Like her sister Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, it addresses what the precarious position of governess entailed and how it affected a young woman. Brontë depicts in detail the isolation inherent in a governess's life, as an educated – but by necessity not too educated – woman trapped in an awkward halfway world between the classes. The governess is not a servant, but nor is she on the same social level as her employers, the very fact of her needing to take a job underlining that division.
Agnes Grey is also an autobiographical novel with strong parallels between its events and Anne's own life as a governess; indeed, according to Charlotte Brontë, the story of Agnes largely stemmed from Anne's own experiences as a governess. Like Agnes, "dear, gentle" Anne was the youngest child of a poor clergyman. In April 1839, she took up a position as a governess with the Ingham family of Blake Hall, Mirfield, in Yorkshire, about 20 miles away from Haworth, to whom the Bloomfields bear some resemblance. One of the most memorable scenes from the novel, in which Agnes kills a group of birds to save them from being tortured by Tom Bloomfield, was taken from an actual incident. In December 1839, Anne, similarly to Agnes, was dismissed.
Anne found a post at Thorp Green, Little Ouseburn, near York, around 70 miles away, just as Agnes' second position is further from home, with older pupils—Lydia Robinson, 15. Elizabeth, 13, and Mary, 12. There was also a son, Edmund, who was eight when Anne began working there in the spring of 1840. Anne's brother Branwell became his tutor in January 1843. The fictional Murrays of Horton Lodge echo the Robinsons; similarly to the "dashing" Mrs. Murray, who "certainly required neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms", Mrs. Lydia Robinson was a handsome woman of 40 when Anne came to Thorp Green.
Stevie Davies remarks that Agnes Grey could likewise be called a "Protestant spiritual autobiography". Firstly, the book retains a sober tone and Agnes also displays a very strong Puritan personality reflected in her name. Agnes is derived from the Greek for chaste, hagne, and Grey is commonly associated with "Quakers and quietists to express radical dissociation from gaudy worldiness".
Plot: Agnes Grey’s father, Richard Gray, was a clergyman, and her mother Alice, was from a wealthy family, who disinherited her when she refused to yield to her father and marry a man from her own social circle. Of the six children that Richard Grey and his wife had, only two, Agnes and Mary about five years older, survived beyond infancy and early childhood.
Mrs Grey loved her husband and family, and was very devoted to them. She never missed the luxuries that she gave up because she was loved and very happy. Richard Grey on the other hand felt guilty for what his wife had given up for him and was always seeking ways to make up for it which led to the family’s financial ruin. A friend who was a successful merchant suggested a way for Grey to double his private property. “The small patrimony was speedily sold, and the whole of its price was deposited in the hands of the friendly merchant; who as promptly proceeded to ship his cargo and prepare for his voyage.”
While the merchant was away, because of the expected windfall, Grey spent like there was no tomorrow even though his wife cautioned him. As luck would have it, the merchant perished along with the cargo. Agnes looked at their situation, thought of ways that she could help her family financially, but she kept most of her ideas to herself, fearing they would think her frivolous.
Grey responded in a human way and was bitter and disappointed, even though as a clergy, we would expect him to respond in a more God-like way. “My mother thought only of consoling my father, and paying our debts and retrenching our expenditure by every available means; but my father was completely overwhelmed by the calamity: health, strength, and spirits sank beneath the blow, and he never wholly recovered them. In vain my mother strove to cheer him, by appealing to his piety, to his courage, to his affection for herself and us…”
Agnes approached her mother with her idea of becoming a governess knowing that if she could convince her mother, she would advocate on her behalf to get her father’s support. Agnes was qualified to be a governess because she was very educated. Her parents homeschooled her, and except for Latin which her father taught her, her mother was in charge of her education. After securing her parents approval, her mother sent out discreet enquires to secure a governess position for her. One of Agnes’ aunt recommended a family who she thought would be suitable. Agnes set off for the first time away from home. Agnes found herself working for a cold and cruel family. The children were not disciplined and they ran wild. The previous governess tried to discipline them and was demoted to being in the nursery. The little boy Tom would torture/kill animals for the fun of it because that’s what his father and uncle did.
None of the children listened to her. They knew how to play the game because they behaved when they were in the presence of their father because he was very stern. And the mother was very indulgent. Though Agnes was away from home and missed her family dearly, she remembered the way she was brought up and behaved in that manner. She was far too tolerant. The children’s behaviour deteriorated and the parents blamed it on Agnes, discharging her close to a year after they had hired her.
Agnes’ family welcomed her home and she remained there for a few months but was determined to try again. She was not convinced that all families would be like the previous one. Once again, Agnes convinced her mother to assist her in finding another governess position. This time, her mother recommended that they place an ad with their terms – she included what she was qualified to teach: music, singing, drawing, French, Latin and German.
This time Agnes was hired by the family of Mr. Murray, of Horton Lodge, which was even farther away from home. The family was more affluent than the previous one. And the children were older. The children were very difficult, but better than the previous ones. The boys were sent to school and the girls were home schooled.
Agnes remained with them for a few years and you see Matilda (14 years) and Rosalie (16) growing up. Mrs. Murray instructed Agnes to use the title Mister and Master when addressing the children.
When Rosalie got to the age when she was being wooed, she would string the men along and made them think that she cared for them. It was actually quite cruel and she had fun doing it. The only man who didn’t bend to her will was Mr. Weston, the vicar’s assistant. Agnes liked Mr. Weston and she thought he had an interest in her. Matilda and Rosalie would conspire so that Agnes wouldn’t run into Weston and they would tell tales about her.
Mrs Murray accepted a suitor who was wealthy for her daughter, though there were rumours that he wasn’t a nice person. Rosalie married Sir Thomas Ashby for status and for wealth, and it turned out that shortly after they had been married, she grew to detest him. Life could very well be paying her back for the cruelty she had shown to her other suitors for stringing them along.
Richard Grey died, so Agnes went home to stay with her mom, since Mary had married. Alice Grey did not want to be a burden to any of her children, she wanted her independence. She and Agnes founded a school, they worked very well together and the institution did well. But Agnes’ heart ached because she had fallen in love with Weston. Fate was kind to her and they were subsequently reconnected.
Review: The strength of Agnes Grey lies in its characterizations of Victorian country society and the people who inhabit it. Their materialism, which reaches its apex here in the unhappily married Rosalie Murray; their wanton wastefulness; their view of nature as subservient to the whims of man; and their hypocrisy and recasting of God into man’s image are the easily recognized precursors to many 20th-century attitudes. Despite its faults and facile ending, Agnes Grey is a tiny but honest glimpse into the Victorian world that preceded ours.
Opening Line: “All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shrivelled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”
Closing Line: “And now I think I have said sufficient.”
Quotes: “It is foolish to wish for beauty. Sensible people never either desire it for themselves or care about it in others. If the mind be but well cultivated, and the heart well disposed, no one ever cares for the exterior.”