to animals - and their governess - and quickly prove ungovernable and unamenable to reason, kindness and even brute force.
The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me; my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt.
Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience. ...I determined to refrain from striking him even in self-defence; and, in his most violent moods, my only resource was to throw him on his back, and hold his hands and feet till the frenzy was somewhat abated. ... Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons...
Her attempts to quell their wildness with spiritual texts and moral instruction are to no avail. And Agnes is not even paid very much by her miserly employers who constantly undermine her disciplinary endeavours ("petticoat government"), believing that their children can do little wrong. Their lack of attainments must therefore be Miss Grey's fault, "attributed to a want of sufficient firmness, and diligent, persevering care on my part."

Agnes discovers that she is little better than a servant, despite her education and social status as the daughter of a clergyman and a squire's daughter:
...the little words Miss and Master seemed to have a surprising effect in repressing all familiar, open-hearted kindness, and extinguishing every gleam of cordiality that might arise between us.
As one of her charges puts it:
I never care about the footmen; they're mere automatons - it's nothing to them what their superiors say or do; they won't dare repeat it; and as to what they think - if they presume to think at all - of course, nobody cares for that. It would be a pretty thing indeed, if we were to be tongue-tied by our servants.
Agnes' position is doubly lonely since she is not a servant and thus another potential source of companionship is closed to her; she is neither fish nor fowl: "I sometimes felt myself degraded by the life I led..."

The most consistent problem faced by Agnes is that she must not speak her mind. Her mental asides are often amusing and always true, but never uttered. Her tale is punctuated by references to the silence she must keep:
I judged it prudent to say no more.

...I chose to keep silence, and bear all...

But no matter what I thought.

I was used to wearing a placid smiling countenance when my heart was bitter within me.
Agnes' second post is with the Murrays, a family of higher social status than the Bloomfields. While her challenges are different, she remains browbeaten and silenced. The redeeming feature of this post is her friendship with the curate Edward Weston with whom she falls in love - a state of affairs which makes her even more miserable than before. Her misery has causes beyond unrequited love: she is homesick, as far from home as she's ever been (seventy miles! - she even notes train travel), and her pupils, once again, are not all a governess might desire. The two boys (the one "rough as a young bear, boisterous, unruly, unprincipled, untaught, unteachable"; the other "pettish, cowardly, capricious, selfish... to teach him, or pretend to teach him, was inconceivable") are soon packed off to school - again Agnes is blamed for their shortcomings, despite the parental instruction that, "I was to get the greatest possible quantity of Latin grammar... into their heads in order to fit them for school - the greatest quantity, at least, without trouble to themselves."
...to school he was sent, greatly to my relief, in the course of a year; in a state, it is true, of scandalous ignorance as to Latin... and this, doubtless would all be laid to the account of his education having been entrusted to an ignorant female teacher, who had presumed to take in hand what she was wholly incompetent to perform.
The two girls remain, the coquette Rosalie and the tomboy Matilda. The girls are to be made,
...as superficially attractive and showily accomplished as they could possibly be made, without present trouble [or] discomfort to themselves; and I was to act accordingly - to study and strive to amuse and oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part, and no exercise of authority on mine.
The difference between the education of girls and boys is marked; particularly in comparison to Agnes' own accomplishments and bookishness, which she owes to her mother's desire to educate her daughters. But it is their moral failings which comparison renders so damning:
...I was the only person in the house who steadily professed good principles, habitually spoke the truth, and generally endeavoured to make inclination bow to duty.
The phrase "make inclination bow to duty" encapsulates Agnes perfectly: an intelligent, thoughtful woman condemned to a cheerless half-life. She describes how her pupils might see her:
She had her own opinions on every subject, and kept steadily to them - very tiresome opinions they often were, as she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion, and an unaccountable liking to good people.
Agnes is a good clergyman's daughter and appears to gain some degree of fulfilment from her all too brief escapes from her constrained life as a governess as she (dutifully) visits the aged and infirm or goes to church. But even these simple pleasures become a wearisome duty when accompanied by her charges, the Misses Murray: her occupation of the worst seat in the carriage makes her so sick she cannot enjoy the service; and her visits to the tenants are marred by the girls' condescension and inconsiderate behaviour towards those they regard as inferiors. By the time Miss Murray senior is to be married off, Agnes is a picture of melancholy (clinically depressed, we might suggest) - a state of affairs exacerbated by her father's death and her imminent departure from Mr Weston.

Agnes is a very careful individual. Her small moments of happiness are stored up as valued treasures for the bad times (as is her small income). Even her final happiness is described with such caution - the caution of one to whom life has assigned many sorrows to bear. Mr Weston, I thought, actually sounded insufferable; but each to her own.

There are some moments of pure delight in this book. Every now and then we read a pearler of a sentence appended to the end of a paragraph which sums up Agnes ' unuttered  opinions. Consider 'Uncle Robson', the brother of Mrs Bloomfield:
...a tall, self-sufficient fellow, with dark hair and sallow complexion, like his sister, a nose that seemed to disdain the earth, and little grey eyes, frequently half closed, with a mixture of real stupidity and affected contempt of all surrounding objects. He was a thick-set, strongly-built man, but he had found some means of compressing his waist into a remarkably small compass, and that, together with the unnatural stiffness of his form, showed that the lofty-minded, manly Mr Robson, the scorner of the female sex, was not above the foppery of stays.
I didn't want Agnes Grey to end, and certainly could never tender "a malediction against the prolixity of the writer" as is so self-referentially suggested by Agnes/Anne.

Rating: 8/10

If you liked this... well, on a teacherly theme, I liked Charlotte Brontë's Villette; although really I'd like to re-read Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness about another good woman constrained by poverty to make her own way in a hostile world.

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