Anne Brontë: Agnes Grey
Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1847)
There is a stock image of the Victorian governess, isn’t there: the stern, plain figure in black who is given charge of the upper- or middleclass family’s children, shepherding them from classroom to drawing room, and thence to bed. It’s easy to caricature this figure, as Joan Aiken did with the figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or to portray her as a dominatrix for men (and women) of certain tastes, but I suspect that mostly the romantic view of the governess will rest on the titular person of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
However, the life of many a governess is portrayed more realistically in Charlotte’s sister’s novel, the semi-autobiographical Agnes Grey, which even more than Jane Eyre exposed the circumstances which governesses were expected to tolerate without a murmur. Clues that much of the story of Agnes (“pure, holy”) is based on Anne’s own experiences come in the opening paragraphs: both their fathers are clergymen in the north of England; both young women are twice engaged as governesses, the first post being short-lived though the second lasts a few years; and both are involved in plans to begin a school with family members (though in only one case does it come to fruition). And, from what we know of Anne’s life, the circumstances of Agnes’ treatment parallel the author’s own.
Because of her family’s impoverished circumstances — her clergyman father has made a disastrous investment — the shy but principled Agnes chooses to offer her services as a governess to whichever family will take her on. The first family, the Bloomfields of Wellwood Mansion, abuse her greatly: the children are ungovernable, their sides taken by the parents, and Agnes given no leeway to assert any authority. The promise of her starting there is never fulfilled after her arrival:
I awoke the next morning; feeling like one whirled away by enchantment, and suddenly dropped from the clouds into a remote and unknown land, widely and completely isolated from all he had ever seen before.
She is indeed completely isolated and given no support, yet blamed for her lack of control over the four children. Not unnaturally she lasts scant months and is let go. She next applies as governess to the Murrays of Horton Lodge, a position only marginally more tolerable. The two sons thankfully soon depart for private school, making Agnes’ life a little more tolerable with just two girls to supervise.
At this point the mood starts to lighten; there’s a chapter where the teenage girls start a dialogue with Agnes, one that injects a moiety of humour into the proceedings, despite a moment of utter tragedy for our heroine. And in fact we begin to transition from a misery memoir to a romance of almost Austenesque sensibility as we wonder if the sympathetic parish curate Mr Weston will provide the solace and comfort that Agnes desires, for he seems to appreciate her sterling qualities as well as sharing the same interests and values.
“Reading is my favourite occupation, when I have leisure for it and books to read.” — Agnes to Mr Weston, Chapter XV
The climax takes place in a seaside town not unlike the Scarborough where Anne herself took her holidays (and where she was to end her days), for it is here that she and her mother have set up a school for gentle folk. And were it not for the more evangelical phrases that Anne employs the ending could easily be out of anything that Austen herself wrote.
Agnes Grey is, to my mind, a slightly uneven novel — in tone at least — but still astonishing for its realism and insights. Here for example is Agnes/Anne commenting on whether appearance matters or not in terms of others’ assessment and judgement of one’s worth:
If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior. So said the teachers of our childhood; and so say we to the children of the present day. All very judicious and proper, no doubt; but are such assertions supported by experience? — Chapter XVII
There is too often a mismatch between what ought to happen and what actually happens, is what she’s saying, and this authorial voice is what distinguishes Anne and her siblings from Austen’s more observational approach, and which gives the first-person narrative of Agnes Grey its particular poignancy and potency.
While Agnes Grey is well aware that her in-between position as neither family member nor servant gives her precious little status, some governesses achieved great dominance in their families by sheer force of will; this allowed Joan Aiken to caricature this type in the terrifying figure of Miss Slighcarp in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962), a woman who felt free to dispense with the customary drab costume governesses were expected to wear and to usurp the parental position of authority. (Yet another sinister governess, Silvia Daisy Pouncer, was to appear in John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, published in 1927).
* * * * *
Repost from December 20th 2017 (when it was a Classics Spin title) to mark the bicentenary of Anne Brontë’s birth on January 17th 1820