I’ve always found myself annoyed by the heroines created by the Brontë sisters, until I read Agnes Grey – the debut novel written by the youngest sister, Anne. The plot is simple; a young woman seeks to help her family financially by becoming a governess, before falling in love.
Unlike the poetic, embellished prose of her sisters, Anne Brontë writes in a realistic manner that is likely to be autobiographical, reflecting on her own experiences as a governess. The narrative is uncomplicated, with protagonist Agnes moving between families. The first challenge Agnes faces is being governess to the Bloomfield children who are noticeably cruel to animals and to each other. Rather than growing as a character, in what appear as a coming-of-age novel, Agnes simply runs from her problems and finds a position with another family.
Although Agnes portrays the same weak characteristics that I find aggravating about Jane Eyre, the enjoyment from Anne Brontë’s writing is delivered through the absence of hyperbole. Refreshingly, Agnes offers fleeting yet biting sarcasm. The heroine provides subtle commentary on marriage, beauty, social classes and isolation. Not long into the pages of this book, Agnes Grey has become my favourite Brontë heroine.
“It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.”
Her move to the Murray family allows the trope of romance to take place, usually the most delightful occurrence in Victorian novels. Although Agnes falls in love with a very bland Mr Weston, there is nothing outstanding about their love – rather, they seem to fall in love in the background of the pages. Rushed and insignificant, Agnes’ growth of a young governess to wife doesn’t play a leading role throughout the novel. Quite disappointing, I must admit, but a fantastic way to put careers in front of marriage – particularly given the time.
Clearly not a catalyst in her own adventure, Agnes doesn’t change or grow. Instead, events happen around her while she falls back on childhood teachings from her family to bring her successfully into adulthood. Although Agnes displays the same weakness depicted in novels written by both Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontë can be forgiven for her unabashed, matter of fact literary style.