My favourite classic novelist is by far Anne Brontë, even though she only wrote two books, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey. The Tenant is indeed my all-time favourite, so when my book club proposed Agnes Grey, I knew it was time to revisit this one as well - last time I read it I was still a young adult (*aah*)
Even from the first pages, Anne's writing style is evident - describing in all honesty what each situation entails, especially if it's bound to be uncomfortable (for the time in question). It is exactly what I long to read in a book: great use of language and great, multi-faceted storyline.
Agnes Grey also has the bonus of dealing with a subject that was prone to misinterpretation, the job of a governess. Agnes looks forward to the life of being a governess, only to find out that she's actually less than a servant - the children treat her like a toy:
"I must run, walk, or stand, exactly as it suited their fancy"
for someone who has proved educational qualifications, this must be the utmost disgrace, to be acknowledged neither by parents nor by pupils:
"... there are few situations more harassing than that wherein, however you may long for success, however you may labour to fulfil your duty, your efforts are baffled and set at nought by those beneath you (the pupils) and unjustly censured and misjudged by those above (the parents)"
Anne Brontë develops all characters in this book to the minutest detail so that she will explain and demonstrate how the various elements, however insignificant they may seem, contribute to the storyline. When little Tom prides himself in front of his siblings that he will torture the birds found in a nest, "his face is twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight" - what dark pleasure for such a young child. But what is the reaction of the mother? the poor creatures "were all created for our convenience". I can not only imagine the scene, but I can also feel the coldness in the atmosphere and poison oozing from everywhere!
Agnes, just as Anne, are daughters of clergymen, with the result that much of their upbringing relates to Christian beliefs. This is in stark contrast with the pupils both have had to face as governesses: "to submit and oblige was the governess's part, to consult their own pleasure was that of the pupils". The pupils are almost always of a specific social status, that entitles them to mingle with the "right" kind of people and to "flirt" with the wrong kind. Such is the case with Rosalie, the eldest of Agnes's pupils, who is set to marry someone with great affluence. Her mother sees to this, as well as to make certain that Agnes should not forget that "it is not proper for a young lady of her rank and prospects to be wandering about herself in that manner", i.e. mingling with people beneath her class.
Agnes throughout her stay, becomes stoic, trying to remain faithful to her own beliefs, help the pupils as much as she could, help other - poor - people in their needs, and, slowly, fall in love with the curator. Mr. Weston is rapidly gaining the admiration of Rosalie as well, however, and here again we get a vivid description of all the mischiefs caused just to be able to claim yet another victim of one's irresistible beauty. At this point, I was really impressed by how boring that particular class must have been - especially the women of that time, as they were not allowed any interests that might have improved their standing...
The end is as close to reality as can be: Rosalie does indeed marry Sir Thomas Ashby only to discover that she despises her husband, that she cannot see herself caring for her child and finding it hard to reconcile with her mother-in-law. Now that she has settled for a nun's life, she longs for her maiden years. Agnes, on the contrary, will eventually marry Mr. Weston, and have a family life that, despite their own trials, is amply sufficient: "... by never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves". I could actually suggest this to a lot of people in our days!
The only "flaw" I would say I found in this book is Agnes herself. She remains exactly the same throughout the story, never evolving - which is a pity, because she demonstrates all the abilities for breaking barriers. Other than that, this book provides ample evidence of a great writer in the making. I'm glad I re-read this classic!
Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge