Thursday, June 24, 2010

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

I did it! I finished all the books I committed myself to when signing up for the All About The Brontes Challenge last year. Fortunately, Agnes Grey proved a much quicker read than the other novels, allowing me to complete the challenge. How little I perceived the life events that would hinder my attempts to finish the challenge on time when I signed up last fall! How happy I am to have reached my goal in spite of those life events! I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering Anne and Charlotte's lesser known novels but, in the future, I will think twice before committing myself to any similar challenges, as it has proven rather stressful.

Though Agnes Grey is Anne Bronte's best known novel, I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall a far better read. The story of Agnes Grey, while it contains some romance to hold the plot together, is more a documentary on the life of a governess than a novel. It is, therefore, a perfect companion piece to Jane Eyre, and that is probably why it is so much better known than The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. However, Anne indulges in none of the Gothic extravagances of her sisters. Though her books are marked by female suffering, born out of social limitations, they are always relieved by a happy ending in the form of a loving marriage. In this way, her books are far more akin to Jane Austen's than to her sisters'. Both writers are concerned with marriage as the one true haven for the educated lady of the19th century and the anguish that ensues when it is entered into lightly. Of course, Anne is a Bronte, so we cannot expect anything light, bright, and sparkling (as is Austen's style) from her. Still, I like to imagine that she both read and loved Austen. There are moments in the book that seem to be direct parallels to Austen's work. For instance, one of Agnes' charges is a spoiled and flirtatious young woman named Miss Murray. Let's look at a scene in which she rejects the proposal of a pompous clergyman:
‘I proudly drew myself up, and with the greatest coolness expressed my astonishment at such an occurrence, and hoped he had seen nothing in my conduct to justify his expectations.  You should have seen how his countenance fell!  He went perfectly white in the face.  I assured him that I esteemed him and all that, but could not possibly accede to his proposals; and if I did, papa and mamma could never be brought to give their consent.’

‘“But if they could,” said he, “would yours be wanting?”

‘“Certainly, Mr. Hatfield,” I replied, with a cool decision which quelled all hope at once.  Oh, if you had seen how dreadfully mortified he was - how crushed to the earth by his disappointment! really, I almost pitied him myself.

‘One more desperate attempt, however, he made.  After a silence of considerable duration, during which he struggled to be calm, and I to be grave - for I felt a strong propensity to laugh - which would have ruined all - he said, with the ghost of a smile - “But tell me plainly, Miss Murray, if I had the wealth of Sir Hugh Meltham, or the prospects of his eldest son, would you still refuse me?  Answer me truly, upon your honour.”

‘“Certainly,” said I.  “That would make no difference whatever.”

‘It was a great lie, but he looked so confident in his own attractions still, that I determined not to leave him one stone upon another.  He looked me full in the face; but I kept my countenance so well that he could not imagine I was saying anything more than the actual truth.

‘“Then it’s all over, I suppose,” he said, looking as if he could have died on the spot with vexation and the intensity of his despair.  But he was angry as well as disappointed.  There was he, suffering so unspeakably, and there was I, the pitiless cause of it all, so utterly impenetrable to all the artillery of his looks and words, so calmly cold and proud, he could not but feel some resentment; and with singular bitterness he began - “I certainly did not expect this, Miss Murray.  I might say something about your past conduct, and the hopes you have led me to foster, but I forbear, on condition - ”

‘“No conditions, Mr. Hatfield!” said I, now truly indignant at his insolence.

‘“Then let me beg it as a favour,” he replied, lowering his voice at once, and taking a humbler tone: “let me entreat that you will not mention this affair to anyone whatever.  If you will keep silence about it, there need be no unpleasantness on either side - nothing, I mean, beyond what is quite unavoidable: for my own feelings I will endeavour to keep to myself, if I cannot annihilate them - I will try to forgive, if I cannot forget the cause of my sufferings.  I will not suppose, Miss Murray, that you know how deeply you have injured me.  I would not have you aware of it; but if, in addition to the injury you have already done me - pardon me, but, whether innocently or not, you
have done it - and if you add to it by giving publicity to this unfortunate affair, or naming it at all, you will find that I too can speak, and though you scorned my love, you will hardly scorn my - ”

‘He stopped, but he bit his bloodless lip, and looked so terribly fierce that I was quite frightened.  However, my pride upheld me still, and I answered disdainfully; “I do not know what motive you suppose I could have for naming it to anyone, Mr. Hatfield; but if I were disposed to do so, you would not deter me by threats; and it is scarcely the part of a gentleman to attempt it.”

