publication date: 1847
Anne Brontë – in the tradition of her sisters and other writers from her time, such as Jane Austen and George Eliot – used novels and language to satirize contemporary culture and mores. In Agnes Grey, Brontë satirized the upper class and employment opportunities for women.
The book followed Agnes Grey, a young poor woman who loved and cherished her family but wanted to see more of the world and be financially independent. To that end, she became a governess. The bulk of the book was Agnes’s encounters with members of the upper class – most of whom were morally depraved or downright psychopaths. For example, there was this young man, who trapped birds and tortured them:
“Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.”
“But don’t you know it is extremely wicked to do such things? Remember, the birds can feel as well as you, and think, how would you like it yourself?”
“Oh, that’s nothing! I’m not a bird, and I can’t feel what I do to them.”
Beyond being mildly disturbing in parts, Brontë’s portrayal of the English gentry could be very funny. This was a conversation between husband and wife at lunch, beginning with the husband asking what is for dinner:
“Turkey and grouse,” was the concise reply.
“And what besides?”
“What kind of fish?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” cried he, looking solemnly up from his plate, and suspending his knife and fork in astonishment.
There were also a few times where Brontë presented brilliant insight:
We are naturally disposed to love what gives us pleasure, and what is more pleasing that a beautiful face . . . when we know no harm of the possessor at least? A little girl loves her bird . . . Why? . . . Because it lives and feels, because it is helpless and harmless. A toad, likewise, lives and feels, and is equally helpless and harmless; but though she would not hurt the toad, she cannot love it like the bird, with its graceful form, soft feathers, and bright, speaking eyes.
However, the book in its entirety didn’t thrill me. It was good, but not great. There was a lot of pontificating and moralizing by the author, as she instructed the reader on how to raise children, how to be a governess, how to grieve, how to be a good neighbor, and on and on. It was also somewhat boring and predictable. I knew who the “good” characters were, and who the “bad,” almost immediately, and what comeuppance they would all receive.
In the interest of completeness, and because it is slim, and interesting, Agnes Grey was certainly a worthwhile read. However, there are more exemplary books from that period that I would recommend.
4/6: worth reading