Thursday, April 01, 2010

Anne Brontë – ‘Agnes Grey’

Actually, it would be a shame not to say a little more about this, despite the kind of intermittent, protracted reading which would usually wipe most of the coherence from a book. It doesn’t seem to have affected Agnes Grey much, though. If Charlotte’s Shirley pulled out all the stops to get away from governesses, dependence, plainness and the straitened perspective of a single central character, this book does the opposite – in fact, it could be the archetype. The Professor’s gender-reversal, and the grand standing which accompanies this, make it a far more awkward appropriation of the materials to hand. It is more ambitious, it has a louder voice, but it fails to charm. Wuthering Heights’ brutality acts as the muddying factor in a genteel age. Agnes Grey, alone of the three Brontë novels offered for publication to Thomas Newby in 1847, is very obviously, unapologetically, the work of a woman; and one with distinctly homely instincts. Though there is wanderlust as well as utility in Agnes’ desire to leave home and work as a governess, and though her principles are strongly expressed throughout, there is no egotism in her character. Towards the end of the book when Mr Weston, the man she loves, finally meets her mother, she sits quietly, seeing no need to intrude on their easy conversation:
though I occasionally regretted my own deficiencies for his sake, it gave me very great pleasure to sit and hear the two beings I loved and honoured above everyone else in the world, discoursing together so amicably, so wisely, and so well. (p. 248)
Is Jane Eyre ever happy unless she has carried her point over Rochester? Agnes does not value argument as Jane does, she does not need to say something to appreciate it.

Which gives us a slim volume, often rather bald in the way it presents its events. The plot early on is episodic (doubtless the life of a governess would have been). It begins at her home, the Parsonage in an un-named seaside village, but quickly moves to the house of Agnes’ first employers, the Bloomfields. The children are spoilt and out of control, the parents give Agnes no support, the grandmother is devious. After a while, having made no headway, she gets the sack – and a quarter of the book has gone, before she has reached the scene of the book’s main action, in the employ of the shallow, stuck up Murray family. The Bloomfields are never referred to again. The Murray children are older and not quite as bad as their predecessors – they become manageable, at least, after the son has been sent away to school. For a while the story sticks with the conditions of the tuition, and with Agnes’ treatment by her employers and their circle (they are uniformly condescending, when they notice her at all). She is present in her own narrative only as a resisting force, until about half way through the novel, when she begins to have feelings for Mr Weston, a curate. What precedes this is probably the longest stretch of romance-free plotting in a Brontë novel – and it does very well without that focus. By the end of the book, these feelings have come to dominate, but never quite in the obsessive way that you find with other Brontë heroines. The strength of Agnes’ feelings is not in doubt, but she doesn’t expect her hopes to be fulfilled, and rarely becomes bitter (her self-denying nature and understated Christian faith are at play here). The quietly lyrical chapter ‘The Sands’ is correspondingly touching: it’s just a walk, just a chance meeting. But if it wasn’t meant to be, God would have had a reason for that too: Agnes’ language can be archaic and prim, her moralising often lacks nuance. But I didn’t mind any of that: I liked her.

Some more quotations:
I observed that while Mrs Murray was so extremely solicitous for the comfort and happiness of her children, and continually talking about it, she never once mentioned mine, and I an alien among strangers; and I did not yet know enough of the world, not to be considerably surprised at this anomaly. (p. 121)

‘The best of happiness,’ replied he, ‘is mine already... the power and the will to be useful.’ (p. 165, Mr Weston’s philosophy)

Love! I detest the word! as applied to one of our sex, I think it a perfect insult! a preference I might acknowledge; but never for one like poor Mr Hatfield, who has not seven hundred a year to bless himself with. (p. 172, Rosalie Murray is the speaker)

our wishes are like tinder: the flint and steel of circumstances are continually striking out sparks, which vanish immediately, unless they chance to fall upon the tinder of our wishes; then, they instantly ignite, and the flame of hope is kindled in a moment. (p. 210)

No comments:

Blog Archive