This shortish novel was written in 1846 by Anne, the youngest of the Brontës (1820-1849), and published under the name of Acton Bell. It is a fascinating account of a governess looking after unruly children. A lifting of the curtain into the world of social class in the mid-19th century and the role of women.
Despite being the daughter of a clergyman our heroine, Agnes, is clearly just the “hired help” to the two mistresses she works for. The children regard her in much the same way; she is beneath them. The reader cannot help but feel they have imbibed their attitude from the adults around them. The position was demanding, especially when the children were noisy or rude or refused to pay attention to their lessons. The little boy, Tom, in particular.
Finding herself unable to keep command and lacking the means to maintain discipline whilst having to carry the responsibility, Agnes leaves after a year and finds a slightly better position. However, yet again she finds herself in dificulty for the same reasons although this time it is two girls who infuriate and tease her. Through a series of misunderstandings and sad events I am pleased to report Agnes does find happiness in the end with the curate Edward Weston.
Being the daughter of a clergyman and a governess herself, this novel must reflect Brontë ‘s own life experiences. There is much emphasis on education and Brontë records the niceties and ambiguities of 19th century life whilst pointing out the role of women as underdogs.
There is a certain irony that it was felt inappropriate that Agnes Grey should be written by a woman and therefore had to be published under the male pen name of Acton Bell. Especially so since Brontë went on to write the excellently observed “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” featuring an alcoholic husband. This was published in 1848 and is regarded as one of the first feminist novels. As with so many whom the Gods love and who die young, one wonders what she would have written in her mature years had she not died so prematurely at 29.
Image: By Drawing in pencil by Charlotte Brontë, 1845 – The Poet’s Corner, Public Domain,