Cookie Warning

Warning: This blog may contain cookies. Just as cookies fresh out of the oven may burn your mouth, electronic cookies can harm your computer. Visit all kitchens and blogs (yes, including this one) with care.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey the Adventurer

The second in a three-part series on this English literary classic

The sanctuary of Haworth Parish Church,
where Anne's father Patrick preached for 41 years.

Literary critics, and even her sister Charlotte, have suggested that Agnes Grey is a fictionalized account of Anne’s own life. If so, it serves as a powerful repudiation of the Victorian aristocracy, who educated their children at home, or sent them off to boarding school. In the novel, Agnes learns that the most important trait for a governess is to be obliging. Thus (perhaps without even realizing it), rich parents empower their children to rule their governesses, and dictate their every movement. Of course, when the children do wrong, and fail to develop the desired skills and temperament, the parents blame the governess. Agnes becomes the Victorian equivalent of the Roman body slave, constantly at the children’s beck and call, yet invisible to the rest of society. By the way the parents and children treat her, her fellow household servants disrespect her, assigning her the lowest rank in the household. While Agnes finds it a lonely life, she has little time to contemplate it, as her charges constantly keep her busy.

Nevertheless, an irony runs through this literary classic. Agnes may not have stepped into the position of power and authority she sought, but she gets to do all the little things her mother and sister would never allow her to do at home. She gets to clean up after her students, write the poems and essays her students refuse to write, and draw or paint the pictures her charges would rather not do themselves. With her thrifty lifestyle, she saves enough of her salary to earn financial independence from her family. Near the end of the novel, when her father dies, and her older sister has married, it is Agnes her mother approaches, and wants as a partner in the school she wishes to run. Her mother now sees Agnes as an adult, and capable of doing everything she can do, which is what started Agnes off on this journey to begin with.

Some view Anne as the least talented of her sisters, and her works classics only due to the family association. Having just read two Bronte novels, I cannot make such a judgment. I certainly found her first novel more straightforward than her sister Emily’s sole novel. But after Wuthering Heights, I wanted something simpler and easier to read, and Agnes Grey fit the bill. Not only that, but as it is told from the protagonist’s perspective, I constantly knew where I was at all time. Seeing the world through Agnes’ eyes helped me better understand her, the role of a governess, the conditions of the poor, the manner in which different levels of society interacted, and the conceits and schemes that permeated Victorian aristocracy. And unlike in Wuthering Heights, where the drama is confined to isolated moors and manor houses, Agnes Grey travels, sees the world, and interacts with others beyond her family and employers.

It might be going too far to call Agnes an adventurer, but unlike any of the female characters in Wuthering Heights, she ventures alone to distant places (at least distant in her day). While her employers naturally limit her schedule and actions, she never grows mesmerized by a man, or allows herself to be drawn into an abusive situation. Nor does she ever need to be cosseted or provided for. She yearns to stand on her own two feet, and does so. If Agnes character and actions resemble those of Anne herself, then the authors seems as worthy of praise as the novels she wrote: someone with whom modern women can identity and respect. Still, if Robert E. Howard had written the novel, we might have seen a much bolder version of the character adapted for comic books. 

Presenting Red Agnes, Adventuring Governess with a Sword!

"Excuse me?" Red Agnes slammed her gauntleted hand on the wooden desk, making little Tom Bloomfield shake. "You don't wish to study?" she hissed. 

He shook his head frantically as her eyes burned into his very soul. 

"By Mitra," she cried, "return to your books, dog, or feel my steel!"

The boy shrieked, and fled through the house. Hot on his heels, Red Agnes pursued him into the garden. Whipping out her sword, she...

Sure, that might be going too far, at least for diehard Bronte fans. But wouldn't that make a great comic book?

Dragon Dave

No comments:

Post a Comment