Agnes Grey

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Agnes Grey
Agnes Grey.jpg
The first edition title page of Agnes Grey. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte took up the first two volumes of the edition.
AuthorAnne Brontë
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreVictorian literature
Publication date
December 1847
Followed byThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall
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Agnes Grey
Agnes Grey.jpg
The first edition title page of Agnes Grey. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte took up the first two volumes of the edition.
AuthorAnne Brontë
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreVictorian literature
Publication date
December 1847
Followed byThe Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Agnes Grey is the debut novel of English author Anne Brontë, first published in December 1847, and republished in a second edition in 1850.[1] The novel follows Agnes Grey, a governess, as she works in several bourgeois families. Scholarship and comments by Anne's sister Charlotte Brontë suggest the novel is largely based on Anne Brontë's own experiences as a governess for five years. Like her sister Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, it addresses what the precarious position of governess entailed and how it affected a young woman.

The choice of central character allows Anne to deal with issues of oppression and abuse of women and governesses, isolation and ideas of empathy. An additional theme is the fair treatment of animals. Agnes Grey also mimics some of the stylistic approaches of bildungsromans, employing ideas of personal growth and coming to age, but representing a character who in fact does not gain in virtue.

The Irish novelist George Moore praised Agnes Grey as "the most perfect prose narrative in English letters,"[2] and went so far as to compare Anne's prose to that of Jane Austen. Modern critics have made more subdued claims admiring Agnes Grey with a less overt praise of Brontë's work than Moore.

Background and publication[edit]

The genesis of Agnes Grey was attributed by Edward Chitham to the reflections on life found in Anne's diary of 31 July 1845.[3]

It is likely that Anne was the first of the Brontë sisters to write a work of prose for publication,[4] although Agnes Grey, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre were all published within the same year: 1847.[5]

The original edition of Agnes Grey, published in 1847, had numerous orthographic, punctuation, and other issues attributed to neglect by the publisher Newby. However, the second edition, published in 1850, had many changes after the careful editing of Charlotte Brontë.[1]


Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister of modest means. Mr. Grey decides to try to gain more wealth so as to give his wife somewhat of what she lost when she married him. But the merchant that he entrusts his money to, dies in a wreck, and Mr. Grey loses all the money he invested, plunging the Greys in debt.

Agnes, her sister, Mary, and their mother all try to keep expenses low and to bring in extra money, but Agnes is frustrated that everyone treats her like a child. To prove herself and to earn money, she is determined to get a position as a governess, teaching children of rich families. Eventually, she gets a recommendation for a good family, a position, and her parents' permission. With some misgivings, she travels to Wellwood house to work for the Bloomfield family.

The Bloomfield family is rich and is much crueller than Agnes has envisioned. Mrs. Bloomfield spoils her children while Mr. Bloomfield constantly finds fault with Agnes's work. The children are unruly and Agnes is given no authority over them so that she cannot control them. Tom, the oldest Bloomfield child, is actually abusive, but nothing Agnes can do can stop the boy from torturing small animals. In less than a year, Agnes is relieved of her position, since Mrs. Bloomfield thinks that her children are not learning fast enough. Agnes returns home.

She then goes home and begs her mother to help her find a new situation. She advertises, and is given a situation in a wealthy family – the Murrays. The two boys, John and Charles are both sent to school soon after her arrival, but Rosalie and Matilda are still on her hands. Matilda is a tomboy, prone to lying. Rosalie is a flirt. Both girls are selfish and sometimes unpleasant, and although Agnes's position is slightly better than it was at Wellwood house, she is still often ignored or used in the girls's schemes and games.

Agnes begins to visit an old woman, Nancy Brown, whose poor eyesight requires someone to aid her in reading the Bible; there Agnes meets the new parson, Mr. Edward Weston. They become friends, which is noticed by Rosalie Murray, who has by now entered into society and is a favourite with nearly all the men in the county.

Rosalie becomes engaged to Lord Ashby, a wealthy baronet from Ashby Park. She tells Agnes, but makes her promise to keep silent, as she is still going to flirt with other men before she is married. One day, she and Agnes go on a walk, and meets Mr. Weston. Rosalie begins to flirt with him, much to Agnes's chagrin, as she has formed an attachment to him.

Agnes receives a note from Mary, who has by now married to Mr. Richardson, a parson of a rectory near their home, saying that their father is dying, and begging for her to come. Agnes comes, and arrives just too late. After her father's funeral, Agnes opens a small school with her mother, leaving the Murrays and Mr. Weston.

