Book Review: Agnes Grey

AGNES GREY 1This is the third Bronte book I have read of the seven total novels the three sisters produced. I still have two of Charlotte’s, one of Anne’s, and Emily’s only one, which is the very next book I am starting. This has been an entertaining ride, so far.

Anne is the youngest of all of the Bronte children. She is also usually considered the most religious (which is saying a lot) and the most quiet and reclusive. While she was very devout, the biographer who wrote the front matter for the Barnes & Noble version of Agnes Grey would argue as to whether or not she was the meek and mild sister, at all. This reputation may have arisen from various screenings of Wuthering Heights which makes the Brontes looks like a somber, unhappy, reclusive family (they were not), and Charlotte’s tactics to save Anne’s reputation after she published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and died.

At any rate, Anne seems to have been one of three amazingly talented youngest sisters who would all have blazing careers drastically abbreviated by untimely death. Anne published her poems only after Charlotte persuaded her to in her twenties, and then very quickly produced Agnes Grey and Wildfell Hall. She died within months of the publication of the second one, at age twenty-nine. Agnes Grey was overshadowed by the simultaneous publication (they shared three volumes) of Wuthering Heights, considered–more than one hundred years later–to be one of the best books ever written in the English language, and some confusion about the Brontes’ nom de plumes. The second one–Wildfell Hall–was very popular and widely acclaimed, but marked Anne as a ruined woman, since the subject matter (adultery) was considered racy and indelicate.

I started with Agnes Grey because it is still around, and it was actually stocked at my local Barnes & Noble.

Due to the nature of the publishing industry in the mid-1800s and also to the death of the author, the manuscript for Agnes Grey that we are left with is far from perfect. It is riddled with improper and misplaced commas, as well as misspellings, some poor grammar, etc. And then, on page seventy, a POV shift for two paragraphs. I mean, like a major problem POV shift, when first person becomes third person and we can’t figure out what the heck just happened and why.

But if you can just let all that be what it is, Agnes Grey is a nice book. It has that Bronte forward- and deep-thinking thing going on, but in a cleaner narrative, a simpler plot, and a more realistic story than Jane Eyre or–so I understand–Wuthering Heights. It’s like reading a real account of someone from the time period, and being rewarded with a touching and wonderfully terrestrial romance.

Of course, first you have to wade through maybe like fifty pages (or one hundred?) of establishing the character and her situation, which is riddled–just riddled!–with description. Telling, not showing, for reals. True to the period, there is a lot less dialogue and action than straight up “The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me” (p25). I just want to beg Anne, couldn’t you show me how this unfolded in some school room vignettes? Ah, well. I was still interested in the book and driven by the neat writing all the way until the hero entered. And even though I had no idea this tale had a hero, I could spot him a mile away, as subtle and destined as a new perfume in a dark room.

I really grew to love the few lovable characters and also to believe that there were so few lovable characters to be found in the world of a governess of the time. I also found some confusion regarding how Agnes would waffle between being abused and depressed and her unswerving hope in particular humanity. There were times when I saw this as simply irreconcilable, and yet, it makes Agnes who she is, to an extent. And it makes me wonder how fine a line many a governess walked. In the end, we see at least one of the despicable characters living out their dark destiny, despite the cheery hopes of their former governess, which lets us in on one of the best secrets of the book: Agnes Grey is not an omniscient storyteller.

The words I would choose for the back cover of this book: Clever. Forward-thinking. Basically entertaining. Romantic. Brief. Educating. Memorable.

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AGNES GREY 3There are no, and have never been any, film adaptations of this book.

BTW, I have no idea where this image actually came from–I think perhaps a French adaptation of something Bronte?–but it came up when I searched for Agnes Grey images. The reason I included it is because the girl looks almost exactly as I had imagined Agnes Grey, minus a more rounded face with dimples. If you know its source, do tell me.

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“…but she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey, than in a palace with any other man in the world” (p3).

“I never felt more ashamed and uncomfortable in my life, for anything that was not my own fault” (p25).

“The ties that bind us to life are tougher than you imagine, or than any one can, who has not felt how roughly they may be pulled without breaking” (p106).

“There are, I suppose, some men as vain, as selfish, and as heartless as she is, and perhaps such women may be useful to punish them” (p122).

“…not that I am superior to the rest, but I was made for him, and he for me” (p156).

“The end of Religion is not to teach us how to die, but how to live; and the earlier you become wise and good, the more of happiness you secure” (p180).

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