Classic of the Month: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

This was my neighborhood book club’s selection for January – a good excuse to also use it for relaunching my Classic of the Month feature. It was 22 months ago (how?!) that I featured Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my monthly classic; ever since, I’ve meant to read Anne’s only other novel, Agnes Grey (1847). I’ve now read all the Brontë sisters’ works apart from Shirley, an obscure one by Charlotte. I’d recommend Agnes Grey as a short, accessible classic that echoes Jane Austen with its realistic picture of money/class and romance in nineteenth-century England.

The first-person narrative tells the highly autobiographical tale of a young woman who becomes a governess to support her impoverished family. Agnes is the daughter of a clergyman who makes a poor investment and loses everything, then falls ill. Her sister Mary can make money from her paintings, but with no particular skills and no other choice Agnes sets out to be a governess, first for the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House. The master is exacting and difficult to please, and her four charges are all unruly and obstinate. Worst of all is Tom, who seems almost autistic – he goes into rages and has to be held to calm him down. But the way Agnes writes about these children, it’s as if she thinks they’re not just naughty, but evil. Tom’s wanton cruelty to animals is wielded as a surefire sign of his badness.

It was originally published under a male pseudonym and tacked onto Wuthering Heights. TC Newby, 1847 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s a very moral book in general. Some book club folk even called it “Puritanical” for the way it dwells on goodness versus selfishness. When Agnes imagines how her pupils might describe her in the future, she concludes (speaking of herself), “she was always thinking of what was right and what was wrong, and had a strange reverence for matters connected with religion.” Unlike Jane Eyre, though, Agnes does little to stand up for herself in situations of injustice. For instance, when the Bloomfields put their children’s misbehavior down to Agnes’s lack of fitness for the role and dismiss her before a year has passed, she simply tries again, and soon finds a new governess position with the Murrays of Horton Lodge.

Here her main charge is the vain, supercilious teenager Rosalie, who, once she realizes Agnes admires the curate, Edward Weston, sets about sidelining Agnes and making him fall for her instead. Agnes is up front with the reader about her feelings for Weston, as in the chapter entitled “Confessions,” and she understands what’s going on with Rosalie’s scheming, but does nothing to combat it, just meekly steps back and lets things play out. Only internally does she allow herself to cry out at the unfairness of it all: “I have lived nearly three-and-twenty years, and I have suffered much, and tasted little pleasure yet: is it likely my life all through will be so clouded?” The Brontës all led fairly sad and small lives. Without giving specific spoilers, I’ll say that Agnes Grey gives Anne the happy ending she didn’t get in life.

Anne Brontë c. 1834, painted by Patrick Branwell Brontë [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (restored version).

The whole book club enjoyed this one. We talked a lot about the choices the middle class would have had in those days, and how difficult life was for women who weren’t of the servant class yet didn’t have the family money to ensure their comfort. We found the first-person voice immediately engaging, especially with the occasional confiding asides to the reader, and the style is easier than what you get from a lot of the Victorian classics.

My rating:


Next month: Doing double duty as my classic and doorstopper will be East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I’m doing as a buddy read with my mother – we’ll exchange thoughts via e-mail.

14 responses

  1. I read through all the Brontes’ novels when I was a teenager, but only ever got on with Charlotte. Shirley is not her best, but given how long bits of it have stayed with me, I’d say it’s worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. PS I also like the fact that, when she wrote it, Shirley was not a female name and so her heroine being called Shirley was quite transgressive, whereas nowadays it just reminds me of my grandma!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Good to know. I do own a copy, but have never made it a priority. Anne is my second favourite after Charlotte 😉 Wuthering Heights? Meh!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Totally agree 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a good introduction to Anne’s work – I’ve never read her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! My copy is just 219 pages.


  3. Oh good. I’m glad you’re OK with not liking Wuthering Heights. I’m not clear why it has such a passionate following. Especially, apparently, among the Japanese.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read it 14 years ago and have wondered if I’d get more out of it on a re-read … but I’m not keen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve also thought about re-reading Wuthering Heights since the last time I read it was in high school. But I don’t know…


  4. From the painting Patrick made of Anne, it wouldn’t seem he liked her very much. 🙂

    Did Anne write about the children being evil in a funny way or is she serious about it?


    1. All the sisters look pretty awful in the couple of paintings of them he did!

      I’d say she was serious about the children being inherently bad. It’s not a tolerant, “oh aren’t they naughty?” sort of attitude, but throwing her hands up because they just can’t be improved in any way.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Well, the one boy did torture animals, so … definitely evil! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds really frustrating! I hate reading about cruelty to animals and I definitely prefer a heroine who will stand up for themselves.


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