Anne Brontë started writing her first novel some time between 1840 and 1845 while she was working as a governess for the Robinson family, at Thorp Green near York. I imagine she must have made her excuses in the evenings, and escaped the drawing room, where she had to do the boring bits of her pupils’ sewing, and often felt awkward and humiliated – excluded from the conversation because she was not considered a lady, yet not allowed to sit with the servants either, because governesses had to be something of a lady, or how could they teach their pupils to be ladies?
Anne must have stolen away to her room and pulled out her small, portable writing desk. Leaning on the desk’s writing slope (which was decadently lined in pink velvet), Anne could go on with her novel. She had to write in secret because she was skewering her haughty employers and her peremptory pupils on the page. Although her job was difficult and thankless, she had realised that it was providing her with excellent material, that she was telling a story no one else was telling. As she laboured away in her neat, elegant handwriting, Anne must have felt that she was writing a novel that would go off like a bomb.
Agnes Grey sticks close to the facts of Anne’s life. The eponymous heroine is a clergyman’s daughter, just as Anne’s father, Patrick Brontë, was the perpetual curate of Haworth in Yorkshire. Anne doesn’t specify where Agnes grows up, but she does say she was “born and nurtured among ... rugged hills”, so when I read the novel, I imagine the Yorkshire moors. Both Anne and Agnes were originally one of six children. Anne lost her two eldest sisters when she was five. Agnes has lost even more siblings; she and her older sister Mary are the only two who have “survived the perils of infancy”. Both Agnes and Anne are the youngest. When Agnes says she is frustrated because she is “always regarded as the child, and the pet of the family”, considered “too helpless and dependent – too unfit for buffeting with the cares and turmoils of life”, it feels like Anne talking. She always chafed at being patronised.
Anne grew up poor. Agnes’s family are not rich to begin with, but things really get desperate when her father Richard loses their meagre savings on a dodgy investment and slumps into depression. So the women take over. Agnes’s capable, enterprising mother Alice slashes their expenses. Then they start working out how they might make more money. Mary goes for the most genteel work she can find: she starts selling her watercolours. Agnes turns to one of the only other jobs open to middle-class women: she decides to become a governess. Her family scoff that she’s much too young, but she persuades them. She arrives at her first job, with the Bloomfield family (in real life, they were the Inghams), feeling a “rebellious flutter” of excitement. But instead of an adventure, Agnes gets a crash course in how cruel the world can be, and how it got that way.
One of Agnes’s pupils, Tom Bloomfield, enjoys torturing birds. One day his vile uncle, who encourages Tom’s cruelty, gives him a nest of baby birds. When Agnes sees him “laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it with his legs wide apart, his hands thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight” and he won’t be reasoned with, something rises within her. She grabs a large flat stone and crushes the birds flat.
This brutal mercy killing is almost too violent to read. Agnes Grey’s first critics thought it went too far, but Anne insisted that “Agnes Grey was accused of extravagant overcolouring in those very parts that were carefully copied from life, with a most scrupulous avoidance of all exaggeration”. And when the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell asked Anne’s sister Charlotte if the scene with the nestlings had really happened, Charlotte replied that no one who had not been a governess really knew the dark side of so-called respectable human nature.
Anne was after more than shock value; she wanted to show that Tom’s cruelty was sanctioned, even encouraged, by his family. Agnes realises that Tom’s cruelty is all of a piece; whether he is torturing birds, hitting his sisters or kicking his governess, he wants to “persecute the lower creation”, because he sees women, girls and defenceless animals as his to exploit, abuse and oppress. After months of being wrongfooted, slighted, dissatisfied, bored, overworked, underpaid and out of her depth – Agnes Grey is brilliant on the peculiar horrors of a first job – Agnes has started to understand how the world works. Her consciousness has been raised. And then she is fired.
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