Friday, April 13, 2018

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

Source of book: I own this.

Anne Bronte is the forgotten Bronte sibling. Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Charlotte (Jane Eyre) are well known for their striking and successful novels. Their brother, Branwell, is at least remembered for never amounting to much and drinking himself to death. Poor Anne is as little remembered as the two older sisters, who died of the family curse (tuberculosis) in childhood. 

 Anne Bronte as sketched by her sister Charlotte

However, Anne too was a writer and poet. Agnes Grey, her first book, is largely autobiographical, and feels like an early effort, rather than a great book. Anne took a series of jobs as a governess during her late teens and twenties - it was about the only work available to a respectable middle-class woman at that time. It was not, shall we say, a particularly enjoyable job.

In this book, she tells of the two families she worked for longest. The first involved younger children who were little sociopaths. Anne doesn’t pull any punches here, even though she writes in the style of her time. These are not nice children, and they are the product of thoroughly dysfunction wealthy parents. The son, in a telling episode, enjoys killing baby birds. Agnes objects and interferes, only to be reprimanded by the mother, who says, “You seem to have forgotten that the creatures were all created for our convenience.” To mom, the amusement of a child takes precedence over the suffering of lesser creatures.

The strong point of Anne’s writing is evident in this section, as she has a keen eye for psychological detail. I have met children - and parents - like this over the years. A good shorthand would be “trust fund babies,” and our current president is a prime example of the lack of empathy and decency that is created when children are taught to consider their inferiors to be expendable and created for their amusement.

This arrangement does not last long, for obvious reasons. The rest of the book is concerned with the second family, and with Agnes’ romance. Because you have to have a romance. (And since Anne never did, she had to write one into her book.)

The second family is also highly dysfunctional, but in a less pernicious way. The eldest daughter is a great beauty, and enjoys toying with men - at least until she gets married to a rich, but unpleasant man. She regrets this marriage, but, no help for that. The second daughter is a tomboy, given to hanging out with her father and other men, swearing like a stable hand, and being as uncouth as possible. There are two boys as well, but they are sent away to boarding school, so they really don’t come into the story much.

This second family is interesting in part because the real life Anne formed relationships with the children they are based on, and kept in contact long after she left employment. I thought the characters of the daughters were well written and complex.

Agnes Grey also serves as somewhat of a defense of Anne’s parents and their choices. In the book, a woman born to (moderate) wealth marries a poor clergyman, and is disinherited for her trouble. Agnes then follows her mother’s path and marries a poor - but kind and decent - clergyman. In real life, there is no evidence that Anne’s mother was disinherited exactly, but she died of uterine cancer a year after Anne’s birth. While her father attempted to find a second wife, he never succeeded. Instead, his late wife’s unmarried sister came and lived with the family. Upon her death, she left a modest estate to the children, permitting them to write, rather than work as governesses. So there wasn’t quite the bad blood as in the novel. However, it does appear that there was a certain amount of second-guessing their choices.

As I noted, this book feels a bit uneven, like many first attempts. Even Charlotte, writing after Anne’s untimely death, defends the book while acknowledging its weaknesses. The romance feels a bit tacked on as well, and Mr. Weston feels undeveloped as a character. (Anne, like Charles Dickens, seems to write her own sex better than the opposite.) However, there are other parts of the book that are excellent. As I noted above, she shows a keen eye for the characters of the children, and also the arrogance and contempt of the upper classes.

I probably would have read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall if I owned it. I had this one, so I chose it. It is a fairly short and quick book, and not a bad read. The second book, however, is more ambitious, and outright scandalously feminist, from what I hear. Charlotte prevented its publication after Anne’s death, so it remained relatively unknown for years afterwards. This may be one reason why Anne isn’t as well known.

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