London, Penguin, 1994, 302p
When it has been some time since I last read a book, I often find I cannot fully remember the plot, but I remember the impression it left upon me. This is the case with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which I must have enjoyed as I think of so fondly. However, this is my first reading of Agnes Grey.
This novel, Anne's first, is based on her experiences as a governess. As her family has so little money, Agnes volunteers to leave home and take a position tutoring two young children in a stately home. Although doted upon by their mother, the children are unruly and tempestuous, causing mayhem in their classroom and nursery, refusing to listen to her lessons. In her next position, she is governess to two slightly older girls, who are spoilt and thoughtless.
The novel explores class conflict, explored through the way in which Agnes is neglected and mistreated by her employers. In the first instance, the young children manipulate and terrorise, which reminded me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The parents look down upon Agnes as their inferior. She is a well-educated young lady, but her poverty and dependence sets her in a difficult position.
I found myself unable to really like Agnes. I sympathised with her situation, becoming angry at the way she was treated, but I also found her too pious and miserable. Of course, her position renders her unable to dispute her employers, but I found her continuing complaints infuriating. And later, when a love interest was introduced, her pining and longing engendered her insipid. She is a very religious character - a product of her time - and tends to depend upon God for justification and validation.
Having read a good deal of nineteenth century literature, she is one of the weakest protagonists I have met. I had longed for a strong and hardy woman, who remains self-assured in the face of poverty, like Margaret Hale (North & South), Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) or Helen Graham (Wildfell Hall).