Dress Down Sunday: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte


published 1847

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


Agnes Grey

[Agnes Grey meets her first set of pupils]

At that moment my young pupils entered the apartment, with their two younger sisters.  Master Tom Bloomfield was a well-grown boy of seven, with a somewhat wiry frame, flaxen hair, blue eyes, small turned-up nose, and fair complexion.  Mary Ann was a tall girl too, somewhat dark like her mother, but with a round full face and a high colour in her cheeks… 

They were remarkably free from shyness… In Mary Ann there was a certain affected simper, and a craving for notice, that I was sorry to observe.  But her brother claimed all my attention to himself; he stood bolt upright between me and the fire, with his hands behind his back, talking away like an orator, occasionally interrupting his discourse with a sharp reproof to his sisters when they made too much noise.


Agnes Grey 3


[Agnes Grey meets her second set of pupils]

I entered, and found two young ladies and two young gentlemen—my future pupils, I supposed.  After a formal greeting, the elder girl, who was trifling over a piece of canvas and a basket of German wools, asked if I should like to go upstairs.  I replied in the affirmative, of course.

‘Matilda, take a candle, and show her her room,’ said she.

Miss Matilda, a strapping hoyden of about fourteen, with a short frock and trousers, shrugged her shoulders and made a slight grimace, but took a candle and proceeded before me up the back stairs.

commentary: I was initially very surprised by Matilda’s trousers - even with her ‘rough ways’ and penchant for the stables and grooms, this seemed unlikely. But then I found the picture above at the NYPL so I presume it is just a matter of terminology.

(Matilda also
vengeably thumped the piano for an hour
and I found out that ‘vengeably’ is a word – in this context meaning in an angry and threatening manner.)

I knew I was going to have to tackle this book after reading Samantha Ellis’s wonderful book about Anne Bronte, Take Courage. My friend Lissa Evans said in the comments to the Ellis post ‘I …read and enjoyed Agnes Grey too, though it's fairly discursive, a bit like a 19th century version of The Nanny Diaries’ – which is about right. Tenant of Wildfell Hall is undoubtedly AB’s masterpiece, but this one is worth a look, and is actually short, entertaining and a quick and easy read, which cannot be said for all 19th century great novels.

Agnes is young and independent-minded – when her family falls on hard times, she decides to go out and be a governess. Her relations are rather doubtful (this would be true of Anne Bronte herself in real life) but she is determined to go, and to succeed. Her first job doesn’t last very long, and when it ends she decides that she is going to advertise herself for her next job, and ask for more money: admirable.

She stays with the second family for several years, forming a relationship with the young women there, and eventually


SLIGHT BUT PREDICTABLE SPOILER


she finds true love and can marry and become a vicarage wife.

I was completely split in my reaction to Agnes. On the one hand she is firm in her views, confident, and has high expectations of the world. She is funny and quite feminist. Her religion is important to her, but so is her attraction to the curate – she is straightforward about wanting love, and their courtship is charming. She is not a simpering miss, and she tells us how she goes about her business hoping to see him. She describes the life of a governess with great conviction, you can totally believe the annoyances and pinprick humiliations and disasters.

But on the other hand – what a passive-aggressive nightmare she must have been. There are very few situations in which I can start empathizing with a rich Victorian employer of a governess, but I astonish myself by being on the side of the lady mothers here. Agnes Grey describes pretty much all the children she dealt with as a nightmare, and she is often in trouble with the parents for not controlling them. Well… she has to take some responsibility surely? If she can’t teach and train them then she is not doing her job. It is seen as outrageous when the families make that point, but it seems self-evident. The girls in her second job are obviously very fond of her, but if she keeps saying how badly-behaved they are, does that not reflect on herself, Agnes? Her own undoubted goody-goodyness doesn’t seem to rub off on any of her charges.

As they grow older, she has less to do, but Agnes is outraged when someone points that out. I don’t for a moment think that being a governess was an easy job, her description is only too believable, but it does sound as though actually she was really bad at her job.

It should be said that in real life Anne was the only one of the Bronte sisters who could hold down a job for any length of time. She was much loved, apparently, by the young women she was governess to. (This was the job that was eventually messed up by the arrival of Branwell Bronte as tutor… and his relationship with Mrs Robinson, with that weird foreshadowing in her name). I do wonder what the real-life family must have made of this book.

The young women in the book sound selfish and naughty (their upbringing you know) but also good fun and light-hearted. They are thoughtless and flirtatious, but also fond of their governess.

So a very easy read, like an early chicklit with a very grumpy heroine, who is rather full of herself in a #humblebrag way. Her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre tends to get the governess attention – but that book is a fairytale really, and I’m certain Agnes Grey is a much more realistic view of the situation.

