My discovery of this novel and indeed Anne Bronte herself, was a chance recommendation on Twitter .Ann Bronte is the often forgotten youngest Bronte sister , sadly only living long enough to write two published novels “Agnes Grey “ and “ The Tenant of Wildfell hall “, Anne died of TB at the age of 29.
The novel in many ways is part fiction and part autobiography. Both Agnes and Anne were clergymen’s daughters, both suffer financial hardship in early life. Both are forced into one of the few employment opportunities available to women of their class, governess. The novel tells the story of the realities of that life. As it’s written from the perspective of the servant not the employer, it details how hard the life, with none of the usual cultural romanticism of the role. Of the many well observed hardships of the role, the loneliness and isolation are well expressed. Grey narrates how the role of governess falls between two well defined classes, the lower servant class and the upper classes who employ them. Inherent in the transactional relationship is that governesses know what it is to be a lady, the transmission of this artefact is after all what they are employed to do. But they are not treated as equals by their employers and are often equally shunned or even dismissed by the domestic servants , making for a very lonely life .
Whilst the Austin’s tell the story of women of their class , ornamental , decorative women , whose existence is focussed on their relationship to men , the Bronte’s women characters , whilst observing 19th century literary conventions , go beyond the traditional love story as sole narrative.
There are many examples within Agnes Grey that put it outside the realms of the conventional 19th century romance novel. Overt philosophical themes played out through the central character of Agnes and her response to those around her.
Having been bought up as a clergyman’s daughter, it is perhaps unsurprising that her interpretations of Christian theology would influence her work, what is surprising for the time, is her philosophical conclusions. The first being her clear attitudes of being anti animal cruelty. At the time of her writing, England was clearly a country dominated by Christian ideology , the issue of Christians attitude towards animals , was at best ambiguous .I can’t help but be reminded of my own childhood experience of attitudes towards animals in my 1960s Catholic primary school. I recall finding myself talking about heaven and how lovely it would be with my granny’s dog and my hamster when my teacher retorted, there are no animals in heaven, they do not have souls. It was probably at that moment that my six-year-old self did a mental eye rolling, really shift, that was probably the beginning of the end of my religious faith.
Is it possible that Anne was influenced by the work of the Reverend Arthur Broome who founded the RSPCA in 1824? Clearly, she wasn’t alone in her theological conclusions that if god created animals, then they were worthy of respect.
Anne details numerous accounts of the children she cares for casually torturing animals, which she is determined to educate them against. As their general behaviour towards their fellow human beings is equally repugnant , its hard to be clear if the examples of their animal cruelty are a statement specifically about their relationship to animals , or that in their narcissistic self -obsession their behaviour towards anyone else apart from themselves is characterised by a complete lack of empathy and inhumanity.
The book is littered with critics of the prevailing class system and overall there is a strong sense that those who have the most power, control, influence and material wealth are the least deserving of it .Again, her clear critic of injustice and moral wrong is put in the context of the church’s support for this unjust system of privilege . in discussing her contempt for the rector’s sermons she outlines his habits of preaching the duty of reverence and obedience to clergy , “the reprehensible presumption of individuals who attempted to think for themselves in matters concerned with religion” and “ the necessity of deferential obedience from poor to rich “
The book is littered with examples of the differential relationships between rich and poor, but also examples of the prevailing Christian moral culture that prescribed it was the riches duty to do charity work for the poor. The poor become merely a pawn in the game , the victims of the both the riches exploitation and fundamental indifference to them but also as recipients of reluctant acts of charity , committed not through a desire to see the poor having better quality of life , but for desire to secure a place in heaven through good , charitable deeds . Nearly 200 years on this underlying, often subtle, attitude to the poor still pervades our political system. Giving us the spectacle of Tory MPS who voted for cuts in welfare to the poor, extolling the virtues of food banks and their moral goodness in supporting them.
I have no idea if Anne Bronte had read Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the rights of women” but her own ideas are clearly shaped by Mary’s emphasis on the importance of education for girls. Both Anne in her novel and Mary in philosophical treatise paint a picture of the sheer vacuousness and ornamentalsim that women are reduced to , for want of an education that actually stretches their mind , and society that values their opinions , beyond dress and appearance.
Through her character Agnes, Anne explores the reality of women being judged so much not just for their physical attributes, but by their clothes. Of course, this isn’t just a judgement about women, it’s a judgement on class. Over 120 years on, not only are women judged by their physical appearance, if anything more so, but they are still judged by their clothes. Whilst its easy to believe that mass produced cheap fashion has democratised women’s clothes choices, the reality is that wealth and status is just as much, if not more apparent in what we wear.
The novel follows the conventional format of love interest and happy closure. It made me sad to think that the future life of happiness that Anne was able to give to her heroine Agnes, was cruelly denied to herself by her untimely death.
Even though it follows this conventional path , Anne cleverly uses fictional narrative to express both deeply philosophical and politically and socially radical ideas and it is this that secures both its enjoyability and relevance into the 21st century .