“Agnes Grey” by Anne Bronte is a strongly autobiographical novel portraying the world of a governess in the mid-nineteen century and examining social manners and the lack of moral perceptions. Drawing on her own experience the author of this book tries to reveal the position of a young, educated girl who sets out into the world to take up the only respectable career open to her – that of governess. As a result, she is forced to confront repellent cruelty, materialism annnd other social ills. Such fundamentals of this impressive narrative prose suggest the reader the most important theme of the novel – the intricate world of a governess in the mid-nineteenth century.
The narrator, Agnes Grey, is the youngest daughter of a poor north country clergyman. She and her sister Mary are brought up in a strict seclusion and are educated at home by their highly accomplished mother. However, after a disastrous financial speculation, the family becomes impoverished. Agnes concerned for her faaamily’s financial welfare and eager to expand her horizons, sets out into the world and makes her own way as a governess. She embarks on her venture with optimistic enthusiasm and faith of being successful. However, her dreams turn out tooo be a nightmare when she becomes a live-in governess with the Bloomfield family at Wellwood House, and is forced to live a spiritually miserable life, as well as to be the witness of low moral perceptions of distinct people.
First of all, she faces up the most unruly children one can imagine: “.they knew no shame; they scorned no authority <.> had no hearts.” (Bronte, 1998, p.39) Master Tom Bloomfield, Mary Ann and Fanny persistently disobey, defy, tease and torment their teacher. Moreover, Agnes is not empowered to inflict any punishment; her only weapons were “Patience, Firmness, and Perseverance” (Bronte, 1998, p. 22)
Children’s behavior with other people, especially with the inexperienced young governess, and morality in the novel can be indicated by thhheir treatment of animals: “Sometimes I give them to the cat; <.> I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast them alive.” (Bronte, 1998, p.17) Such appalling cruelty to animals which is displayed by the eldest child Tom, the violent little monster, is not forbidden by parents. Moreover, he is even encouraged by grown-ups, and this even hardens the protagonist’s situation. First of all, no attention is paid by his father who has the riiight to inflict a punishment for such cruelty towards animals: “.he never blames me for it: he says it is just what he used to do when he was a boy” (Bronte, 1998, p. 17) As a result, we see a father who implants hi son wicked things instead of espousing genuine kindness and other social and moral values.
Nevertheless, the mother, Mrs. Bloomfield, takes an exceedingly important role in the moral and social education of her children. However, she is careless, tries to be uninvolved to the educational matters and even makes the protagonist suffer a lack of support in disciplinary matters. She only espoused the idea that children need to feel convenient and have amusements: “. you should think it necessary to interfere with Master Bloomfield’s amusements.” (Bronte, 1998, p. 38) Instead of a kind warm-hearted matron, Mrs. Bloomfield can be identified as an unreasonable, cold, grave and forbidding woman espousing hardships on the governess.
Furthermore, the narrator calls attention to Uncle Robson, a regular family visitor, who expresses his approval in wicked things: “. he laughed, and said I was a fine boy” (Bronte, 1998, p.17). If not actually praising, he encourages the violent boy by laughing at his deeds. In other words, he little knows the injury he does to the nephew by making pleasant jests of his faults. Additionally, he teaches Tom to imitate him in using alcohol to the utmost of this ability: “.the more wine and spirits he could take, and the better he liked them, the more he manifested bold and manly spirit and rose superior to his sisters” (Bronte, 1998, p. 36) By such means Master Tom Bloomfield is inflicted to devote to the sinister world. In order to this, Agnes Grey gets no support either from parents or from other relatives, and finds it extremely difficult to achieve improvements in educational attainments and manners: “.the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable <.> that my efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.” (Bronte, 1998, p.23) Work under such conditions proves to be a great trial; she is deprived of kindness and surrounded by brutal hostility. As a result, her enthusiasm swiftly extinguishes as she struggles and tries to root out al the evil from the children.
Anne Bronte also calls attention to the governess’s duties in the family. She is impoverished by doing things that do not belong to the duties of a governess: “.I have ordered her crib to be placed in your room <.> to overlook her washing and dressing, and take charge of her clothes.” (Bronte, 1998, p. 15) Instead of having some spare time, the protagonist is involved in all the matters that concern children. In other words, Miss Grey was equal with her charges in birth, manners and education, but inferior to them in worldly wealth. Consequently, she is forced to lead a life of social starvation and frustrations.
Further evidence of the hardships imposed on Agnes Grey is due to her gender. It is well illustrated through the treatment she receives from males in the Bloomfield’s family. While employed with the family, Uncle Robson treats the governess as if she is invisible: “He seldom deigned to notice me; and, when he did, it was with a certain supercilious insolence of tone.” (Bronte, 1998, p.35) Consequently, the protagonist states her dissatisfaction with such disregard and describes the regular visitor as “the scorner of the female sex” (Bronte, 1998, p. 35)
What is more, even the young Tom is supposed to supervise and dominate Agnes. The boy views his position as one of authority over Miss Grey, no matter that she is his teacher. Consequently, she is forced to suffer disregard and emotional isolation that makes her life even more miserable.
Going deeper into the novel, we find the protagonist dismissed by the indulgent parents after less than a year on the grounds that the kids have failed to improve in either educational attainments or manners: “.the children had made so little improvement since my arrival, that Mr. Bloomfield and she felt it their duty to seek some other mode of instruction.” (Bronte, 1998, p. 39) As kids grow wilder and disobedient, the parents are upset with Agnes – in their eyes it is of course the governess’s fault. This also resembles one of the injustices of the governess’s position; she was the only person to be blamed and criticized for not being capable of her work.
However, Agnes refuses to give up. She searches and obtains herself another post of a governess some seventy five miles away with the Murray family at Horton Lodge. This time she teaches two young girls, Rosalie and Matilda Murray, aged sixteen and fourteen. Unfortunately, things start out much the same as at Wellwood House, although with sheer determination, and the experience that she gradually gains, Miss Grey begins to have more success. This is mainly because the girls are older and a little better behaved.
Nevertheless, the governess faces up many hardships and obstacles of a different nature. First of all, it is a family for whom social values are more important than moral ones. One of the characters espousing such ideals of life is Rosalie, a selfish beauty who is only waiting for her “coming out” ball to start breaking men’s hearts.