Likely Stories: Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

Dec 28, 2017

Interesting and powerful novel of the youngest of the Brontë sisters.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Part Two of my journey through all the novels by the Brontë sisters – Ann, Emily, and Charlotte – continues with Agnes Grey, the first of Anne’s two novels.  She was born January 17, 1820.  She spent most of her life with her family at the parish church of Haworth on the Yorkshire moors.  Anne was a governess from 1839 to 1845.  She published Agnes Grey 1847.  Anne died May 28, 1849.

She drew on her experiences at Haworth and as a governess in writing this novel.  The first paragraph sets forth her ideas on writing.  She wrote, “All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity that the dry shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.  Whether this be the case with my history or not, I am hardly competent to judge; I sometimes think it might prove useful to some, and entertaining to others, but the world may judge for itself: shielded by my own obscurity, and by the lapse of years, and a few fictitious names, I do not fear to venture, and will candidly lay before the public what I would not disclose to the most intimate friend” (1).  Every time I delve into one of the Brontës, I cannot help but hear their voices—soft, gentle, erudite—as I imagine them to have been.

It was frequently the case in those days, for a writer to be at the mercy of typesetters.  In a letter to her publisher, she wrote, “There are numerous literal errors, and the text of Agnes Grey is marred by various peculiarities of punctuation, especially in the use of commas (some of these, however, may be authorial)” (xi).  She began revising the text, and a copy of the third volume has “some 121 revisions made in pencil in her hand, many of them involving quite significant substantive alterations” (xi). 

Anne’s novel is considered quite an achievement.  As the novel proceeds, she becomes more confident.  Here is a conversation between Anne and Rosalie: “‘If you mean Mr. Weston to be one of your victims,’ said I, with affected indifference, ‘you will have to make such overtures yourself, that you will find it difficult to draw back when he asks you to fulfil the expectations you have raised’ // [Anne’s reply] ‘I don’t suppose he will ask me to marry him—nor should I desire it … that would be rather too much presumption!  But I intend him to feel my power—he has felt it already, indeed—but he shall acknowledge it too; and what visionary hopes he may have, he must keep to himself, and only amuse me with the result of them—for a time’” (xii).

As the Introduction to my paperback copy points out, “Agnes Grey is undoubtedly in many ways a deeply personal novel’ (xii).  “Charlotte Brontë described the work as ‘the mirror of the mind of the writer” (xii-xiii).  One of the things that Anne emphasized in her novels, comes right out of her experiences as a governess.  The treatment of these young women was nothing less than atrocious.  Agnes Grey speaks with the authority of experience.  In addition, her moral and religious sensibilities are evident throughout the novel.

I hope this taste of a fantastically talented young writer will inspire you to snuggle up with Anne Brontë and delve into Agnes Grey.  All you need is a cup of tea, some patience, and the reward is a thoroughly satisfying icture of young women in England of the 1840s.  5 stars!

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!