Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a short, fun read, which was quite a treat after some of the more sloggy stuff I’ve read in the recent past.
There were certainly some sections where it was quite obvious the novel was written by someone quite young (the ending, in particular), but it’s well-written, especially the characters. There’s fairly limited dialogue, but what’s there is done quite enjoyably and each character has her own distinct voice.
I loved how aware Brontë was of—and unafraid of writing about—the differences in how males and females were perceived in her culture. For example, when she talks about how unprepared the first of her boy pupils was when he left for school, she notes that “this, doubtless, would all be laid to the account of his education having been intrusted to an ignorant female teacher, who had presumed to take in hand what she was wholly incompetent to perform.” (60) She notes this after describing in detail the challenges, restrictions, and unrealistic demands that made her less effective as a governess than she would otherwise have been. As female governess, she would never be given the benefit of the doubt; if her male pupils didn’t do well, it couldn’t possibly be anyone’s fault but her own.
Despite Agnes’ insistence on detailing her own shortcomings, I found her thoroughly “good” yet still quite delightful, like when she has fits of snark. “Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess!!”(90) she writes when her pupils complain when she’s not ready at their every whim. I suspect that Agnes would chide herself for this kind of thing, but it’s also what makes her human and likable. Otherwise she would be just too perfect, bearing so much mistreatment unrealistically graciously.
On the opposite side of the coin is Rosalie, who reminds me of a girl who bullied me in junior high and the mixed feelings I had when I found her on Facebook many, many years later. Just as Agnes is good, but not totally good, Rosalie is wicked, but not 100% wicked. Rosalie’s biggest flaw is that she can’t empathize with anyone else. As Agnes describes the reactions of Rosalie and her sister to the cottagers on their father’s estate,
“They never in thought exchanged places with them; and, consequently, had no consideration for their feelings, regarding them as an order of beings entirely distinct from themselves.” (77)
Without the ability to put herself in anyone else’s place, she’s never able to make a true connection with another person, and this is part of what makes her a sympathetic character despite quotes like this: “I can’t centre all my hopes in a child; that is only one degree better than devoting oneself to a dog.” (162)
When I started writing this review, I had given this book three stars, but by the time I got to the third paragraph, I bumped it up to four stars. By then I’d realized how much I really did enjoy the book. Time will tell whether it will stick with me or not, but even if I forget a lot of it, I hope I remember this quote, which I find amusing just for the list it contains: “…between carts and horses, and asses, and men, there was little room for social intercourse…” (168) It seems to describe how I often feel in busy social situations.