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Agnes is more black and white than grey

March 31, 2014 11 comments

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë. 1847.

This month our Book Club’s choice was Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë and since it’s a classic, I assume I can afford a bit of spoilers in this billet.

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman who ends up working as a governess to earn her living after her family is impoverished by poor investments. She first lives at the Bloomfields’ where she’s supposed to teach to three young children. All of them are little devils who treat her like a servant.

Master Tom, not content with refusing to be ruled, must needs set up as a ruler, and manifested a determination to keep, not only his sisters, but his governess in order, by violent manual and pedal applications; and, as he was a tall, strong boy of his years, this occasioned no trifling inconvenience.

Their weak parents don’t support her educational aims and she can’t discipline the children. Their parents never scold them or make them respect their governess. The mother spoils her children and can never find a fault in them while the father blames Agnes for not managing to tame them. Eventually Agnes has to go.

She seeks another position and arrives at the Murrays’. This time, she’s in charge of four older children, two boys and two girls. The two boys are soon sent to boarding school while the two girls stay at home. The oldest, Miss Rosalie Murray is a stunning beauty and she’s soon out and ravishing hearts around her. She’s praised for her beauty and shallow is her middle name. She’s a shameless flirt while her sister Matilda is a tomboy. Matilda loves her dogs, her horses and spending time with lads and hunters.

As an animal, Matilda was all right, full of life, vigour, and activity; as an intelligent being, she was barbarously ignorant, indocile, careless and irrational; and, consequently, very distressing to one who had the task of cultivating her understanding, reforming her manners, and aiding her to acquire those ornamental attainments which, unlike her sister, she despised as much as the rest.

Like the Bloomfield children, they have no intention to study anything. They have a loose schedule, decide of meals and activities at random hours and have Agnes at their beck and call. During her stay with the Murrays, she will become acquainted with Mr Edward Weston, the new parson. There seem to be mutual attraction between the two but how will it end for Agnes?

In our Book Club meeting, we all agreed to say that Agnes Grey was interesting but not a page turner and that it had flaws. The interesting part was about Agnes’s treatment in the families and the image it gave of the Victorian bourgeoisie. We’re far from the benevolent country people we encounter in Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, the only two Austenian characters are Agnes who sounds like Elinor in Sense and Sensibility and Edward Weston, who manages to be named after Edward in Price and Prejucide and Mr Weston, the man who marries the governess in Emma. No, the high society in Agnes Grey is not really people you care to associate with. The husbands are cruel; they like to torture animals and let the children do it. Indeed, Mr Bloomfield delights in Tom’s wicked ways with a bird and Mr Murray loves to hunt. They don’t care much about their wives and children. They tend to like eating and drinking. The wives and mothers are weak and conceited. They don’t want to trouble themselves much with educating their children. Mrs Murray doesn’t hesitate to marry her daughter to Sir Thomas Ashby because he’s rich and has a large estate. She perfectly knows he’s a bad match for Rosalie but doesn’t mind sacrificing her daughter’s happiness for greed and social status.

They all have poor education and poor moral values. The girls grow up to be very ignorant. They are never asked to put effort in their studies. Nobody cares that they can hardly read, never learn anything and have the attention span of a goldfish. They are brought up to marry well but can flirt in the meantime. Agnes endures seing the Misses Murray busy batting eyelashes to Captain Somebody and Lieutenant Somebody-else (a couple of military fops). What would be flirting in the English countryside in the 19thC without the military stationed nearby, I wonder?

With Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë dives in her own experience as a governess to describe the odd place of a governess in a household. Agnes is lonely. The family treats her like a servant and the servants don’t acknowledge her as one of them. She’s not good enough to be part of the family but of too high a rank to be among domestics. Agnes is intelligent, a bit young and naïve but she’s clever enough to analyse her situation. And that’s what makes her position difficult. She perfectly knows she’s being bullied.

Either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.

The Bloomfield children don’t hesitate to beat her up and the Misses Murray have her sit in the place in the carriage where she always gets motion sickness. She’s not the mistress of her days and Miss Murray will ensure to have her occupied to squash any possibility of free time. They send her to performs their charity duties in their place and do their utmost to smother any burgeoning romance between Agnes and Mr Weston.

Agnes Grey underlines the narrow path traced to women of her time. Agnes’s mother married Mr Grey out of love and had to turn her back to her rich family for that. She became poor and never got assistance from them since she married below her rank. Women of their class don’t have a lot of choices to earn money. They can be governesses or teachers in school. That’s about it. As Gissing will point it out in The Odd Women that lives children with teachers that don’t have a true calling for teaching. Agnes has no experience with teaching; Anne Brontë never mentions textbooks or teaching methods or programs to be covered according to the children’s age. Agnes seems to play it by ear but perhaps there were manuals. Even with more docile children, could she be a good governess?

This was the interesting side of Agnes Grey. Now the annoying part. Anne Brontë was 27 when she wrote this novel. She had left home and lived as a governess. She wasn’t a child anymore and the ending of Agnes Grey is well, too romantic for me. I expected drama and a dramatic death due to pneumonia caught wandering in the fields in a rainy day or at least due to melancholy. I kept waiting for a Balzacian ending and got something more Hollywood-like. Agnes lacks substance compared to Jane Eyre. God, how dull she is! I know she’s young, she’s had a sheltered life and she went through tough times in these families. But does she have to be so forgiving, so religious and such a doormat? (Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance were my only weapons; and these I resolved to use to the utmost.) Don’t we all remember fondly of teachers who were strict but fair? Wouldn’t she have gained a bit of respect from her employers by standing up for herself? Was her position as a poor woman so precarious that she couldn’t take the risk to be fired? There’s a boring passage of her discussing religion with a cottager of the neighbourhood, Nancy Brown. What a moralising speech and a picky inspection of conscience! Agnes is so virtuous it hurts (Lady L. wouldn’t have liked her a bit) and I’m sorry, virtue being rewarded in the end seems a bit too simplistic to me. We’d know the trick if you only needed to be a good girl to have your wishes come true, wouldn’t we?

