Friday, January 10, 2014

Agnes Grey

I really rather enjoyed Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, but perplexingly, not for the reasons I was supposed to.  I've wanted to read this book for several years now.  I'd been told that Anne was the practical realist of the Bronte sisters, the one who wrote about decent rather than deeply troubled men, an early feminist campaigning for the rights of women.  And how awesome is this cartoon?
Agnes Grey is, like her sister Charlotte's Villette, a semi-autobiographical story about her experiences as a governess.  According to my introduction, it was intended to publicize the plight of these women, often upper-class but penniless, and treated horribly by their employers and the ill-behaved children they were supposed to educate.  Over the course of the novel, Agnes has two different, but both dreadful positions as a live-in governess before she finally finds some measure of happiness and independence.  I approached the book fully expecting to sympathize with poor Agnes, but instead, I found myself deeply irritated at the Mary Sue-ish quality of the narrative.  Frequent moments of self-righteousness are nearly as irksome and grating as those of Drusilla Clack, the unpleasant evangelical Christian narrator in The Moonstone.  So in the end, I didn't enjoy Agnes Grey because I sympathized much with Agnes, but because (and I'm a bit ashamed to admit this) I found her pitifully funny:

Boo hoo, they're not treating me as if I'm as important as I think I am...
Boo hoo, I'm rubbish at teaching children, but my employers shouldn't notice, should never criticize me (because I try so hard!) and they definitely shouldn't fire me even though I'm not getting the job I was hired to do accomplished in any reasonable way...
Boo hoo, this man I rarely speak to, and when I do it's often curtly or rudely, doesn't love me back...

All this being said, it was heartening to see how Agnes's situation improved at the end, even if none of it was her doing and was entirely dependent on the actions of her mother and her love interest.  Despite my teasing, I really did like Agnes Grey, and as always, a Bronte novel is the perfect before-bed read over winter break.  It was perhaps the first book I've ever read that I really enjoyed despite disliking the narrator, which says something about the beauty of the writing and its social commentary.  I fully intend to read Anne's other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of these winters, and I'm confident that I'll enjoy that one too!

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, Agnes was a bit whiny, often for no particularly good reason. At her first job, though, she had good reason to complain because she was in an impossible situation. But the second job, not so much.