‘“Pardon me, Miss Murray,” said he, “I have loved you so intensely - I do still adore you so deeply, that I would not willingly offend you; but though I never have loved, and never
can love any woman as I have loved you, it is equally certain that I never was so ill-treated by any.  On the contrary, I have always found your sex the kindest and most tender and obliging of God’s creation, till now.”  (Think of the conceited fellow saying that!)  “And the novelty and harshness of the lesson you have taught me to-day, and the bitterness of being disappointed in the only quarter on which the happiness of my life depended, must excuse any appearance of asperity.  If my presence is disagreeable to you, Miss Murray,” he said (for I was looking about me to show how little I cared for him, so he thought I was tired of him, I suppose) - “if my presence is disagreeable to you, Miss Murray, you have only to promise me the favour I named, and I will relieve you at once.  There are many ladies - some even in this parish - who would be delighted to accept what you have so scornfully trampled under your feet.  They would be naturally inclined to hate one whose surpassing loveliness has so completely estranged my heart from them and blinded me to their attractions; and a single hint of the truth from me to one of these would be sufficient to raise such a talk against you as would seriously injure your prospects, and diminish your chance of success with any other gentleman you or your mamma might design to entangle.”

‘“What do your mean, sir?” said I, ready to stamp with passion.

‘“I mean that this affair from beginning to end appears to me like a case of arrant flirtation, to say the least of it - such a case as you would find it rather inconvenient to have blazoned through the world: especially with the additions and exaggerations of your female rivals, who would be too glad to publish the matter, if I only gave them a handle to it.  But I promise you, on the faith of a gentleman, that no word or syllable that could tend to your prejudice shall ever escape my lips, provided you will - ”

‘“Well, well, I won’t mention it,” said I.  “You may rely upon my silence, if that can afford you any consolation.”

‘“You promise it?”

‘“Yes,” I answered; for I wanted to get rid of him now.

‘“Farewell, then!” said he, in a most doleful, heart-sick tone; and with a look where pride vainly struggled against despair, he turned and went away: longing, no doubt, to get home, that he might shut himself up in his study and cry - if he doesn’t burst into tears before he gets there.’

‘But you have broken your promise already,’ said I, truly horrified at her perfidy.

‘Oh! it’s only to you; I know you won’t repeat it.’
That was rather long, I know, but there is a bit of a point to this. Miss Murray is precisely the kind of young lady who aspires "to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man", which no Austen heroine would ever do, but it feels like there are several parallels in this scene to both Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth and even more so to Mr. Elton's proposal to Emma. Mr. Hatfield's situation is very much like Mr. Elton's in that he has good reason to believe he has been given encouragement. His anger and disappointment, too, remind me of "Mr. E". He too is quick to marry another lady of less distinction than his first aspiring choice. 

Anne Bronte's tale is far from a lighthearted romance, but like Austen she is a studier of character and her books teach their readers to judge people by their actions, not their words. Perhaps Agnes is the type of heroine who would laugh, along side Lizzy and Emma, at the foibles of her neighbors, but as life has put her in the power of characters like Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine, and Mrs. Elton, her circumstances are no laughing matter. Agnes Grey might be seen as a companion piece to Jane Eyre, but I also find it a valuable supplement to Austen's work, reminding us that while many characters are unpleasant to interact with socially, they must be far more intolerable to work for.

Read my other All About The Brontes Challenge reviews:
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The Professor


  1. It's really interesting Alexa.Your reading the Brontes through an Austenque lens is unique and intriguing. I read Agnes Grey last summer, just like Shirley and The Tenant, so they are not among my books for this challenge. As I wrote then, being a teacher I could just deeply sympathize with poor Agnes! I liked reading both Anne's novels.

  2. Hi Maria. I really enjoyed Anne's books too - much more than I did when I first read them as a teenager. Agnes Grey is very interesting and I could definitely sympathize. The book brought back long repressed memories of harrowing babysitting jobs.

  3. Congrats on completing the challenge! I am glad you have enjoyed your rereading of these novels! I am reading my fifth out of sixth item and hopefully will have a review of it up by the 30th. But I'm afraid I am going to have to claim defeat as there is no possible way for me to complete a sixth item in time! It was a great experience to be apart of this challenge, I enjoyed it thoroughly!

  4. Thanks Meredith! It was a fun challenge, but the end crunch kind of stressed me out. I'll be looking for your review!