by Anne Brontë
The youngest of the three literary Brontë sisters lived only 29 years (1820-1849) before succumbing to tuberculosis, a family tradition that had already claimed all but one of her five siblings. Besides a good deal of poetry, Anne Brontë wrote two novels: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
—shocking in its time for its unflinching depiction of a woman fleeing her abusive drunk of a husband and making a new life for herself and her child, in defiance of the day's social conventions and marriage laws—and this. Agnes Grey
, her first novel, is almost completely autobiographical and reveals some of the intense feelings and difficult experiences its gentle young author had coped with during several years of working as a governess.
The reality of what Anne lived through was probably even more painful than what befalls the fictitious Agnes. Though her career as a governess was more successful than those of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, like Agnes, Anne was held accountable for the behavior of her unruly young charges without being given the authority to discipline them. If at times the book comes across as a Methodist religious tract, it may be because in real life, the author underwent deep spiritual struggles and maintained her noted calm only by the strength of her faith. Saddest of all, the young curate (assistant pastor) with whom Agnes finally finds love and happiness is, most likely, based on a real-life curate for whom Anne cherished a secret love, but who died before his time.
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë each submitted their first novels for publication at the same time. Emily's one and only novel became a literary classic. Charlotte's first of what would eventually be four completed novels did not see daylight until after its author's death, though the follow-up Jane Eyre immediately established her as the greatest of the sister authors. By comparison, Agnes Grey enjoyed modest success; and though Anne's second novel was a smash hit, surviving sister Charlotte forbade it to be reprinted during her lifetime. And so Anne Brontë has languished somewhat in the shadow of her more accomplished siblings. Nevertheless, Anne's reputation is making a comeback as the equal of Emily and Charlotte, and even this book—though very simple, direct, and untroubled by the emotional turbulence of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights—is now recognized as one of the classic English novels. It has the attractive virtue of lying lightly in the hands, being easy and quick to read. The audio-book version in which I experienced it required only six CDs: the equivalent of a couple of days' commute and a comfortable evening listening at home.
And while I'm not a Methodist and could have done without the passages of thinly veiled polemic, I enjoyed Anne's story. I found the heroine admirable, and the author even more so, because neither of them has the fault of saying aloud (or claiming to have said) everything she thought of saying whether at the time or later. Agnes, and I take it Anne also, was rather the type of young lady who held her tongue when she knew that saying what was in her mind would do no good. Perhaps this makes the book a let-down for readers in search of finger-snapping, histrionic tellings-off and scenes of operatic melodrama. No opera will ever be made from this book, soap or otherwise. But you come to the end of Agnes Grey's gentle adventure feeling kindly toward her, because she has been so kind, and sighing with satisfaction because (even if only in fantasy) it has ended as happily for her as she deserves. And you appreciate the wisdom in her particular happiness because she admits, more than the average novel heroine does, that she and her loved ones will face change, and age, and death, and grief in the future... but they are prepared to meet it all.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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