Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte: a Book Review

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte, published in 1847, is a deeply moral novel about a young woman, a governess and her experiences working for two families in Victorian England. Agnes is the younger daughter of an impoverished clergyman. Her parents had married against her mother’s family’s wishes and when their fortune was wrecked Agnes determines to help out by working as a governess.

The first family she works for are the Bloomfields. Mrs Bloomfield tells Agnes her children are clever and very apt to learn. In fact they are terrible children, utterly spoilt and cruel. I found their brutality shocking, the more so since Anne was writing from her own experiences. One of the most vivid scenes is where Agnes kills a brood of nestlings to prevent Tom Bloomfield from torturing them.

Agnes is treated like a servant, rather than as a governess. She has no authority over the children and is not allowed to discipline them much as she would like to. Her attempts to improve their wild behaviour by quoting Bible texts and moral instruction have no effect on the children’s behaviour. As Agnes’s mother has told her that people do not like to be told of their children’s faults she kept silent about them and despite her best efforts she failed to make any impression on them:

But either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

Her second post with the Murrays is little better – her charges are two teenage girls, who are just as spoilt as the younger children, wilful and determined to have their own way and two younger boys who are rough and unruly. Fortunately the boys are soon packed off to school and she only has to cope with sisters.

Both families are portrayed as wealthy, snobbish and totally lacking in any regard for Agnes. The only glimmer of hope comes through her friendship with Edward Weston, but even then Rosalie, the older daughter, is determined to make him fall in love with her. But surely Edward will not be deceived by Rosalie’s scheming ways? Agnes is gentle and self-effacing, never making her feelings known and it seems as though she is destined for a miserable life. Although she loves Edward she is totally unable to give any indication of her feelings towards him. Things seem to get even worse after her father’s death and she has to leave the Murrays – and Edward. However, Snap the dog plays his part in bringing some joy into Agnes’s life.

Agnes Grey vividly portrays the class distinctions of Victorian society, the position of women in that society from both the working and the middle classes through the first-person narrative. Above all it gives a very clear picture of the life of a governess, with all its loneliness, frustrations, insecurities and depressions. The characters, for the most part are well drawn, (the minor characters are one-dimensional) and I liked Agnes’s unspoken thoughts, eg. when told to go to the schoolroom immediately because the young ladies were waiting for her  she thinks, ‘Climax of horror! actually waiting for their governess.!!!’

Reading Agnes Grey has made me keen to re-read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, for one thing to compare the two governesses. It’s been years since I read Jane Eyre, and my memory is that it is a much more dramatic novel (certainly it is much longer).

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 449 KB
  • Print Length: 155 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0812967135
  • Publisher: Modern Library (18 Dec 2007)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Source: My own copy
  • My Rating: 3/5

Classics Challenge – April Prompt: the Book Cover

Katherine at November’s Autumn hosts the Classics Challenge. This month’s focus is the Book Cover. The old and worn adage of never judging a book by its cover is partly true but a book cover tells the reader a lot about what’s inside you can usually tell what genre it is or what time period it takes place in.

What are your first impressions as you look at the cover? Does the book cover have an aspect that reflects the character, setting, or plot of the novel?  If you could have designed the book cover what would you have chosen?

Currently I’m reading Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte on my Kindle. I knew nothing about it before I began reading. There is no information on the Kindle e-book about the cover illustration and I don’t think it gives many clues about the book.

 My first impression on looking at the cover was that the character of Agnes Grey may have been a lady’s maid in a large household. However, I soon discovered that she is the impoverished daughter of a clergyman and she is employed as a governess to the unruly and spoilt children of wealthy families.

The cover does reflect the setting of the novel in Victorian times, although not the position Agnes has in the household – she is not a servant.  But it does reflect Agnes’s character as she is demure, gentle and rather timid. I’ve not finished the book yet, but so far Agnes has been totally unable to control the awful children in her charge and is not given any authority to reprimand them from their parents. The lone figure on the cover reflects the position in which Agnes finds herself – alone and unsupported by her employers.

If I could have designed the book cover I think I would have chosen a similar scene, but would have chosen one showing a governess and the children.