Having read one novel each by Charlotte and Emily, it’s time to give Anne Brontë her turn in the spotlight. Agnes Grey was first published under the pen name of Acton Bell as the third of a three-volume set, with Emily’s Wuthering Heights comprising the first two volumes due to length. It’s only by virtue of the two books being published together that one would even dare to compare them. Wuthering Heights is a hateful book about hateful people doing hateful things in hateful ways under impossibly hateful circumstances. Agnes Grey has far more in common with Charlotte’s Jane Eyre in that it’s an autobiographical novel about a young woman who attempts to make her way in the world as a governess.
The family Agnes works for, the Bloomfields, are rich and cruel, though not by comparison of the monsters Emily gave us. The kids are spoiled, unruly, and even abusive. The eldest one tortures small animals for fun. Though she has no real authority over them, Agnes is held accountable, relieved of her post after less than a year. Her next posting with an even wealthier family, the Murrays, is only slightly less of a disaster as she’s constantly ignored and even played as a pawn in the girls’ machinations.
During her visits to an old woman with poor eyesight who needs help reading her Bible, Agnes meets Edward Weston, the new curate who takes an instant shine to her. One of her charges, Rosalie, is engaged to another man, but goes out of her way to flirt with Weston.
When Agnes receives a letter from home stating that her father is dying, she leaves her post but arrives too late. After the funeral, she opens a school with her mother. But then she receives another letter from Rosalie, learning that life has gone upside down for the girl when Agnes goes to visit. She returns home, thinking she has seen the last of Mr. Weston. But then he shows up several months later. He’s been looking for her since he moved nearby. Happily ever after ensues. Like I said, the polar opposite of Wuthering Heights.
The novel deals with themes that were, of course, close at hand in Anne Brontë’s life: isolation, oppression, social morality, and even an ethical claim on animal rights that’s expressed rather eloquently. For a first novel, it’s beautifully written, demonstrating Anne’s skill to be at least her sisters’ equal. Agnes Grey is far from the soul-crushing bombast of its companion work, and seems anti-climactic by comparison. Likewise, it’s not nearly as combative or outspoken as Jane Eyre. On its own merits, it’s a quick read, mostly a tale of trial and ultimate wish fulfillment, told with a sweeter disposition than either of her sisters put into their works. And that’s probably why it’s not remembered nearly as well, except as part of the collective Brontë works instead of as its own story. Anne takes a stand here on Bible study, social obligations, and animal rights, but there’s nothing of the firebrand to make it sit up and take notice. When the obnoxious children aren’t on the page, it’s a pleasant read. That might be its greatest strength as much as its greatest weakness.