So, yes, Agnes Grey gives an interesting portrait of the Victorian little nobility but lacks in characterisation. Agnes is too good and the children/adolescent she teaches too are too bad. Despite this black and white picture, it’s still worth reading.

Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers? (Anne Brontë)

July 5, 2010 1 comment

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë was published in 1848. It is Gilbert Markham’s letter to his best friend and telling him how he married his wife. The novel is divided in three parts. The first one is told by Gilbert and relates how he met and fell in love with Mrs Helen Graham, a widow newly settled in the neighbourhood, in Wildfell Hall. In this part are described both Mrs Graham’s temper and Gilbert’s increasing regard for her. The reader soon understands that there is a mystery in her presence in that isolated and gloomy house, alone with her child.

The second part reveals everything about this mystery through the means of Helen’s diary. It relates her miserable life from the moment she meets and marries Arthur Huntington until her arrival at Wildfell Hall. She tells all her misfortunes and describes the pain she took during these years and how she eventually escaped with her son.

The third part is narrated by Gilbert again, from the moment he ends up the reading of the diary to his wedding with Helen. During this period, she returned to her former house to take care of her dying husband and lost her uncle.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall can be linked to Gothic novels, as it is about a distressed young lady obliged to overcome all kinds of misfortunes to reach happiness. I noted that since Jane Austen’s chaste prose, lovers kiss, hold hands and take their fair lady by the waist. The change of narrators and tone gives a freshness to the story. Each part of the novel ends with a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Helen. Each of these three scenes is a step in their relationship. First Gilbert declares himself and receives hints that his love is requited. Then Helen acknowledges that she loves him but cannot marry him and concludes they must part. Eventually she takes control and proposes to him.

I liked the two first parts better than the last one, because they show Helen’s rebellion against general admitted principles and her confidence in her own judgement. The third part disappointed me because of its religious and virtuous tone. I didn’t like Helen going back to his husband to take care of him. It seemed unnatural and a compliance to social rules. I thought it was there only to ensure the society of the time that she really left her husband to protect her son and not for herself. It would have been too scandalous to write otherwise, I suppose.

 That book had me thinking “Every teenage girl should read this novel because it contains valuable lessons about love relationships”.

When Helen meets Arthur Huntington, she disregards all warnings upon his temper and marries him against her better judgement, thinking that her constant goodness will improve him through a sort of capillary action. To me, believing to have such a power on someone as to change them is vanity. People don’t deeply change and most of the time have nothing “behind the face”. No one has the power to change someone, unless unwillingly. Bad boys are not tortured souls in want of rescuing by a pure gentle lover, they just are bad boys who want to have fun.

It is also a very unsteady soil to build a relationship on, as it breaks the equality between the two members of the couple. His behaviour may have been highly reprehensible, but what a pain it must have been for Arthur to be constantly lectured ! Loving someone means accepting them as they are. Constantly expecting them to change for our vision of themselves is not love but alienation. Bluntly said, you’d better quickly turn your ethereal romantic young love into a more earthly but nonetheless deep feeling if you intend to happily share the same bathroom with someone “for as long as you both shall live”.

 But is accepting your beloved spouse the way they are the key of a successful marriage? The relationship between Milicent, Helen’s friend, and her husband Ralph Hattersley is interesting for that too. She is constantly physically and mentally molested by her husband and always yields. She pushes the acceptance of his temper to the farthest and he thinks she doesn’t resent his treatment of her as she never complains. It would even push him to torment her, to obtain a reaction. Helen finally convinces him that Milicent is hurt by his behaviour and having thus realised his error, he improves. Let’s imagine that such a radical change is possible. But the third relationship, between Annabella and her husband Lord Lowborough, proves that Anne Brontë was not so naïve as to think every one is reformable. This relationship could be the mirror of Milicent and Ralph’s, the wife being the torturer this time. This one doesn’t end well and it kinds of level the playing field between men and women, equally able to hurt their spouse. Here comes the second valuable lesson : a relationship cannot bloom without respect and communication.

Another defective relationship is the one of Eliza Millward and Gilbert. Gilbert is in love with Eliza and is thinking of marrying her at the time he meets Helen. He is blinded by her physical appearance and cheerfulness and doesn’t see clearly her flaws, despite his mother’s kind warnings. He gradually discovers a littleness in her and a lack of principles which drains his love for her. Third valuable lesson : the necessity to share the same values.

The relationship between Helen and Gilbert is the one that brings them happiness. But they almost missed each other because of Gilbert’s pride and because of his prejudice against the difference of wealth between them after she inherited from her uncle. He was too proud to ask her brother if she sometimes inquired after him, too proud to ask him her address and write the letter she expected. He was too prejudiced against her wealth to show up at her home, though he had travelled a long to time to reach it.

Anne Brontë seems to say to her contemporary girls: don’t hurry, take the time to know each other before marrying and don’t surrender to parental pressure to accept a man for his title or his wealth. She shows how women are abused in their marital life but she is clever enough not to describe women as only pure and innocent. She also pleads for women to be the master of their destiny. Helen makes her decisions herself and doesn’t complain about the consequences. She takes control of her life and she is a very modern woman. Anne Brontë’s novel is a cry for equality between men and women. A feminist novel.

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