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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey & Fanny Price

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

A side chapel in Haworth Parish Church,
where Anne Bronte worshipped.

As I read Agnes Grey, I couldn’t help comparing it to Jane Austen’s novels. In particular, it reminded me of young Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park. Like Fanny, Agnes quietly gets on with the job, and never seeks the limelight. She knows what is right, and never swerves from her code of ethics. She holds out hope that she will achieve what she desires, even though she knows the odds are against her. Aware of the limitations imposed on her by society, she nonetheless does what she can for others. Her circle of influence may be small, but those within it gradually realize her worth, and by the end of each novel, both women achieve their heart’s desire.

(Spoiler Alert: If you plan to read either of these novels soon, you should stop reading now!)

In Mansfield Park, the love of Fanny’s life is none other than her cousin Edmund, with whom she has grown up, and in whose household she lives. Edmund falls in love with another woman over the course of the novel, but ultimately realizes that Fanny is the woman he loves most. They marry, and he becomes the local parish priest.

In Agnes Grey, the title character meets a young curate named Edward. Unlike the rector he serves, Edward preaches messages of substance, and always looks for ways to help the poor in his community. Agnes finds strength and encouragement in his sermons, and meets him during his rounds, when she is utilizing what little free time she has to help out some poor acquaintances. While it’s clear that Edward likes her, the young woman under her tutelage, Rosalie, grows jealous of the attention her governess receives, and embarks on a campaign to win the curate’s affections. But Edward, like Agnes, is firmly grounded in his principles. Events separate the two, and they lose contact for some time, but in the end, they recognize their mutual affection, marry, and embark together on their happily-ever-after.

As much as I enjoyed Mansfield Park, Pride And Prejudice offers more to the average reader, works on a number of levels, and justifiably deserves more praise. Similarly, when comparing the two novels, Agnes Grey never approaches the greatness of Wuthering Heights. Yet with its simple structure and style, we emerge with a satisfactory understanding of who Agnes is, what matters to her, and the society she inhabits. The novel doesn’t read like a fictionalized memoir, but as a tale in its own right.  And unlike Anne’s own life, which (like her sister Emily) ended in illness at a young age, we get to see Agnes amply rewarded for all the trials and tribulations she endured. 

If Agnes Grey can only labeled a classic because of Anne’s association with her sisters, then I’m grateful for that association. As with Jane Austen's novel Mansfield Park, sometimes it's nice to see the more sedate, less sensational stories win through and achieve immortality. Unlike all the countless stories that are destined to be forgotten, I’m glad this one is still remembered. Not because Agnes Grey was great, but because it was good. Really good. Not perfect, not spectacular, not thrilling. Just a nice, relaxing, straightforward, easy read. Sometimes, I need that. Perhaps, every once in a while, you do too.

Dragon Dave

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