The picture of 1840s fashions is from the NYPL.































Comments

  1. I know just what you mean, Moira, about (not) taking responsibility for one's one success, if I can put it that way. And, you know, I was thinking 'passive aggressive' myself when I read your description of Agnes. That said, though, this is as good a reminder for me as anything is that I would not have wanted to be a governess!

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    1. Thanks Margot, and yes, the book gave me a lot to think about - you can see both sides of the question. But I don't think Bronte saw her heroine as anything but good. Interesting isn't it...

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  2. Very much enjoyed this post, Moira. Sounds like another instance of what we were talking about: having a different reaction to a book at a different stages of life. No doubt when we were teenagers (I suppose Agnes is herself very young) we would have sympathised whole-heartedly with her. Now we imagine her looking after our children!

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    1. Oh, great point Chrissie! Exactly. If she was our nanny we'd be among those annoying mothers who gets together with mates to complain about the staff over a glass of wine. 'And do you know what she did then? And had the nerve to say...'

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  3. To be honest, Agnes does admit that she has no natural authority with children (they obey the maid but not her) and it is terribly difficult to impose discipline on children if their parents don't back you up. Having had a series of au pairs in the house when my children were young, I do feel some sympathy for 19th-century parents with live-in governesses, though...

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    1. Thanks for coming by! Yes, it's a weird setup, because I think Bronte sympathized solely with her heroine, but at the same time wrote a book that lets us see both sides of the question. I think Agnes Grey would have driven me mad if I'd employed her...

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  4. Nothing to say about the book. But those "trousers for a girl of seven" look a lot like my pink pettipants during my teenage years. The ones that stretched out and fell down one day as I got off the bus a block from my high school -- with about 50 kids hanging around. I just walked out of them and kept going, never looked back.

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    1. Oh I remember your mentioning the pettipants before! the number of ways young people can be embarrassed are multiple.

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  5. Yes...JANE EYRE is a sort of fairytale, whilst WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a proto-Gothic Romance, which probably explains why AGNES GREY is rather less well known and adapted for Film/TV than the others. The more realistic tone makes it less attractive as a great romantic text. The idea of the character who has no natural talent at her job, but is always blaming her charges, does strike a chord. There's a pinch of Basil Fawlty in Agnes. In fact, the whole set-up could, with a little massaging, be quite easily turned into a sit-com; the naughty, flirty, selfish but loveable girls, the constantly irritated governess with a romance simmering in the background. The episodes practically write themselves!

    ggary

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    1. Oh that's so perfect, it would make a great programme. AS you say, can think of 6 weekly plots off the top of your head. And actually it is an interesting theme - Agnes is doing this job she isn't suited for because there are no opportunities for women of her class and era. Obviously she should be running a business of some kind. She was going to make a great vicar's wife - competently helping the poor, keeping time-waster from her husband, seeing through the fake beggars etc. Oh I really want to see this sitcom.

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  6. Sorry, its another bah humbug from me.

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    1. Yes, fair enough. No Brontes for you...

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  7. I did a piece about this a while back. I too found Agnes a bit tedious and self-righteous, piously vapid. But I think you're a little harsh in saying she was bad at her job: the odds were stacked against her in that her employers considered their hideous offspring angelic, and treated poor Agnes as a lesser kind of servant. A governess was in a horrible limbo, socially: not a family member, so despised by them (not always, of course, but certainly not their equal); but also not accepted by the serving staff, because not one of them. Charlotte B is, I think, much more measured and able in her depictions of these disgruntled, thwarted characters. Emily, of course, didn't give a ...damn. I'll avoid another of those slang terms you didn't like in Eligible!

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    1. I take your point, and Charlotte certainly let us know about the horrors of the life. But I am interested in that Anne disparity - as I say, she was the only one of them who could hold down a job, and her charges clearly loved her. I think Agnes was a much inferior version of herself...

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    2. Simon: Just took a quick search of your blog and couldn't find Agnes Grey - could you send me a link when you have a minute? Would love to read your thoughts.

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  8. This is one I want to read someday. Just when, is the question.

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    1. I know. The books pile up, and then there are the ones like this that never seem urgent, in my experience. But this one is short, and an easy read...

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  9. When is a good question. I ask as my TBR lists are gigantic, and every time I read a blog post, I add to it. Impossible to get through even if I lived for 100 years and did nothing but read.
    And, unfortunately, as I age, my reading speed has slowed down. Not like years ago when I could zip through z book in a few days.

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    1. When I was younger I always thought 'oh I'll be able to read all these books when I'm old', it was the way I justified purchases. I can't imagine why I thought I'd have more time later...I don't.

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