The Impressive Lessons of Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë (1847)
By Tim Whittome | On August 19, 2023 | Updated August 25, 2023 | Comments (0)
This insightful analysis of Agnes Gray by Anne Brontë (1847) discusses the significance of the first novel by the youngest Brontë sister (1820 – 1949).
“It leaves no painful impression on the mind — some may think it leaves no impression at all.” Thus wrote one reviewer in the Atlas on January 22, 1848. I suspect that few of Anne Brontë’s readers would easily sympathize with this view, and it is the purpose of this essay to illustrate why I disagree with the Atlas.
The reviewer also states: “There is a want of distinctness in the character of Agnes, which prevents the reader from taking much interest in her fate.”
Yet, for all this skepticism, Agnes Grey does leave an impression on the mind, and it is one not altogether without a feeling of pain, as also does the fate of Agnes, herself; arouse interest and concern.
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Detaching Agnes Grey from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights
What is first necessary, though, is to detach the novel from both Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) and Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) because a regular misjudgment is to compare the three novels as if they were all competing and tending towards the same end.
And, in this competition, Agnes Grey, it is said, either falls by the wayside or arrives a poor third. Yet Agnes Grey is not in competition with either novel, and even if one were to pursue that line of thinking, it would be fair to say that neither Jane Eyre nor Wuthering Heights reaches the clarity and personal vision aspired to by Anne Brontë in the unfolding of Agnes’s story.
Anne reaches for a separate, and no less distinct, voice from that demonstrated by both Emily and Charlotte, and she successfully acquires that distinctiveness.
Eschewing both the “remarkable events” of Jane Eyre and the robust and colorful passion of Wuthering Heights, Anne finds a voice that is firm, persuasive, quiet, and restrained, as well as uncluttered and clear.
Introducing Edward Weston
From the outset, Agnes’s tale unfolds in a calm and undistracted manner. As Anne herself so often did, Agnes keeps most of her inner thoughts and pleasures to herself. Thus can Agnes’s mother say: “Mr. Weston! I never heard of him before.”
She is assured by Agnes that she has, but her mother’s confusion still typifies so much of both Anne and Agnes’s inner sense of reserve, and to pass comment on Agnes’ self-control and self-possession is also to pass similar comment on Anne’s.
Edward Weston’s ultimate engagement to Agnes also illustrates the same quietly impassioned approach by Anne Brontë to her work:
“You must have known that it was not my way to flatter and talk soft nonsense, or even to speak the admiration that I felt; and that a single word or glance of mine meant more than the honied. phrases and fervent protestations of most other men.”
Edward Weston is certainly no Edward Rochester or Heathcliff, and Anne has no urgent feeling inside her that would have created him as such, and so despite her intermittent involvement in the intrigues of Gondal, she doesn’t aspire to the style of writing so fervently adopted by Emily and Charlotte.
This is not to denigrate the achievement of either of her sisters, merely to suggest that Anne had a morally different set of values to pursue and that she successfully whispers these into the ears of her readers throughout her writing of Agnes Grey.
Thus Weston is very much “a man of strong sense, firm faith, and ardent piety, but thoughtful and stern.” He is also a man of “true benevolence, and gentle, considerate kindness.”
In Agnes’s feelings for Hatfield’s curate, Anne herself, whether subconsciously or not, by shedding some of the more flirtatious attributes of her own father’s curate, William Weightman, arrives at a more refined portrait of Weightman that is based loosely, but recognizably, on his compassionate concern for the poor of Haworth.
The author’s real-life parallels with her character
It is with some interest that we can pursue the thought that Agnes is nearly twenty-three when she leaves Horton Lodge to help at her mother’s school. It is then September, and in 1842, after Anne Brontë had been with the Robinson family at Thorp Green for two and a half years, William Weightman died that autumn, when Anne was also nearly twenty-three.
Therefore, what happens subsequently to Agnes in Agnes Grey is surely, in the greater part, wish fulfillment. It is significant, also, that there is such a long break with virtually no news about Weston.
His reappearance, nearly nine months later, seems so sudden; it is almost as if Anne’s imagination was reverting to those happy moments with Emily of raising people from amongst Gondal’s sleeping dead. Charlotte’s novels reveal a similar self-indulgence.
Not that Edward Weston dies, of course, but William Weightman did, and if, as seems likely, Anne had strong feelings for him, these feelings surely resurface in Agnes’ subdued, but quite ardent love for Edward Weston.
