Agnes Grey has all the features of the first book of a gifted writer. The topic is not particularly ambitious, but every description is just a little unnecessarily colourful.
The book is narrated by the heroine of the title, who, in order to help her family in financially difficult times, seeks out positions as a governess despite a sheltered upbringing. The children of both families with whom she resides are unrelentingly cruel, wilful and generally shocking.
The writing seems a little stilted, amateurish – whether this is deliberate in an attempt to lend authenticity to young Agnes’ voice, or inadvertent, it makes the book difficult to get into (not unlike Northanger Abbey). There is a strong tinge of social commentary throughout, which I rather enjoyed – it is more skilfully crafted in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, but it is still convincing and thought-provoking here, and still applicable today, with mentions of what an author is willing to put in the public domain (Facebook? Blogging? Thought so) and familial tensions. Not having read much 19th century literature, I don’t know whether the relative poverty conveyed is a rare topic, but given her ground-breaking choices in TToWH, it wouldn’t surprise me. The behaviour of the children reminded me very much of the behaviour of a young Helen Keller in a favourite book of mine, Helen Keller’s Teacher.
The criticism of the writing is by no means all-encompassing; Brontë has a magnificent turn of phrase when she cares to use it. Words like “proxility” and “colloquy” and the simple emotions conveyed with “she would rather live in a cottage with Richard Grey than in a palace with any other man in the world” show the class and style I had expected from Agnes after TToWH.
Crucially, the novel has a spectacular ending: “And now I think I have said sufficient.” And so have I.
Reviews from other bloggers: The Captive Reader