She receives a letter from Rosalie who is very unhappy in her marriage, begging her to come for a visit. Agnes goes, and is shocked by the change in Rosalie from the merry, happy girl, to the faded, unhappy young woman. Rosalie confides in her and tells her that she despises Lord Ashby, and claims he only left London because he was jealous of all the gentlemen she was attracting. She also hears that Mr. Weston had left the area, and grieves, as she won’t be able to see him again.

Agnes leaves Ashby Park and goes back to her new home. The day after she arrives, she goes for a walk on the sea shore, when she runs into Mr. Weston, who had been looking for her since he went to the nearby parsonage.

He is introduced to Mrs. Grey, and they become good friends. Agnes finds her attraction to him growing, and is very happy to accept when he proposes. In the end, is very happy having married Edward Weston, and she has three children.



Agnes Grey has a very "perfect" and simple prose style which moves forward gently but does not produce a sense of monotony. Critics such as George Moore, suggest that Agnes Grey represents a style that "had all the qualities of Jane Austen and other qualities". Her style is both witty and apt for subtlety and irony.[6] Stevie Davies also points to the intellectual wit behind the text:

The genuineness of texture and dialogue in Agnes Grey is the product of minute observations, focused by a fine authorial irony and delicate power of understatement.[3]


Book cover

Cates Baldridge describes Agnes Grey as a novel which "takes great pains to announce itself as a bildungsroman" but in fact never allows its character to grow up or transform for ideological reasons.[7] Baldridge says that the early emphasis on the bourgeois upbringing of Agnes allows the presuppositions of the reader that the transformative bourgeois class will develop an ideal person of virtue. However, Agnes stalls in her development because of the corrupted nature of the household in which she is employed and the ineffectiveness of the moral transformation, become a static member of the bourgeois, ambivalent to the Victorian value of moral transformation in virtue.[7]

Autobiographical novel[edit]

Agnes Grey is also an autobiographical novel with strong parallels between its events and Anne's own life as a governess;[1] indeed, according to Charlotte Brontë, the story of Agnes largely stemmed from Anne's own experiences as a governess.[3] Like Agnes, "dear, gentle" Anne was the youngest child of a poor clergyman.[8] In April 1839, she took up a position as a governess with the Ingham family of Blake Hall, Mirfield, in Yorkshire, about 20 miles away from Haworth, to whom the Bloomfields bear some resemblance.[9] One of the most memorable scenes from the novel, in which Agnes kills a group of birds to save them from being tortured by Tom Bloomfield, was taken from an actual incident.[10] In December 1839, Anne, similarly to Agnes, was dismissed.[9]

Anne found a post at Thorp Green, Little Ouseburn, near York, around 70 miles away, just as Agnes' second position is further from home, with older pupils—Lydia Robinson, 15. Elizabeth, 13, and Mary, 12.[9] There was also a son, Edmund, who was eight when Anne began working there in the spring of 1840. Anne's brother Branwell became his tutor in January 1843.[9] The fictional Murrays of Horton Lodge echo the Robinsons; similarly to the "dashing" Mrs. Murray, who "certainly required neither rouge nor padding to add to her charms", Mrs. Lydia Robinson was a handsome woman of 40 when Anne came to Thorp Green.[9]

Stevie Davies remarks that Agnes Grey could likewise be called a "Protestant spiritual autobiography".[3] Firstly, the book retains a sober tone and Agnes also displays a very strong Puritan personality reflected in her name. Agnes is derived from the Greek for chaste, hagne, and Grey is commonly associated with "Quakers and quietists to express radical dissociation from gaudy worldiness".[3]

F.B. Pinion is of the opinion that Agnes Grey "is almost certainly a fictionalized adaptation of Passages in the Life of an Individual".[11] However, he also points to several sections that are "wholly fictitious":

the opening and Agnes's return home after failure in her first post; the love story which develops during her second period as a governess; the marriage and disillusionment of Rosalie Murray; and, above all, the happy ending.[11]


Social instruction[edit]

Throughout Agnes Grey, Agnes is able to return to her mother for instruction when the rest of her life becomes rough. F.B. Pinion identifies this impulse to return home with a desire in Anne to provide instruction for society. Pinion quotes Anne's belief that "All good histories contain instruction" when he makes this argument. He says that Anne felt that she could "Reveal life as it is...[so that] right and wrong will be clear in a discerning reader without sermonizing."[11] Her discussion of oppression of governesses, and in turn women, can be understood from this perspective.[11]