Charlotte’s portrayal to Ellen Nussey in early 1842 of a shy Anne being watched in church by William Weightman is mirrored in Anne’s portrait of Agnes, herself, in church listening to and admiring Weston’s sermons and readings. How cruel it would have been for Agnes if he had died!
Anne, therefore, uses her powerful imagination to recreate the inner turmoil of her life — a turmoil often so painfully invisible to others. Agnes also has three children, and, as Edward Chitham demonstrates in his biography of Anne. Anne in her own life may have wished for children of her own that she could both love and teach.
Yet Anne’s suggested feelings for Weightman as revealed through Agnes’s feelings for Weston and her subsequent engagement to him in a scene of perfect quiet in the town of A– are not the only themes of interest in the novel, for there are three others, at least, which are no less important, and just as revealing of Anne’s thoughts and concerns.
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See also: Walking with Anne Brontë: Insights and Reflections
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The enviable Rosalie Murray
First, there is Agnes’s complex and vivid association with Rosalie Murray. Edward Chitham suggests that Anne toys with the personality of Rosalie as she might well have grappled with an unwanted, or perhaps yearned for, part of herself, just as Emily tackles her inner persistent self in the character of Heathcliff. It is worth examining this point.
Here is Agnes deliberating on the question of beauty:
“They that have beauty, let them be thankful for it, and make a good use of it, like any other talent … it is a gift of God, and not to be despised. Many will feel this, who have felt that they could love, and whose hearts tell them they are worthy to be loved again, while yet they are debarred, by the lack of this, or some such seeming trifle from giving and receiving that happiness they seem almost made to feel and impart.
As well might the humble glow-worm despise that· power of giving light, without which the roving fly might pass her and repass her a thousand times and never light beside her; … the fly must seek another mate, the worm must live and die alone.”
Rosalie, according to Agnes, believes that Agnes would have wished to have been like her. However, although Agnes notes Rosalie’s “heartless vanity,” there is some, perhaps subconscious, envy in her words “I did not – at least, 1 firmly believe 1 did not.”
As with a number of other emotions expressed in the novel, Agnes’s strong feelings need to be rationalized down to something both sensible and constructive. Any envy that Agnes may have felt, therefore, is very much qualified. She goes on to wonder:
“… why so much beauty should be given to those who made so bad a use of it, and denied to some who would make it a benefit to both themselves and others.”
So Agnes admires her pupil’s beauty and is convinced that she would have used the corresponding attraction better. Yet this is clearly not all she admires about her. Earlier on, while musing on her visits to Nancy Brown and hearing of all the goodwill towards Weston, Agnes reflects on the influence she suffers from the Murray girls:
“And I, as 1 could not make my young companions better, feared exceedingly that they would make me worse —would gradually bring my feelings, habits, capacities to the level of their own, without, however, imparting to me their light-heartedness and cheerful vivacity.”
Agnes goes on to chronicle what she calls the “gross vapours of earth,” and her own supposed debasement which Weston’s presence helps to alleviate as “the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness.”
Needless to say, the most crucial point is Rosalie’s “cheerful vivacity” and this Agnes feels she won’t impart, though it has to be the one, of all Rosalie’s qualities, Agnes would most have liked to feel.
Now we know that Anne Brontë was not, herself, a fluent and easy talker, so we can infer from many of Agnes’s remarks on Rosalie that Anne might have admired those qualities but shrank from seeing them misused in the hands of the wrong people.
Later on, Agnes was to be amazed at Matilda’s easy-flowing discourse, while finding her own conversation with Weston to be difficult. Their strength belongs to a different sort of communion, and unlike a very bitter Lady Ashby, Agnes has no cause to repent her own marriage. Subject to Agnes’s cautionary remarks about her visit to Rosalie at Ashby Park, we feel most sympathy towards this difficult pupil at this point.
Anne’s writing, which leaves so much to the imagination, is more vivid for what it doesn’t say, and we are left to fill in in our minds the sheer vastness of Rosalie’s isolation at Ashby Park.
There is little doubt that Anne is at her most lively when she is involved with Rosalie and there is a sparkle and a vivacity which contrasts markedly with the quieter tone of the rest of the novel. Rosalie’s liveliness, it has to be said, does envelop Agnes as well, as we follow Agnes in looking for Weston both at church and amongst the villagers.
