Sunday, November 6, 2011

5. Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

As the daughter of a preacher, young Agnes Grey is excited to begin a position as a governess. She hopes to ease her family’s financial troubles after an disaster devastates their investments. Her enthusiasm and hopes for a great experience are dashed when she meets her new charges. They are rude, ill-mannered disobedient children whose mother expects Agnes to educate and reform without using discipline or denying her children’s every desire. Treated as a lowly servant, Agnes is miserable and when she finally disobeys her employers to protect an animal from torture, Agnes is dismissed. With her father’s health failing she accepts another position hoping for a better reception. Drama ensues with the new family, a romantic interest begins and Agnes must endure and maintain hope while observing the limits society places upon it’s women.

The first chapter made me curious: who was Agnes and what did she have to say. Then the circumstances she faced – loneliness, social isolation, separated from emotional support and courtesy and human understanding – made me wonder just why I was reading this at all.

By the end of the novel I better understood Anne Bronte’s purpose. Agnes Grey is a social commentary on the status of women in the mid-1800’s, told from a highly personal accounting.

The environment described is very foreign to me coming from today’s society…not the feelings, but the blatant actions and socially accepted abuse Agnes Grey suffers.

While reading the first several chapters, I was beginning to dislike Agnes very much as she held her tongue and accepted the abuse and advantage her employers and wards took of her. I understand that she could be fired for speaking up, but surely putting those ignorant aristocrats in their place, if only for a moment, would be worthy of the self-worth it would leave her with as she left. I was hoping for it almost as much as I was hoping to read about Agnes flipping them the bird or making raspberries as the Mistress of the house fluttered about.

About ¾ way through the novel I started to like her as she, at least within herself asserted herself with positive results. Agnes has a voice but as entrenched as she is in the Victorian female struggle, rarely uses it outside of her own thoughts. I could feel her rolling her eyes, in her mind of course, when her self-absorbed, spoiled charges opened their mouths.

As the story became less about the oppressive circumstances of a governess by self-satisfied, vulgar, small-minded snobs who delight in social pretension and more about the happiness that could be found, love, surrounded by people who know and show respect, joy for the work and building of something to call one’s own, I finally felt comfortable with the novel. Finally! Some hope! Life being lived not endured. In fact, I began reading with more eagerness to see Agnes come into her own happy life. Yes, I was rooting for those hints of a love story. Come on Agnes, we all know you like the pastor. Throw away convention and go TALK TO HIM!! You know you want to. Stop being so dang proper.

My favorite part of the novel is from a rather small plot line, but the sentiment perfectly explains what Agnes alludes to throughout the chapters. It is a speech given by Agnes’ mother, responding to her own father’s message. In it, he offers to forgive her marrying for love if she admits her mistake, regrets having her children (as their father was not wealthy), and condemns the marriage. He will try, though it may be impossible, to restore her to a “lady” and remember her daughters in his will. She tells him to go to hell, although in a much more elegant manner.

Once I became used to the style of 1850’s writing and checked my repulsion at the treatment of women and those of lower classes, I did enjoy the novel. As a statement about the social order of the day and the injustices it entailed the book succeeded in evoking a response. The strict morals Agnes holds herself to and tries, with best intentions, to evoke in others seemed overdone to me. At first. And while I do not agree with the extent of her self-sacrifice, it did remind me that I could do more for others. And don’t forget the cheering, often screaming-at-the-characters type of cheering, for Agnes to admit her love and for her man to get off his duff and GO GET HER!!

Book # 5 of my 50 book challenge

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