Events representative of cruel treatment of governesses and of women recur throughout Agnes Grey.[12] Additionally, Brontë depicts scenes of cruelty towards animals, as well as degrading treatment of Agnes. Parallels have been drawn between the oppression of these two groups—animals and females—that are "beneath" the upper class human male.[13] To Anne, the treatment of animals reflected on the character of the person.[11] This theme of oppression provided social commentary, likely based on Anne's experiences. Twenty years after its publication Lady Amberly commented that "I should like to give it to every family with a governess and shall read it through again when I have a governess to remind me to be human."[1]


Beyond the treatment of animals, Anne carefully describes the actions and expressions of animals. Stevies Davies observes that this acuity of examination along with the moral reflection on the treatment of animals suggests that, for Anne, "animals are fellow beings with an ethical claim on human protection."[3]


Agnes tries to impart in her charges the ability to empathise with others. This is especially evident in her conversations with Rosalie Murray, whose careless treatment of the men who love her upsets Agnes.[14]


Maria H. Frawley notes that Agnes is isolated from a young age. She comes from a "rural heritage" and her mother brings up her sister and herself away from society. Once Agnes has become a governess, she becomes more isolated by the large distance from her family and further alienation by her employers. Agnes does not resist the isolation, but instead uses the opportunity for self-study and personal development.[15]

Critical reception[edit]

Agnes Grey was popular during Anne Brontë's life, despite the belief of critics at the time that the novel was marred by 'coarseness' and 'vulgarity.' The novel lost some of its popularity after Brontë's death due to disfavour of its perceived moralising. There has, however, been a recent increase in examination by scholars of Agnes Grey and Anne Brontë herself.[16]

In Conversation in Ebury Street, the Irish novelist George Moore provides a commonly cited example of these newer reviews, overtly praising the style of Anne in the book. F.B. Pinion agreed to a large extent that Agnes Grey was quite a masterwork. However, Pinion felt that Moore's examination of the piece was a little extreme and his "preoccupation with style must have blinded him to the persistence of her moral purpose" of Agnes Grey.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Thomsan, Patricia (August 1990). "Review:Agnes Grey". The Review of English Studies. New Series (Oxford University Press) 41 (No. 163): 441–442. JSTOR 515755. 
  2. ^ The Literary Prowess of Anne Brontë (Derek Stanford)
  3. ^ a b c d e f Davies, Stevie (2002). "'Three distinct and unconnected tales': The Professor, Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights". In Heather Glen. The Cambridge Companion to The Brontës. Cambridge University Press. pp. 72–97. ISBN 0-521-77027-0. 
  4. ^ Craik, 203
  5. ^ Brontë, Anne (1847,1848,1954). "Anne Brontë"". In G.F.Maine. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Agnes Grey. Collins. 
  6. ^ Harrison and Stanford pp. 227–229
  7. ^ a b Baldridge, Cates (Winter 1993). ""Agnes Grey": Brontë's "Bildungsroman" That Isn't". The Journal of Narrative Technique (Journal of Narrative Theory) 23 (1): 31–45. JSTOR 30225374. 
  8. ^ Fraser, Rebecca (2008). Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life (2 ed.). 45 Wall Street, Suite 1021 New York, NY 10005: Pegasus Books LLC. p. 261. ISBN 978-1-933648-88-0. 
  9. ^ a b c d e White, Kathryn (1999). Introduction to Agnes Grey. Great Britain: Wordworth Editions Limited. ISBN 1-85326-216-1. 
  10. ^ Craik, 204
  11. ^ a b c d e f Pinion, F.B. (1975). "Agnes Grey". A Brontë Companion. New York: Barnes & Noble. pp. 236–242. ISBN 0-06-495737-3. 
  12. ^ Harrison and Stanford p. 222
  13. ^ Berg, Maggie (2002). "'Hapless Dependents': Women and Animals in Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey.". Studies in the Novel (EBSCO) 34 (2): 177. ISSN 0039-3827. 
  14. ^ Miele, Kathryn (March 2008). "Do Unto Others: Learning Empathy In Agnes Grey". Brontë Studies (EBSCO) 33. doi:10.1179/147489308X259569. ISSN 1474-8932. 
  15. ^ Frawley pp. 88–89
  16. ^ Nash, preface

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]