A wealthy and feted woman falls in love with a humble clergyman, and insists on marrying him, although it loses her her dowry. The vicar cannot stop tormenting himself over all his wife gave up, to the extent that he loses what little money he has in a too-bold investment. As gentleborn, well-educated, penniless women, there are few options left for his daughters; the older takes up selling delicate watercolors, while the younger, Agnes, hires herself out as a governess. The first family she works for is terrible; she is not allowed to discipline the children, and every adult around them seems bent on ruining them. It is here that Agnes's true strength of character is revealed. Rather than allow a little boy from torturing a nest of baby birds to death, she squashes them flat. When his uncle says he will find the boy another nest to "play" with, she calmly informs him that if he does, she will kill them too. She is hard as nails. I was glad to read this interlude, because for the vast majority of the book Agnes is silent and seemingly submissive, and only her internal narration reveals her stubborn, judgmental piety. As a governess, she is never in a situation where she can reveal her true feelings, or even effect much change. She cannot discipline or reward her students with anything but her own approval or disapproval--no matter how often she thinks about how helpful a good beating would be.
The second family is more interesting, and drawn with slightly more nuanced strokes. Agnes is to polish two young ladies: Rosalie, who is beautiful but shallow, and her sister Matilda, who is boisterous and careless. It is the same basic idea as in Villette
, where the poor, plain, virtuous narrator is contrasted with a vivacious, wealthy, thoughtless blonde. Both women are attracted to the kind and virtuous Mr.Weston. In Villete, the rivalry was complicated by the warmth and friendship between the two women; this is largely absent from Agnes Grey
, to the book's detriment. Agnes feels only patronizing pity or anger for Rosalie, and Rosalie has no depth of feeling. A few times, her anger at her situation flashes up--even as beautiful and privileged as she is, she knows that her life is bound by the choices of the men in her life, not her own, and she takes what petty revenges she can. But in the end, Rosalie serves more as an object lesson against seeking pleasure and freedom than as a character in her own right. (As much as I hate Amy/Laurie, at least their marriage isn't a morality play in misery to make the main character's own lackluster marriage look better.)
I really enjoyed this book at first. The writing style is good, and several of the characters are well-drawn (Agnes's mother was a favorite of mine). But Anne Bronte cannot seem to help herself from making everything a lesson. The few times when she lets slip her sarcasm are fantastic, but much of this book is a drab series of events in the life of a priggish and self-satisfied woman. Agnes herself is frustrating--I found her the least likeable when I was clearly supposed to admire her the most (when, for instance, she moralizes to a sickly old woman). She has no sense of humor. She constantly martyrs herself. And the man she moons over is utterly colorless: all we know of him is that he likes visiting the poor and misses his mother. The few interactions he has with Agnes sound like job interviews: do you like to read? are you unsociable? how much charity work do you do? etc. We the reader know little about him, and certainly nothing about how he talks, for Bronte wrote more dialog between Rosalie and one of her suitors than she provides for Agnes and the love of her life. I think Bronte was actually more attracted to the story of Rosalie, but felt it wrong not to provide a moral heroine.