Tuesday, 26 January 2016

2016 Classics Challenge: Agnes Grey

Originally published in 1847 by Thomas Cautley Newby

My edition: the free Kindle edition because I can't find a single paperback edition that’s actually nice… 

WHEN I Discovered This Classic
The lovely Lucy from Queen of Contemporary read it early in 2015 and fell in love with it so much she was shouting from the rooftops!

WHY I Chose to Read It
I read my first Brontë novels last year – Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre – so I decided it's only fair to give Anne a shot as well. I also decided to go with a shorter one to start off the year.

WHAT Makes It a Classic
Anne’s a Brontë! Though The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is Anne’s most famous novel (while still largely ignored in comparison to her sisters’ more famous works), Agnes Grey is her debut and was actually published in the same year as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

WHAT I Thought of This Classic
Agnes Grey tells the story of Agnes as she leaves her family home at 18 to become a governess. Her family is low on money after a failed investment and she wants to help, against her parents’ wishes. Agnes finds herself thrown into families of higher class who ignore, indulge and exacerbate the bad behaviour of her charges. Charlotte Brontë’s notes on the novel tell us that Agnes’s story stemmed from Anne’s own experiences as a governess.

Agnes Grey is a quiet novel. The story is simple and straightforward, the writing immediately engaging and the heroine pious and good. There are none of the Romantic high dramatics, Byronic heroes or catastrophic traumas of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. And part of me thinks that is exactly why I enjoyed reading it so much. It was nice to get a realistic glimpse into the working class life of a minister’s daughter. Admittedly, Agnes’s piousness could be a little too saccharine for me, but I instantly liked her and I championed her from start to finish. She's determined and refuses to break even under abuse from her charges, pressure from her employers and her homesickness. She keeps going and she doesn’t even really whine about it, even though she’s writing about her adventures. Agnes is very aware of her readers and I noticed her saying variations of “I will not inflict upon my readers…” something that she had thought or experienced. It was really interesting and reflected her character perfectly.

From the off, Agnes’ charges are her opposites. The Bloomfield’s children are spoilt, rude and terribly behaved and Agnes is given no authority over them and so they continue to refuse teaching. After only a year Agnes moves on to the Murrays. Once the boys are sent off to school for being so resistant, Agnes is left with Matilda and Rosalie. Matilda is a tomboy, intent on hunting with her father and learning as little as possible. Rosalie is clever and condescending, being openly rude to the poorer people of her town and not realising that could be offensive. But her worst offence, by far, is getting the men the men to fall in love with and then fobbing them off, all for her amusement.

This causes some serious heartache for Agnes as one of Rosalie’s target is the new parson, Mr Weston, who Agnes came to respect from his sermons and came to love for his goodness, gentleness and friendliness to her in a place where she is so ignored and isolated. This love story was an unexpected one as I hadn’t even heard of there being a love interest for Agnes in Agnes Grey, but I loved it. It’s quiet and unobtrusive and features none of the dramatics or traumatic misunderstandings that are a focus in lots of other Victorian novels. Honestly, I was shipping them from when Mr Weston picked the violets for her. So very sweet! I really liked how their romance built and concluded; it actually made me think of Austen a little which is always a wonderful thing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Agnes Grey and it was so refreshing for a classic classic to be so effortless to read! Rather than intimidated by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Bronte’s only other novel), I’m excited. Bring. It. On.

WILL It Stay a Classic
Yes, but I think only because she's a Brontë. That’s in no way a reflection of her writing or the quality of Agnes Grey, but because of the way that Anne is already pushed to the sidelines in favour of her sisters. I really hope that with the 200th birthday of Charlotte coming up this April, Anne will also get her chance in the spotlight she deserves.

WHO I’d Recommend it To
- Someone scared of classics: it’s quick, easy to get into and the prose and plot are straightforward.
- Those interested in everyday working class Victorian life.
- Fans of Jane Austen.


1 comment:

  1. Loved reading this post, though you had far more tolerance for Agnes than I did. Oh my goodness I couldn't stand her after fifty pages - she was so nauseatingly nice! Give me Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw or Lucy Snow any day. Have you read Charlotte Bronte's Vilette or Shirley yet? They are really different from Jane Eyre, but both great novels in their way. Vilette is quite dark and disturbing, whereas Shirley is much happier and gentler.


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