LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
[Agnes Grey meets her first set of pupils]
At that moment my young pupils entered the apartment, with their two younger sisters. Master Tom Bloomfield was a well-grown boy of seven, with a somewhat wiry frame, flaxen hair, blue eyes, small turned-up nose, and fair complexion. Mary Ann was a tall girl too, somewhat dark like her mother, but with a round full face and a high colour in her cheeks…
They were remarkably free from shyness… In Mary Ann there was a certain affected simper, and a craving for notice, that I was sorry to observe. But her brother claimed all my attention to himself; he stood bolt upright between me and the fire, with his hands behind his back, talking away like an orator, occasionally interrupting his discourse with a sharp reproof to his sisters when they made too much noise.
[Agnes Grey meets her second set of pupils]
I entered, and found two young ladies and two young gentlemen—my future pupils, I supposed. After a formal greeting, the elder girl, who was trifling over a piece of canvas and a basket of German wools, asked if I should like to go upstairs. I replied in the affirmative, of course.
‘Matilda, take a candle, and show her her room,’ said she.
Miss Matilda, a strapping hoyden of about fourteen, with a short frock and trousers, shrugged her shoulders and made a slight grimace, but took a candle and proceeded before me up the back stairs.
commentary: I was initially very surprised by Matilda’s trousers - even with her ‘rough ways’ and penchant for the stables and grooms, this seemed unlikely. But then I found the picture above at the NYPL so I presume it is just a matter of terminology.
vengeably thumped the piano for an hourand I found out that ‘vengeably’ is a word – in this context meaning in an angry and threatening manner.)
I knew I was going to have to tackle this book after reading Samantha Ellis’s wonderful book about Anne Bronte, Take Courage. My friend Lissa Evans said in the comments to the Ellis post ‘I …read and enjoyed Agnes Grey too, though it's fairly discursive, a bit like a 19th century version of The Nanny Diaries’ – which is about right. Tenant of Wildfell Hall is undoubtedly AB’s masterpiece, but this one is worth a look, and is actually short, entertaining and a quick and easy read, which cannot be said for all 19th century great novels.
Agnes is young and independent-minded – when her family falls on hard times, she decides to go out and be a governess. Her relations are rather doubtful (this would be true of Anne Bronte herself in real life) but she is determined to go, and to succeed. Her first job doesn’t last very long, and when it ends she decides that she is going to advertise herself for her next job, and ask for more money: admirable.
She stays with the second family for several years, forming a relationship with the young women there, and eventually
SLIGHT BUT PREDICTABLE SPOILER
she finds true love and can marry and become a vicarage wife.
I was completely split in my reaction to Agnes. On the one hand she is firm in her views, confident, and has high expectations of the world. She is funny and quite feminist. Her religion is important to her, but so is her attraction to the curate – she is straightforward about wanting love, and their courtship is charming. She is not a simpering miss, and she tells us how she goes about her business hoping to see him. She describes the life of a governess with great conviction, you can totally believe the annoyances and pinprick humiliations and disasters.
But on the other hand – what a passive-aggressive nightmare she must have been. There are very few situations in which I can start empathizing with a rich Victorian employer of a governess, but I astonish myself by being on the side of the lady mothers here. Agnes Grey describes pretty much all the children she dealt with as a nightmare, and she is often in trouble with the parents for not controlling them. Well… she has to take some responsibility surely? If she can’t teach and train them then she is not doing her job. It is seen as outrageous when the families make that point, but it seems self-evident. The girls in her second job are obviously very fond of her, but if she keeps saying how badly-behaved they are, does that not reflect on herself, Agnes? Her own undoubted goody-goodyness doesn’t seem to rub off on any of her charges.
As they grow older, she has less to do, but Agnes is outraged when someone points that out. I don’t for a moment think that being a governess was an easy job, her description is only too believable, but it does sound as though actually she was really bad at her job.
It should be said that in real life Anne was the only one of the Bronte sisters who could hold down a job for any length of time. She was much loved, apparently, by the young women she was governess to. (This was the job that was eventually messed up by the arrival of Branwell Bronte as tutor… and his relationship with Mrs Robinson, with that weird foreshadowing in her name). I do wonder what the real-life family must have made of this book.
The young women in the book sound selfish and naughty (their upbringing you know) but also good fun and light-hearted. They are thoughtless and flirtatious, but also fond of their governess.
So a very easy read, like an early chicklit with a very grumpy heroine, who is rather full of herself in a #humblebrag way. Her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre tends to get the governess attention – but that book is a fairytale really, and I’m certain Agnes Grey is a much more realistic view of the situation.
The picture of 1840s fashions is from the NYPL.