Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Agnes Grey - Revenge of the Governess!

I didn't know anything about Anne Bronte before reading Agnes Grey, except that she's the overlooked Bronte sister. But by the end of the book I figured she'd worked as a governess and that it had not gone well. This book might have given her a little power. On paper, she could enjoy some mastery - trotting them out, all the wealthy vulgar fools who spoil their children and mistreat their governess (a governess who, in the book at least, earns a happy ending to make up for all the unappreciated labor and neglect).

Agnes is a clergyman's younger daughter, and when her family falls into financial straits, she offers to work as a governess. Her older sister and parents doubt her and try to discourage her. She's the baby of the family and has led a sheltered life. She romanticizes the job, imagining that it involves a lot of gentle teaching and chiding and comforting.

In the first family she works for, she gets a bunch of unmanageable brats dumped on her. The parents offer her no support and blame her for the children's faults, so she's helpless in dealing with them. The second family that hires her gives her teenaged daughters to work with. There's little she can do to teach them. Outside the schoolroom, they sometimes spend time with her when they're out of other options. Otherwise, they ignore her. Neglect, loneliness, invisibility - Bronte writes these feelings confidently. The only upside to Agnes being ignored is that she enjoys a few opportunities to spend time with a local curate. She falls in love with him, and he's actually a decent man. (No Heathcliff here.)

The book suffers from some flat characterizations and lack of subtlety. Callous coquetry leads to misery, the rich are often poor role models, parents can be clueless about children's education, some clergy aren't properly Christian, and the meek shall inherit some happy corner of the earth - virtue eventually gets rewarded after suffering and tests of forbearance. Sometimes the book reads as if Bronte is sticking pins into voodoo dolls of her former employers and their brats.

But she understands powerlessness. She knows what it is to be miserable and forgotten, to have so much in you to share and no one to share it with. To feel yourself fading and hollowing out. And to want, to want something or someone badly, when so much is out of your control. When Agnes falls in love with Edward, what keeps them apart until the end aren't character defects but the fact that he's a poor curate, and she's a governess, and they can have a conversation now and then by pretending to bump into each other on a lane, but that's about it. Agnes struggles to be patient and resigned, while afraid that her one chance for happiness is slipping.

(This one was on my Classics Club list.)


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book.

I have not read this but I have heard a lot about it.

As you describe it, the loneliness and isolation depicted in the book sounds affecting. It seems like all of the Bronte's were able to tap into some of the darker aspects of life.

Lucy said...

It always amuses me in Jane Austen's novels the complete horror which becoming a governess seems to inspire in everyone - Jane Fairfax's enraged, sarcastic response comparing its miseries to that of the slave trade seems quite shocking and inappropriate. Mostly it seemed to be the indignity of having to earn one's own living at all, better a dreadful marriage, death in childbirth, whatever than suffer such loss of status. It seems odd to us, for whom economic independence through earning is much more admirable. But it must have been fairly dreadful sometimes too, even by the Brontes' time; I don't have the impression for them that working and teaching itself was so wholly undesirable, but governessing clearly carried the most indignity.

Have you read 'Villette'?

HKatz said...

@ Brian - thanks, and yes, she definitely digs into these feelings and unhappy conditions in life.

@ Lucy - towards the end of the book, Agnes and her mother open up their own school, and working there is better for her, so yes, it's not the teaching she minds (the school also lets them be their own masters).

I'm not sure she felt working as a governess was a great loss of social status in and of itself. Maybe if she'd been the daughter of a wealthy gentleman who'd fallen into financial troubles she would have considered it a great indignity - add to that, the possibility of the family who'd hired her going out of their way to treat her with contempt or similar to a "common servant." I think the main reason being a governess could be miserable was the treatment from the family, which sometimes reached levels of abusiveness/crime depending on where you worked. For Agnes it's about being treated like a non-entity, not worthy of much consideration and sympathy, and being overworked with little to no support (granted, this ties into social status, as she expected to be treated a little better given who she is and the nature of her work). Her teaching gets undermined, and she spends a lot of time trying to enforce a semblance of order and get by and cope with profound loneliness. Also, shaky financial security, the possibility of getting dismissed at any point even for unfair reasons, and little control over work conditions.

I haven't yet read Villette, but it's on my list.