Agnes Grey is the first of two novels written by the youngest of the Bronte sisters. A number of aspects of the life of Anne Bronte, who died from tuberculosis at the age of 29, are reflected in the plot. The eponymous heroine is the daughter of a clergyman who loses his independent income, as a result of which she elects to work as a governess. Written in the form of a memoir, the first person narrative sets out Agnes' experiences working for two families, meeting and falling in love with a clergyman and setting up a school with her mother.
For me, part of what makes the novel interesting is knowing that in depicting Agnes’ life as a governess, Bronte drew heavily on her own experiences in the same role. Compared to Jane Eyre’s life as a governess, Agnes’ life is extraordinarily mundane. There is nothing romantic about Bronte’s portrayal of that life. Indeed, while the novel contains a love story, there is nothing of the romantic in it at all, and certainly nothing of the gothic. When Agnes falls in love, her sentiments are conventional. There are no souls yearning for each other across the moors and while Agnes’ love interest is no St John Rivers, he has nothing in common with Edward Rochester. Further, although there are some very beautiful descriptions of nature – particularly in the latter part of the novel – nature does not play the part it does in the works of Anne Bronte’s sisters.
In my view, the book’s major weakness is the relative lack of development in Agnes’ character. Jane Eyre is defined and changed by her experiences. However, while Agnes undergoes some very difficult experiences working as a governess, the Agnes at the end of the novel is more or less the same as the Agnes at the beginning of the novel. Agnes acknowledges that her youth and inexperience contributed to some of the difficulties she faced. However, she never questions herself and never doubts that she’s right. I like Agnes, but if I wanted to be harsh I might describe her as a bit of a prig.
I listened to an audiobook edition of the novel, very capably narrated by English actress Emilia Fox. I’m glad to have done so and I’m looking forward to listening to Anne Bronte’s other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s part of a vague plan to read / re-read all of the Bronte sisters’ novels including, one of these days, Wuthering Heights, for which I have long cherished a deep dislike.
I rate this at 3-1/2 stars. It doesn't have the complexity of Jane Eyre, but it's still a pretty good read.
I’ll finish the review with the words Anne Bronte used to finish Agnes Grey. It's hard to think of a simpler conclusion.
“And now I think I have said sufficient”.