The generic governess tale, or “Agnes Grey” and its limits and gifts

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.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The generic governess tale, or “Agnes Grey” and its limits and gifts

  1. It is a novel of high value to graduate students writing about the figure of the governess in English fiction. What good it is for the rest of us, I do not know.

    You had a response very much like mine.

    • Hi, Tom. Yes, I am aware that it is often studied in graduate schools, but as you note, that may or may not be indicative of overall popularity. I liked it more, when all was said and done, than I expected to when I started it, because I was expecting some long-winded, excessively lengthy example of the same thing. But I think it’s rather a condensed version of the genre, and though I’m not an expert on the dates of such novels, I suspect that a number of later writers spent a lot of time and ink trying to imitate its gentle simplicity, and failed. Thanks for commenting.

  2. The excitingly named Tenant of Wildfell hall, that lines amused me muchly. I haven’t read that or Agnes Grey but I did read Wuthering Heights of which I was underwhelmed. I wonder if I am just not built for these types of books, by which I mean female authors from yonks ago, although i did enjoy Pride and Prejudice so perhaps there is hope for this uncouth reader.

    • The ideal situation that contemporary cultural critics are aiming for, of course, is just what Hilary Clinton said about 20 years ago: “Human rights issues are women’s issues, and women’s issues are human rights issues, and that’s final,” or words to that effect. “Agnes Grey” makes few protests about women’s issues overtly, but I hear that “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” shocked its readers because of doing just that: standing up for women’s rights. I would never call you an “uncouth” reader, but I would suggest that it might be easier to read “female authors from yonks ago” if you tried to see them just as authors, period, writing about people, period. (I’m on my soapbox now, can’t you tell?) As another great writer (Simone de Beauvoir) said, “Whenever women try to act like people, they get accused of trying to act like men.” There’s something to be said for that perspective, though I would never blame you for having a preference: after all, I don’t much care for “men’s” suspense novels (with certain exceptions), and Elmore Leonard and etc,, very popular with men, I understand. It’s probably a case of “to each his/her own, as long as he/she tries the other perspective from time to time, just to keep in touch with reality.”

      • I think female authors of the past (especially) are that well dissected that even without having read the books there is a certain knowledge of the subject matter which makes it difficult to go in cold but I am going to try and do just that with some Jane Austen soon. I think it is good to be ignorant wherever possible…in some cases. With the amount of diversity I pack into my library I will get into the zone one of these days.

  3. Wuthering Heights is a whole ‘nother can of dead rabbits.

    • When you say “dead rabbits,” are you humorously alluding to the old-style pregnancy tests, or something else? My main objection to some of the elements of “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre” is the degree of sadomasochism which seems to have to obtain between the author and the reader for the book to complete itself, just as it does as well in “The Unlit Lamp,” another classic of the women’s movement. Why, I ask, do some female authors have to prove their point about women’s suffering by crucifying their characters and their readers alike? Why so much trauma to make a point? Can’t a point sometimes be made with irony and wry, pointed humor as well? For myself, I read earlier authors out of a sense of wanting to be completely informed, but I much prefer what Fay Weldon (in the 1970’s and 1980’s) and Alice Munro (more recently) have done with the examination of sexual inequality, to name only two authors who have a flair both for humor and restraint, knowing when exaggeration of effect is welcome and precise, and when it is overdone.

    • “‘Ah, your favourites are among these?’ I continued, turning to an obscure
      cushion full of something like cats.

      ‘A strange choice of favourites!’ she observed scornfully.

      Unluckily, it was a heap of dead rabbits.” (Wuthering Heights, Ch. 2)

      Now I find that scene pretty funny! “something like cats”! But you are right, it is a novel about trauma, many different traumas, not, by any means, all suffered by women. Mostly not.

      I also find lots of irony in WH, mostly involving the nitwit narrator, as above, and the sly housekeeper who bamboozles him.

      The odd thing is that WH and Agnes Grey were sold as a set, as a three-volume novel, two volumes of WH and one of AG. Imagine the reader turning from the madness of WH to the drab Agnes Grey What a strange sensation that must have been.

      • Hi again, Tom. That “dead rabbit” quote just goes to show that you have read (or at least better remembered) “Wuthering Heights” more recently than I have. Though I take your point about the “nitwit narrator,” I tire of the pain suffered, and such irony as may be there isn’t enough to rid my memory of it. Also, when I say that there is a lot of trauma centered around the female characters, I stick to my point: yes, the men suffer too, but the way the women are forced to live, the daily conditions of their lives, are miserable, even when supposedly privileged. That the men suffer too is partly a side-effect of this, because they are therefore also limited in roles which preclude the freedom to in turn allow the women freedom. And in a book with a subtext related to the subject of freedom, they thus all become imprisoned. I’m interested to know about the publication history of WH and AG, but Charlotte Bronte seemed to consider herself and Emily to be the main writers of the family, and somewhat condescended to Anne’s talent. I don’t know whether Charlotte was the one who decided to put Emily and Anne in a three-volume set together, but she was a very dominant personality in the family, and I’m wondering about it now. Anyway, I think you have a very complex view of these works, and I’m impressed.

      • Yes, Wuthering Heights is a painful book.

        The story if publication is quite interesting. All three sisters wrote their first novels at the same time and sent them to publishers. A publisher took the novels of Emily and Anne (thus the three volume set), but nobody wanted The Professor (because it stinks).

        Charlotte responded to this failure by writing Jane Eyre in a blaze. She was able to sell that one easily. Meanwhile, the publisher of Emily and Anne had run into temporary money trouble, so their novels were not actually published until after Jane Eyre, which had been written later. Very odd. Then, sadly, the various deaths follow.

        Charlotte’s condescension is certainly evident in her heavy-handed editing of Emily’s posthumous poems. She ruined some of them. Luckily the manuscripts survived.

  4. Enjoy Jane Austen, Ste J! She’s a very witty author, and I think quite enjoyable.

  5. Hi again, Tom. I have a totally unprofessional and unsubstantiated psychologizing theory that the texts of Charlotte and Anne were so “churchy” and religious at times because they were the first and last children of the three, whereas the freer less preachy text of WH was partially related to Emily being the middle child of the three. I know there were other children (including their brother), but I just toy with this idea in my mind now and then….

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