I didn’t know about this book for a long time. I have read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre by Emily and Charlotte Bronte, respectively. This one kind of flew under the radar for me. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte is a story about a young girl, Agnes Grey, who decides to become a governess to help her family in the time of a financial crunch. She is hoping to prove her worth by getting a job, earning, and hopefully, experience the world a bit more. The story is of Agnes’s experiences as a governess for the elite of England.
Agnes Grey comes from a humble background. Her father Mr. Grey is a minister. Her mother is a wealthy woman who left that life behind to marry the man she loves. Mr. Grey loses money on an investment when the investor he trusted dies in a car wreck; plunging the family into a financial crisis and Mr. Grey in depression. Mrs. Grey, Agnes, and her sister Mary all try to contribute in some way to the family. Agnes is the youngest is still treated like a child and she wants to prove herself and help her family. She decides to become a governess and gets an opportunity to work for the Bloomfields.
Agnes is excited to make her mark. She is hopeful as she arrives at the Bloomfields but her hope is short-lived. Agnes is mistreated by the family. Even one of the children in her charge is incredibly cruel and his cruelty is either encouraged by his family or at times neglected. She does everything she can for the kid, Tom yet it isn’t enough. Her treatment at the house doesn’t improve. She comes home after being fired and starts looking for work again. She even advertises, asking for more money than in her previous stint. Agnes gets a new opportunity in a wealthier family, the Murray’s.
Agnes’s unpleasant work scenario continues but it is better than the Bloomfields. She is in charge of two girls, Rosalie and Matilda. She is often the victim of the girls’ schemes and pranks. Agnes starts visiting Nancy Brown, a lady with failing eyesight, who needs help reading the bible. This is the time she meets Mr. Edward Weston, a new curate. Agnes and Mr. Weston form a sort of bond and he is truly a gentleman. Rosalie who is engaged to Thomas Ashby yet flirts with Mr. Weston which annoys Agnes. Mary informs Agnes about their father’s failing health and asks her to come home.
Sadly, Agnes isn’t able to reach home in time to see her father alive. Agnes and her mother start a small school after Mr. Grey’s death. Agnes has accepted that she is never going to see Mr. Weston again. She receives a letter from Rosalie asking Agnes to visit her. Upon meeting, Rosalie tells Agnes about her marriage and how unhappy she is here. Agnes also finds out that Mr. Weston has left the area which saddens her.
The book starts off a little slow but the pace picks up as the story moves ahead. The writing and the language are straightforward and slightly self-deprecating. I read that Anne Bronte’s own experiences as a governess are the inspiration behind this novel and it makes a lot of sense. At the time, there weren’t many choices for women for work. Agnes wants to make the best of these limited options she has currently. Agnes as a character is realistically written. She is determined and strong; she knows what is right and wrong. Her idealistic notions of the world are crushed during her time at the Bloomfields.
I can see why this novel is compared to Jane Eyre. Agnes and Jane both are governesses; they accept that they are plain and simple. The difference lies in their experiences. I loved Jane Eyre, but Agnes Grey portrays the truths of the times realistically. This novel is grittier in the way the story unfolds. Mr. Weston is truly a nice person. After Agnes leave, he spends time looking for her. In the end, they finally get married. Even though there is a romantic subplot, it is Agnes’s story.
This book perfectly captures the Victorian Era in a realistic and grounded manner. The writing is simple and the characters are compelling. Like I said before, the story is slow at the start and the interest level increased the further I read. It is a really good book.
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