Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte, should be required reading for all Ofsted inspectors and college administrators masquerading as learning observers, also desirable reading for trainee teachers (although perhaps not, as there were be fewer teachers completing training than ever!)
Agnes Grey is a fascinating primary source for Victorian lifestyles and education. Not a bodice-ripper like Anne Bronte’s other work, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey toddles along in an understated British way for all of its 251 pages, but it is definitely a literary work, establishing Anne as an author in her own right, without needing to hang on to the shawls of her more famous sisters. It was (until now) the only Bronte novel I hadn’t read.
Anne herself regarded Agnes Grey as a campaigning novel, to increase awareness (to use a modern phrase) of the plight of governesses and, to an extent, this novel is autobiographical, drawing heavily on her experiences of being a governess in two distinct households. Agnes’ two jobs are, firstly, with very young children at the Broomfield household, and, secondly, with teenagers with the Murray household. As a teacher myself, I found her accounts of managing children illuminating:
- The Broomfield are unspeakably badly behaved, refusing to study and randomly killing and tormenting wild animals. The Broomfield parents, who dish out severe punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, get the children to do as they were told, but they can’t understand why they wouldn’t respect Agnes, who isn’t allowed to discipline them at all.
- At the Murrays, the mother
was partly aware of her deficiencies, and gave me many a lecture as to how I should try to form tastes, and endeavour to rouse and cherish her dormant vanity… Without the least exertion to herself…. Nothing can be taught to any purpose without some little exertion on the part of the learner.
- Matilda Murray also swears terribly and her response to Agnes’ telling off is ‘Oh, Miss Grey, how shocked you are! I’m so glad!’ Also ‘I can’t help it…’ How many times did I hear that at the college where I used to work? What’s wrong with… the four-letter word beginning with f? Would you speak like that to your mother? Yeah, she says it to me. A lot of Matilda’s problem is that she’s mad on horses – like her father who also swears. We are not told what swear words Matilda uses; this shocked writer from Haworth Parsonage can’t bear to write them down.
- John Murray’s ignorance of Latin will be attributed to his education being entrusted to Agnes, an ‘Ignorant female teacher’… when he goes away to school.
- At ten years old, Charles Murray cannot ‘read the easiest line in the simplest book’. And we worry about poor literacy nowadays?
- ‘He took no pains to avoid mistakes (in maths) but set down his figures at random without any calculation at all.’ Yep. And that was even before the days of calculators and spreadsheets.
- Home-schooling is also nothing new. Mothers who can’t afford governesses are expected to educate their own children. I believe that Mrs Bennett educated her five daughters in Pride and Prejudice. (Amazing that Jane and Elizabeth turned out as well as they did!)
All that this part of the novel lacked was Ofsted. At least Agnes didn’t have to complete endless risk assessments every time she took a walk outside with her pupils and fill in endless forms about safeguarding, Prevent and Equality and Diversity. Later on Agnes runs a small school with her mother, who has no prior teaching experience, but friends recommend their daughters to them and they get along fine.
Other insights include:
- In Yorkshire, in the 1840s, you have a coal fire even in summer.
- As in Jane Austen everyone discusses their income quite freely and without embarrassment. Mr Weston earns £300 per annum as a rector.
- Travel takes a long time in those days, even when it is possible to do part of the journey by train.
The characters of the children and the parents are hammed up by Anne, in a Dickensian sort of way, but they speak loudly from the page. Agnes herself is a lens through which we saw everyone else. She is very Grey, timid, , but the reader appreciates how her experiences of being a governess, at best overlooked and regarded as a dogsbody, and without anyone with whom she can talk freely, effects Agnes’ confidence, to the extent that, when she meets a man she likes, she cannot respond with any warmth. The storyline (hardly a plot) is the weakest point, as the love story which
drives the second part does not feature at all in the first half of the book. There is definitely a lack of balance. The style is unhurried, with lots of very Victorian descriptions of scenery and what Agnes is thinking, including lots of genuinely-felt religious reasoning, which, if published today, would firmly put Agnes Grey in the pile of ‘Christian fiction’.
This novel, one of only two by the youngest of the Bronte sisters, was first published in 1847 and printed by Spottiswode & Co Ltd, Printers, London. Colchester and Eton… as it says at the end of my Kindle edition. Agnes Grey is available from Amazon. Being over a hundred year’s old, it was free.