Never having read anything by Anne Brontë before, I decided to hold off on the excitingly named The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and go for the more quietly named Agnes Grey. My decision was affected partially by the thought that “wildfell” sounded like more “wuthering,” or “heights,” and misery, and romantic passion, and though I’ve since been informed that the tale of the tenant is not what I’m expecting (about that more another time), I stuck with my decision and started reading.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised is saying too much, but at the same time I wasn’t appalled; I was instead nonplussed. I found Agnes Grey slight, short, and simple. There were no overwhelming highs and lows of emotional resonance as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It was actually a competent and unsurprising tale of a vicar’s-daughter-turned-governess-eventually-makes-good (by the oldest–or second oldest–“trick” in the book, the first supposedly being prostitution, which of course can’t be mentioned in the same breath with churchy mid-19th century marriage).
And yet, the book has appeal, in spite of the fact that there is little or no let-up from the trials of teaching bad-mannered and spoiled upper-class children, no break to the virtuous sermonizings on Fate (herein known as “God’s will”) in which the heroine indulges at the least opportunity. She is too good, like many a religiously inclined governess in similar novels, but for some reason, though a little missish from time to time, she is not boring. Maybe it’s the repetitive instances of words in narrative and especially in dialogue which are either capitalized or italicized to indicate emphasis: when they are those of others, they are those most often of outrageous remarks made to or near the heroine; even more, when they are hers, we sense a sort of youthful eye-rolling. “Can you believe this?” she seems to be saying. A technique like this, which we would censure as puerile in a contemporary author, thus becomes a bit appealing in this otherwise sometimes prosy young writer.
And this is the thing to remember about her: though we learn by reading that she was exceedingly precocious, she had a youthful high spirit, and was not inexperienced in terms of what she was writing about. She was a governess for six years herself, and her character of Agnes Grey thus owes something to her own experience. It’s not too far to assume that there are aspects of wish fulfillment in Agnes’s eventual destiny and the book’s happy ending. Yet this book should not lead anyone to underestimate the youngest Brontë, who was a poet and a novelist (under the pen name of “Acton Bell”) though she was dead at the age of twenty-nine of what Wikipedia calls pulmonary tuberculosis. Her fame today, though it is derived from her entire body of work, is largely endebted to the book which shocked her contemporaries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and once again, more about that another time). Still, the gentle, sweet tenor of Agnes Grey, wherein doing one’s duty and maintaining a hopeful demeanor in the face of all adversity brings eventual reward is a reward in itself as a reading experience–and the adversity is not of that ilk which tortures the reader’s sensibilities in the apparent belief that a catharsis can be forced. As a steady diet, Agneses might be a bit tame, but then, there’s no danger of that: there’s only one Agnes Grey.