The Bronte Sisters
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Published in 1877, Anne Brontë’s first novel exposes with remarkable realism the hardships and exploitation endured by governesses in Victorian England. In a narrative that drew heavily on her own experience, Brontë’s goal was not to amuse or to entertain but, as Agnes Grey says, to benefit those whom it might concern—governesses themselves, whose numbers were rapidly growing in the late nineteenth century, and the British aristocracy who employed them. Because of the great imbalance in the ratio of women to men in England, with so many men living and working abroad in the far reaches of the British Empire, thousands of women were unable to marry. This problem was compounded by the strong social stigma against women working and the extremely limited professions to which they were admitted. Increasingly, out of desperation, women became governesses, accepting terms that would leave them exhausted, impoverished, and socially outcast. Brontë sought to make their plight visible to the English public and to arouse the kind of compassion that might lead to reform.
But Agnes Grey is hardly a didactic novel. By rendering the daily life of her protagonist with such vivid detail, and in a tone that is coolly restrained, Brontë lets Agnes Grey’s experience speak for itself. Abused by the children she is enjoined to teach, treated with derisive arrogance by the men and women who employ her, Agnes lives in a world without friends, adrift between the servant and the genteel classes, at home in neither. But it is the cruelty, vanity, and moral emptiness of the upper classes that the novel exposes most unsparingly. In her first position, with the Bloomfield family, young master Tom is shown to be a budding sociopath who delights in torturing helpless animals and is spurred on in this activity by his elders, who either merely condone the behavior or actively applaud it. When Agnes intervenes to spare a nestful of baby birds from Tom’s sadism, Uncle Robson says: “Curse me, if I ever saw a nobler little scoundrel than that. He’s beyond petticoat government already;—by G—, he defies his mother, granny governess, and all! Ha, ha, ha. Never mind, Tom, I’ll get you another brood tomorrow’” (p. 105). In her second place of employment, with the Murrays, Agnes tries and fails to reform young Rosalie, who derives a similar enjoyment from causing pain. The beautiful Miss Murray delights in playing the coquet with her suitors, manipulating their affections for the sole purpose of dashing their hopes and reveling in the suffering she causes them. When not actively cruel, Rosalie is often deeply unfeeling, a woman who regards her servants as “mere automatons” (p. 233). In such a world, a governess is considered only slightly more human than a servant and only slightly more deserving of sympathy than a nestful of baby birds.
Against this moral vacuum, Brontë places the love story between Agnes and the curate Edmund Weston. Unlike the cold-hearted and self-serving characters that surround them, Agnes and Edmund exemplify the Christian virtues of compassion, charity, and brotherly love. In their visits to the elderly widow Nancy Brown, both Edmund and Agnes demonstrate the ability—and the willingness—to feel the suffering of others and to do what is in their power to alleviate it. That they visit Nancy independently but also chance to experience their first meeting in Nancy’s humble dwelling is perfectly appropriate. Theirs will be a relationship based on a higher purpose, their love for each other rooted in a more selfless love for all their fellow beings, human and nonhuman alike. Indeed, how animals are treated in the novel offers a telling glimpse into Brontë’s moral critique of the English aristocracy. While his predecessor, Mr. Hatfield, kicks Nancy’s cat when it seeks his affection, Edmund caresses it and in fact rescues it from being shot by the gamekeeper. Similarly, Agnes takes care of the puppy, Snap, that Rosalie can’t be bothered to raise, and when it is given away to the rat-catcher, Edmund performs another rescue, saving the dog from a terrible fate. When Edmund is reunited with Agnes on the sands, it is Snap who leads the way to her.
Agnes Grey may be read in many ways—as an exposé of the plight of the English governess, as a searing indictment of the materialism and lack of empathy at the heart of Victorian values, and as a love story in which kindness and compassion are rewarded and vanity and heartlessness are punished. It is a testimony to Anne Brontë’s brilliance as a writer that she could seamlessly merge these themes into a narrative that is driven by a high purpose and simultaneously is such a pleasure to read.