Agnes cannot, for example, avoid glancing towards the door when she is visiting Nancy Brown, and she also wishes not to be seen as the equivalent of a domestic! Perhaps Anne is pointing here towards her leniency towards the flirtatious extravagance of the Robinson girls?
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Shy Agnes, wishing for “cheerful vivacity”
The shy Agnes, like Anne, may in part have wished to share in this “cheerful vivacity,” but even so, it is also true that Agnes is desperate both to guide Rosalie and to teach her an awareness of her faults. It is clear to Agnes — as it was to Anne — that “excessive vanity, like drunkenness, hardens the heart, enslaves the faculties, and perverts the feelings …”
Agnes assumes the mantle of a teacher determined to achieve some good in the world, or, as Anne puts it when prefacing the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall:
“I would fain contribute my humble quota towards so good an aim, and if I can gain the public ear at all, I would rather whisper a few wholesome truths therein than much soft nonsense.”
There are obvious echoes of Edward Weston’s engagement to Agnes here, but, even if Agnes fails to change Rosalie, the fact of the determination is still important in helping us to understand Anne’s real-life efforts concerning the Robinson girls, including some success in helping to prevent a disastrous engagement for one of them.
Perhaps as a final point on Agnes’s involvement with Rosalie Murray — in which Anne most assumes the mantle of a writer’s task of amusing the reader, and the teacher’s mantle of instructing the same. It can be said that Charlotte may have recreated the character of Rosalie in Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette.
It is also possible that George Eliot may have mused over her for the creation of Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. This may well be running with an idea and taking it too far, but, despite the difficulty of proving anything, there are similarities between Gwendolen and Rosalie in their self-confident mastery before marriage and their helpless despair afterward.
Agnes’s deep isolation as a governess
The second area of interest in Agnes Grey is the deep isolation of Agnes in both her governess positions. Deprived of kindness, surrounded by brutal hostility at the Bloomfields, and deprived of satisfying friendships at the Murrays, Agnes becomes very isolated.
She observes, rather than participates in, what goes on around her. In describing the friends of Rosalie and Matilda, Agnes observes that they “talked. over me or across, and if their eyes, in speaking, chanced to fall on me, it seemed as if they looked on vacancy …”
Anne builds up an image, here, of the discreet governess lingering slightly behind, always listening, and rarely talking or taken much notice of. The shutting of a carriage door in Agnes’s face by Hatfield would seem to illustrate the thoughtless insensitivity meted out to governesses at the time.
Agnes then says, with emphasis, “I was lonely.” She goes on to detail how she had seen no one:
“… to whom I could open my heart, or freely speak my thoughts with any hope of sympathy, or even comprehension; … whose conversation was calculated to render me better, wiser, happier than before, or who, as far as I could see, could be greatly benefited by mine. My only companions had been unamiable children, and ignorant, wrong-headed girls …”
Excluded from church and meeting Weston there, Agnes seeks refuge in poetry — her own or others’ — and chronicles the loneliness and isolation of her life in “pillars of witness.”
Anne’s handling of Agnes’s isolation is both sensitive and impressive. Her economy of language is as different from Charlotte’s handling of Jane Eyre’s flight from Rochester after their aborted wedding day as it is as powerful and effective.
It is worth comparing the writing of both Anne and Charlotte to illustrate the difference and also the power of both. Here is Agnes, and one may suggest Anne as well, speaking of her inner sense of turmoil, and of her response to her crisis:
“I was a close and resolute dissembler … My prayers, my tears, my wishes, fears, and lamentations were witnessed by myself and Heaven alone. When we are harassed by sorrows or anxieties, or .long oppressed by any powerful feelings which we must keep to ourselves, for which we can obtain and seek no sympathy from any living creature, and which yet we cannot, or will not wholly crush, we often naturally seek relief in poetry — and often find it too — whether in the effusions of others, which seem to harmonize with our existing case, or in our own attempts to give utterance to those thoughts and feelings in strains less musical … but more appropriate, and therefore more penetrating and sympathetic, and, for the time, more soothing, or more powerful to rouse and to unburden the oppressed and swollen heart.”
Agnes’s poetry comforts her, and she manages to deal with her crisis without plunging to the depths of Jane Eyre’s poverty, or Heathcliff’s self-destruction. We may deduce from this that Anne, herself, would have similarly dealt with her feelings for William Weightman.
