Title: Agnes Grey
Author: Anne Brontë
First Classics Club review!
I finished Agnes Grey a month ago, and it’s taken me a surprisingly long time to write this review. Although I took stacks of notes when I was reading, I’ve found it difficult to format them into a coherent structure. This is because it ended up becoming an unexpectedly personal read for me. It’s always harder for me to talk about the things that have made me feel rather than think (or, in this case, both at the same time). From reviews I’d glanced at beforehand, I was expecting a less well-realised Jane Eyre; this was not at all what I encountered. A quick (spoiler-free) synopsis, and then I’ll explain what I mean. The titular character, who grew up in a happy family that is now in financial difficulties, goes off to work as a governess, make her way in the world, find herself etc. She works for two different families, and midway through the novel, as ever, a man enters, stage left, and complicates things.
The problem with the novel, I think, is that the author tries to address too many topics. At the time, she did not have the maturity as a writer to do so (though she certainly developed it later: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of the most complex and beautiful novels I have ever read), and at times the narrative feels episodic rather than continuous. This is particularly the case with Agnes’ experience with the first family. A great many words are invested in describing the anecdotes and personalities related to those three children, so you rather expect that aspect of the story to have some relevance to the bulk of the novel—whether in the format of a recurrent villain, or a piece of crucial character development, or some other facet—but it never does. It just feels rather tacked on at the start. Because there is no resolution of the issues raised in that section, and no continuing thread of any kind that runs throughout the novel, it feels rather unsatisfying. Every imaginable social theme, from poverty and ill health through to education and parental disengagement, has a cameo; unfortunately, they are each picked up briefly, toyed with, and discarded, never to be seen again. For example, the conflict Agnes faces when asked to make the first set of children behave themselves and learn, without recourse to any kind of discipline, is reminiscent of the challenge now being faced by teachers throughout the UK: essentially having to parent the children in their classes themselves, with access to none of the disciplinary measures used by parents, all the while having to force some kind of education in around the edges. Had this theme been properly addressed by Agnes’ narrative or actions, had it been dealt with throughout the novel, it would have been a compelling read. Unfortunately, although the author describes the situation in great detail, it comes across as more of a whinge than a plot point, something which could be said about a great deal of the book.
Of course, this raises the other issue. The one consistent strain that runs throughout the novel is Agnes’ character. There is no development, very limited self-insight on the occasions when she is wrong, and constant judgement of the other characters. Agnes is self-pitying, self-righteous, and blind to her own flaws. There’s nothing wrong with a heroine starting out that way, but for her to remain stuck in that rut for the entirety of the book is frustrating. Perfect people are as annoying in literature as they are in real life—and, since the narrative is first-person, there is no escaping her observations about everything and everyone. Although I’m not particularly an Austen fan, I found it hard to avoid comparisons with Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet—both of whom begin as judgemental characters and develop beyond that. Moreover, the two Austen heroines both have qualities—kind-heartedness and wit, respectively—that muddle together with their flaws and turn them into believable, well-rounded characters. Much of what Agnes says and does is from a sense of duty, rather than being derived from her own personal traits, which means that she often falls flat at the times when she should be most relatable: when she is isolated and alone, friendless and bullied, I tried to feel sorry for her—but mostly I just wanted her to stop whining.
This is not always the case, however. The thing that sticks with me most vividly is the novel’s brutal and unrelenting depiction of unrequited love—or, at least, unrealised love. Specifically, it’s the type of unrequited love that happens when you fall in love with someone who definitely doesn’t love you back, except that you’re not quite positive, and you’re certainly far too shy to actually ask. It is that very particular type of anguish that comes from being simultaneously unable to hope and unable to stop hoping—even though the hope only aggravates the pain of the hopelessness. In Agnes’ narration, this is almost more of an internal dialogue than an internal monologue—which is a familiar feeling for me, as, I imagine, for many people. That tension was so effectively created that I had to pause halfway through the novel and read the spoilers for the end, just so that I knew what to expect either way. Really, I rooted for that relationship more than I’ve rooted for a fictional romance since I was about sixteen—not only because I liked the participants, but because the atmosphere of uncertainty was so painfully relatable. She writes melodramatic poetry, which she shares with the reader; she finds herself, to her own great irritation, staring into the mirror and cataloguing her aesthetic quirks and faults; her mood swings from high to low to high with pendulous reliability, sometimes within the same sentence. She refers to her inability to stop thinking about Edward Weston as ‘painful, troubled pleasure, too near akin to anguish’, and it’s impossible for me not to feel sympathy for her when she pleads within herself for permission to think about him:
“Yes, at least, they could not deprive me of that: I could think of him day and night; and I could feel that he was worthy to be thought of. Nobody knew him as I did; nobody could appreciate him as I did; nobody could love him as I—could, if I might: but there was the evil. What business had I to think so much of one that never thought of me? Was it not foolish? Was it not wrong? Yet, if I found such deep delight in thinking of him, and if I kept those thoughts to myself, and troubled no-one else with them, where was the harm of it? I would ask myself. And such reasoning prevented me from making any sufficient effort to shake off my fetters.” –Ch 17 (Confessions).
There are other aspects of the book that struck a chord. Although Agnes’ character certainly left a lot to be desired, I enjoyed the way that her relationship with God was portrayed. Her friendship with Mr Weston was formed as he read passages from the Bible to an elderly woman with poor health, and reassured her of God’s love whilst she was in a dark place. I know a lot of people have criticised Agnes’ and Edward’s interactions with Nancy Brown as ‘sermonising’, but I felt that those passages reflected better on Agnes than anything else in the book—it’s the only time when she actually tries to empathise with someone else, really genuinely tries to improve someone’s life out of love rather than duty—and it’s that empathy on which the connection between Edward Weston and Agnes is founded. Perhaps that is why, for others, the romance in the book felt lacklustre, while for me it was definitely lustrous.
In short—Agnes Grey is a good book with plenty of problems. If it didn’t have the name ‘Brontë’ on the front cover, maybe we’d all be a bit more forgiving, myself included. As it is, I do wish that Anne had let Agnes grow, just a little bit—but I’m still glad she wrote it.