'Agnes Grey'
-  A Brief Account  -
Agnes Grey is the story of a near nineteen-year-old girl who wishes to set out into the world, and make her own way as a governess - proving to her family that she is not the timid helpless being they believe her to be. She dreams of the great feeling of self-satisfaction she would gain from being entrusted with the care and education of children; and from the admiration and respect she would earn from both her charges and their parents. She eventually leaves home and embarks on her first venture when she becomes a live-in governess with the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House - many miles from her family home. Her dream becomes a nightmare when she finds herself faced with the most horrendous children one could imagine, they persistently disobey, defy, tease and torment her: she is not empowered to inflict any punishment, yet receives no support whatever from their parents, and is merely criticised by them for not being capable of her work. After failing to instil any significant education and behavioural improvement in the children over about a nine months period, Agnes is dismissed and finds herself back at home. She is not discouraged, and soon obtains herself a second post - this time some seventy miles away with the Murray family at Horton Lodge. Things start out much the same as they were at Wellwood House; however, with sheer determination, and the experience that she gradually gains, she begins to have more success; despite this, she continues to experience much loneliness and depression, being so far from her own home and family, and the fact that she is never accepted into the family circle of her employers. A new vicar, Edward Weston, arrives at the local church: he and Agnes gradually become acquainted, and she soon develops feelings of great respect for this new curate: before long, she falls in love with him. Her chances of happiness are almost spoiled for her by her two deceitful charges. On terminating her employment with the Murray family, Agnes joins her mother to help in running their own newly established school for girls in a seaside resort - which is based on Scarborough. The months pass by, and she has given up all hope of ever seeing Weston again, but has greatly underestimated the impression she had previously made on him. One day, while taking a solitary ramble along 'the sands', she is reunited with Weston, who has visited the resort in the hope of meeting her again. From here on, things, at last, take on a much happier course for Agnes.

Most of this novel is based on Anne's own experiences in her two posts as a governess: it is almost an auto-biography. Only names, and a small number of the facts and situations were changed. It was known that, shortly after Anne had commenced her employment at Thorp Green in 1840; William Weightman - Patrick Brontë's curate, and the man Anne is believed to have been in love with - was to leave Haworth to spend a period in Ripon, a small town not far from Thorp Green. Weightman certainly did leave Haworth for Ripon - and there spent some time while in the process of obtaining his ordination - he then moved on to his home town of Appleby for a holiday before returning to Haworth in September.93n  There can be little doubt that Anne would have dreamed of him arriving and taking up a ministerial post at Little Ouseburn Church - the church she attended while at Thorp Green: in her novel, Edward Weston arrives at the local church. The way in which Anne would have wished her own future to unfold was clearly projected into the concluding stages of her book, and this forms the only significantly fictional part of the story (though, even here, the locale descriptions of Scarborough are depicted with uncanny precision): Anne's hopes of romantic bliss had come to an end with the death of William Weightman in 1842, but she allowed her dream to come to fruition for Agnes Grey.

Tim Whittome also highlights this aspect of the novel, and identifies more of the similarities between Anne's and Agnes' situation:

'As for Agnes and Weston . . . you see, if Agnes is 22 when she leaves Horton, it would have made her the same age as Anne was in the autumn of 1842 when Weightman, her father's curate, died. Strange how Weston disappears for 9 months after Agnes goes to A---- (Scarborough) and then he suddenly re-appears in almost magic surreal circumstances on a beach. Isn't this the crux of the wish fulfilment in Agnes Grey? Agnes marries in an almost trance like state as if she's seen a ghost - all beautifully controlled by Anne, and then off she goes to be a mother, wife and loyal parson's wife as well. All very perfect, but, unfortunately, it was not Anne's life. Now, this is a quality that she shares with Charlotte. Both change the circumstances of their lives in their novels, but this ending in Agnes Grey tells us much about Anne's feelings for Weightman . . . Crucial things to look out for, are Agnes' age as against Anne's. Both are 'above 18' when they go out to work; both fail after nine months, and both try again after a gap of 6 months, but Agnes is 20 when she goes to Horton and Anne is also 20 when she goes to Thorp Green in May 1840. Nothing happens at Horton for 2 years - they are wiped out of the novel. This would thus bring things up to 1842 - the main battleground year for Anne emotionally. She loses Emily and Charlotte to Brussels, and then Weightman dies. Agnes nearly loses Weston, but Anne brings him back to life for Agnes; however, she cannot do the same for herself when Weightman dies in the autumn of 1842.

Anne 'hated her work but would pursue it' - these are Charlotte's words: if anybody believes this, they obviously haven't seriously read Anne's work for no-one could read the preface to the second edition of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of the most awesome defences of a novel in literature by an author, and possibly see Anne as a weak, timid, shy, always ill young girl. That's how Charlotte portrays her youngest sister, and I can recall almost steaming when I re-read those remarks after I had read the novel because they didn't add up at all to the experience of the reader.' 94

Weightman had reputedly been in love with, and hoped to marry, a lady called Agnes Walton from near his home town of Appleby: he wrote frequently to her from Haworth: and one wonders whether this was the reason Anne chose the name of 'Agnes' for her heroine - who was a representation of herself.

If the novel does have one failing, it is in the briefness of the love story, which is crammed into the last chapter. As it is based on the way Anne would have liked her own future to develop, and consequently the only section of the story that is largely fictional; this could well explain its brevity. Agnes Grey is a relatively short narrative, and one can only wonder what the result would have been, had Anne expanded the happenings of the final chapter to make the book into a more conventional length novel. It could well have shook Jane Eyre to its foundations.

Copyright © 1999 Michael Armitage
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