Posted by: Jeanie F | April 9, 2011

Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

One thing I think we can all be grateful for is that we weren’t born female in early Victorian England. The other thing we can be grateful for is that the lives and rights of women at that time were so restricted as to provide great subjects for the Brontë sisters. Of course I read Charlette’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights years ago, but with the new movie version of Jane Eyre out in theaters, I decided to read something by sister Anne. Anne Brontë died at age 28, so there weren’t too many choices: Agnes Grey, her autobiographical first novel, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I decided on Agnes Grey.

Agnes’s parents married under a bit of a dark star: although deeply in love, Mrs. Grey came from a wealthy family who objected to her marriage to a lowly rector. Mrs. Grey’s father disinherited her, but the Reverend and Mrs. Grey were able to get by and raise their family fairly comfortably on the small income generated by land owned by the Reverend. This, of course, does not make for a very engaging plot – happy marriage, well-loved, healthy children, adequate income,  so this family had to – and did – fall upon hard times. To help the family finances, Agnes decided to take one of the few avenues available to well-bred girls and hire herself out as a governess. The bulk of this novel deals with the trials and tribulations that arose from that decision.

Poor Agnes had truly terrible luck with employers and their offspring. Anyone who complains about the way children behave today, or the way their parents coddle them, should open a copy of Agnes Grey. They’ll find that things haven’t really changed all that much. The first home in which she works is the Bloomfields, where she is put in charge of three perfectly awful children. Agnes is given responsibility with no authority over these three, and when she unable to make them either learn or behave, she is dismissed.

You would think this was enough to make her consider another line of work, but there weren’t many options available to her, so she puts herself out for hire once again. This time she ends up at the Murrays, where she is put in charge of two older girls – one vain and insipid, the other “outdoorsy” and uninterested in learning. However, it is an improvement over the Bloomfields, and Agnes stays on to see the girls grown.

Because this is a Brontë novel there is, of course, a thwarted romance, impoverishment, illness and death, all followed by a happy ending. The novel tends toward lengthy exposition on manners, morals, religion, etc. which drags it down and, I must admit, I skimmed in many places. Still, it was an interesting look at what life for Anne Brontë must have been like and, I suspect, far more realistic than the novels of her sisters.

I understand that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne’s better work. Brontë scholars postulate that had she lived, Anne would have been the best writer and most successful of the three, so I may just give Tenant a try.

Grade: C


  1. I purchased this last week and am really excited to read it. I have read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, so I thought that it was time to read something of Anne’s. I hope to read all of their books one day – and learn a lot more about them as well

  2. Becky, I’ll look forward to hearing what you think about Agnes!

  3. I read them all years ago, along with Wilkie Collins and quite a few others. I liked Tenant then, but who knows if it will hold up in the cold light of 2011. Maybe it’s time to give it another read. I will if you will, Jeanie.

    • Sheri, you’re on! I LOVED Woman in White and would gladly read that one again – or, as I said in my post, I’d read Tenant. You choose!

  4. Both. July. You and I, J. How fun!

    • You’re on! In fact, I’m putting it on my calendar so I don’t forget. Which one first?

      • Well, you’ve already read Agnes Grey, so let’s go with Woman in White first. And since you’ve given me a two book assignment, I’ll add Collins’ Moonstone as well. As I recall, that was one fun read. There. I have put this dark secret on the internet for all to read. I LOVE this genre–or once did. This is gonna be interesting to revisit.

      • Now I’m confused. I thought we were reading Woman in White OR Tenant. But you’re reading Agnes Grey? I’ve read Moonstone – don’t particularly want to read it again, but am happy to read Woman in White AND Tenant. Please clarify!

      • Sorry to be unclear. You convinced ME to reread Agnes Grey. WE are going to start with Woman in White, then go to Tenant. Unless you’d prefer to stay with Anne Bronte, in which case we can start with Tenant, by all means. Makes no difference to me. If I manage to start before July, I’ll send up a warning, hee hee.

      • Woman in White and then Tenant it is! We’ll have to plan our own book club meetings for two to discuss – maybe somewhere with good mojitas!

      • It’s a date. Mojita-me, I’m IN.

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