A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is my third go at pulling a book off my Shelf of Shame. I found my choices for Shelf of Shame 1 and 2 challenging and exhilarating: I had no idea of the excitement I would feel at the passion and relevance of Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier until I finally read it; and in the case of Mrs Dalloway, my joy at finally cracking what I had thought was some sort of impenetrable code still remains with me.
My latest choice, Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey, has moved me in a much quieter way, but possibly no less deeply. It is indeed a disgrace that I had not read it before, and that I had neglected Anne Bronte for the more over-wrought charms of her two sisters. Compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey is altogether more piano. It may suffer in readers’ minds by comparison for its lack of doomed love, angst, pathetic fallacy and the supernatural. Its mood is much calmer, its style is documentary and its prose more gentle and elegant, but its passion runs just as deep in its own way. It is a page-turner, and a slow-burner. I read the novel, it did not take me much time, I wondered what there might possibly be to say about it – and then I found it stayed with me, came back to me, made me think about its themes for days afterwards (to the time of writing, in fact).
I was half-listening today (while driving) to Radio 4’s Open Book – the topic of discussion was the contemporary rise of ‘Auto-fiction’ (the ‘Knausgaard Effect’, typified by his Boyhood’s Island), the current taste for and success of fiction that is firmly, even minutely grounded in the life of the writer, and treats personal experience to the techniques of fiction (I hope I have got that right); the argument was that this is leading to a current neglect of ‘social’ fiction. With Agnes Grey in my head I could not help thinking that the example of Anne Bronte shows that the two do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that made me think anew about what I had found to value in this novel. The action and characters of Agnes Grey are strongly autobiographical, drawn from Anne’s own experience as a governess in two differently but equally oppressive households.
The fictional Agnes, the sheltered younger daughter of a clergyman who has lost his personal fortune, attempts to support her family by insisting on taking a post as a governess. The first family she goes to, the Bloomfields of Wellwood, consists of self-regarding parents and spoilt children. The account of Agnes’s attempts to mend the behaviour and moral compass of her charges is heart-rending, particularly her struggle with the headstrong and indulged son Tom. In a short time she is dismissed by the father of the family, who has failed to support her in any endeavour, for her failure to do the impossible with these wild children. She returns home defeated, but is determined to try again. The members of her second household, the Murrays, are less savage, but still present a challenge to Agnes to guide and educate the spoilt young daughters of the house (fortunately for Agnes the sons are not in her charge). Again, Agnes can only try steadfastly to influence her pupils, but mostly in vain because of her inferior position in their world which means she cannot truly curb the elder daughter’s duplicity, nor the younger daughter’s hoydenish ways. Her place in this household is more secure, though, and her engagement lasts until the elder daughter is on the brink of a rich but loveless marriage – having heedlessly done what she can to undermine Agnes’s own chance of happiness. Her father’s death finally brings Agnes home again, then to move away with her mother whose plan is to open a school. Her life takes more than one turn for the better, and there is a happy ending for her
The obvious and major theme of Agnes Grey is the paucity of roles for educated women who need to support themselves, leading to the oppression of the governess in families whose moral values are derived from ambition and class-consciousness. Anne Bronte’s calm, limpid style gives this theme far more light and air in this novel than in Jane Eyre. She obliquely invites the reader to peal back the layers of this theme, to reflect on these matters of class and gender roles in particular; on failure in moral example and poor and neglectful parenting. Her critique of the formation of boys into men in this society is quietly devastating. As is another surprisingly strong theme: in contrast to her sisters’ romantic attachment to the dramatic powers of nature and the landscape, Anne’s inspiration from nature is expressed in a steadfast love of all animals, and the portrayal of the moral degradation of the novel’s characters not just in their treatment of their fellow humans, but in their cruelty to and neglect of God’s creatures, wild or domestic. There is no wild rhetoric or polemic here – just a steady belief suffusing the narrative that all creatures deserve love and compassion. This theme in the novel crept up on me unawares, and I found it very moving.
So – no wild revelations this time, no technical challenges, just the discovery of a novel that stole up on me, that gave me much pleasure to read through its quietly skilful prose, and a great deal to think about. All that, and the renewed realisation that there are three Bronte sisters, and that I’d let Anne slip out of my ken while distracted by the louder enticements of Charlotte and Emily. Thank you once more, Shelf of Shame, I shall be using your services again some time!
Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey. First published (by “Acton Bell”) 1847.
Numerous editions are available, in print or ebook format.