Agnes’s response is wholly in keeping with Anne’s personality, and is further illustration of the way Anne projects her interests, concerns, and shy voice into her subject matter.
Agnes, as has been shown, avoids the extremity of manifesting her despair. in degradation, and avoids, too, pushing Edward Weston towards a similar abyss of self-destruction. Agnes conceals her agitation by calmly showing her self-sufficiency in going to help in her mother’s school.
The role of religion in Agnes Grey
Yet another way that we can listen to Anne’s beating heart comes in her depiction of religion, the third of the main areas of interest in Agnes Grey. Agnes, after her arrival at Horton Lodge, finds herself quickly rejecting Hatfield’s idea of God as a “terrible taskmaster.”
She contrasts this with Weston’s view of God as a “benevolent Father.” Through this contrast, we are made aware of Anne’s views on universal salvation, and on not placing burdens on the backs of people that they can’t bear.
Agnes criticizes Hatfield not only for placing these burdens but also for flying from his pulpit to laugh with the Murray girls over their imposition, and then doing little to alleviate the sufferings of parishioners, like Nancy Brown, in trying to bear them.
His insincere approach seems to show more affinity with the Murray girls’ visits to the sick, dying, and lame, than with Weston’s more benevolent excursions. Here Anne is probably thinking about William Weightman’s visits to the poor of Haworth, but it is through Edward Weston’s perhaps less flamboyant visits that we come closer to Anne’s quiet Christian view of the universal love of God.
Agnes later thanks God for the “many blessings in our path,” and then, in an affirmation of Anne’s own beliefs, she adds:
“We have had trials … but we bear them well together, and endeavour to fortify ourselves and each other against the final separation – that greatest of all afflictions to the survivor; but if we keep in mind the glorious heaven beyond, where both may meet again and sin and sorrow are unknown, surely that too may be borne.”
The chief purpose of this essay has been to illustrate how Agnes Grey does leave an impression on the mind, a very powerful and interesting one. The fate of Agnes is important because she comes to assume the mantle of the two roles dearest to Anne Brontë’s heart — namely those of patient teacher, and loving mother.
Therefore, Agnes’s life is of interest to her readers for the light it sheds on the less fulfilled life of her creator, and the novel, as a whole, reveals much of how Anne felt about her own life and about her future.
If Agnes’s tale bends away from the hands of a firm writer into a more imaginary, idealized world this only serves to show how all the Brontë sisters created, through imagination, a greater purpose to their lives.
In seeking that greater and higher purpose, their novels must be taken on their individual merits, and comparing them as competitive works of art can be needlessly destructive of the merits of each as well as distracting.
The achievement of each sister is an insight into the mind of each, and in the case of Agnes Grey, it is certainly a very revealing insight into the thoughts and mind of Anne.
“All true histories contain instruction,” and this is very much how we see Anne’s work, and how she would like to have been judged. She hoped to bring both comfort to other suffering governesses and enlightenment to employers.
In seeking to achieve these aims, Anne noticeably becomes increasingly self-confident and self-assured as Agnes Grey unfolds, and this confidence continues in the more turbulent, though no less richly interesting, Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Agnes Grey is, therefore, an impressive achievement, reflecting both the skill of an assured writer, and that writer’s own particular, and interesting serious thoughts, quiet concerns, and imaginative dreams.
Contributed by Tim Whittome: Tim is originally from England and spent all of his childhood and early adulthood there, and now lives in Washington State. He first “walked” with Anne Brontë when he was in his late twenties; and he has been inspired by her ever since. Tim is devoted to honoring the memory of not just Anne Brontë, but also those of Anne and Margot Frank. In 2021, Tim edited and published “Meeting” Anne Frank, which he has donated many copies of to those who knew Anne and Margot, to members of the British and Dutch royal families, various luminaries in the Anne Frank world, and school and public libraries.
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Sources and further reading
- Miriam Allott (ed.), The Brontës: The Critical Heritage (1974)
- Edward Chitham, A Life Of Anne Brontë
- Edward Chitham, The Poems of Anne Brontë: A New Text and Commentary (Macmillan, 1979)
- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (ed.), preface by G. D. Hargreaves, ed.
(Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1980)
- Jane Eyre (ed.) Q. D. Leavis (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1966)