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Monday, April 7, 2014

Anne Bronte: The Relentless Agnes Grey

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

The author standing in the garden of
Haworth Parsonage, where Anne Bronte lived.

In Anne Bronte's novel Agnes Grey, we meet a young woman who grows up in the home of an English priest.  Her father earns little money, and although her mother came from a wealthy family, they severed all ties when she married for love over wealth and status.  While her mother seems happy enough on their limited income, her father seeks ways to make up some of what she gave up. As a final stab at wealth, he invests all their savings in a sea trading expedition. This seems like a sure thing, and the family begins to dream of what they’ll do with the additional income. But then the ship is lost at sea, leaving the family bereft of all hopes of improvement, and saddled with debt.

The family institutes austerity measures. Everyday measures of economy, such as meal portions and candle usage, are further constrained. Her mother and older sister take on what additional jobs they can, and concoct schemes to generate what little they can to survive. Young Agnes wishes to aid their efforts, or help more around the house, but all her offers are repulsed. “No,” they tell her kindly, “you’ll just get under our feet,” or, “That’s kind of you dear, but we’ll manage.” They might as well say, “Just grab your toys and go out and play,” even though she’s educated and eighteen years old. Her parents view her older sister as an adult, but somehow they still see her as a child, and Agnes fears that they always will. So, as a means of earning their respect, empowering herself, and repaying them for all the kindness and love they invested in her, she wonders how she might give back.

Ultimately, she latches onto the idea of becoming a governess. Yes! She will seek out a position with a rich family, and help care for and educate their children. They will value her for her intellect, her capabilities, her wisdom, and the values she instills in their sons and daughters. Her family doesn’t embrace this idea as heartily as Agnes, but she pursues it nonetheless. Eventually, despite her family’s (particularly her mother’s) uneasiness, she accepts a position with the Bloomfield family.

At first, the children seem delightful, and the parents respectable, if reserved. But as she gets to know them better, she realizes that the children are cruel, that they delight in foiling her at every turn, that they truly seek to make her life a misery. The son even derives pleasure from torturing birds and animals. Nor will the parents allow her to discipline the children, or take any firm measures that could enhance her authority over them. They expect results, but they refuse to give her the requisite power to achieve them. So, although her situation might be different than at home, she once again finds herself powerless.

Only now, she’s also lonely, and yearning for home. But she refuses to admit defeat. Recognizing that no venture is without cost, she stays on plan, and continues working toward her goals.  She doesn’t know if she can succeed, but as a model for us all, she vows to try her best, every single day.

But then, we'd expect nothing less of a heroine.

Dragon Dave

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