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Agnes Grey
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Archived Group Reads 2014 > Agnes Grey - General Thoughts

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message 1: by Pip (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments To round off our reading of Agnes Grey, here are a few questions we might consider. These are simply to get the discussion going and by no means should this thread be limited to answering them. I've adapted all of the questions from http://www.penguin.com.au/products/97... except for number 7, which is all Lily :-)


1.Brontë begins her novel by writing that 'All true histories contain instruction'. What is Brontë's purpose in writing the novel? In what ways is the book instructive? In what ways is it subversive?

2.In her introduction to Agnes Grey (Penguin edition), Angeline Goreau asserts that, 'Through her 'simple' exposition of the case of the governess, Anne Brontë also gave her contemporaries an indictment of the ruthless materialism at the heart of Victorian life'. Where is this 'ruthless materialism' most keenly felt in the novel? How does it affect Agnes?

3.Rosalie says that her husband Sir Thomas has never forgiven her for giving birth to a girl. What picture emerges in Agnes Grey of gender roles in Victorian England? In what ways are boys and men treated differently, and valued differently, than girls and women in the novel? What roles were available to women in Victorian England?

4. In what ways does Edmund Weston differ from the rector, Mr. Hatfield? What do their vastly different responses to Nancy's religious doubts reveal about how each views the essence of Christianity?

5.Why are Edmund and Agnes so drawn to each other? In what ways are they an ideal, or perhaps idealized, match? How do their values, principles, and behaviour set them apart from the most of the other major characters in the book?


6.How might Anne Brontë view the situation of women today? What contemporary issues might move her to write a novel similar to Agnes Grey?

7. Artistically, rather than as a judgment on Agnes, is it valuable to have such a character as her portrayed? How good a job do you think the author has done of creating the literary portrait of such a character?


Clarissa (clariann) | 535 comments That's a lot of things to think about, Pip!
I'll start with Lily's question, number 7. I think it is important to have the breadth of life reflected in our literature, so appreciate Bronte creating an unromantic romantic heroine. Agnes is inexperienced but generally logical and practical. I liked the inner narration as she tries to stop herself falling in love with Weston. The section where she contemplates her appearance I think will still resonate with lots of people, fighting to accept your appearance and the belief that looks aren't the most important thing. She isn't perfect, and I read doubts between the lines, that she did wish she could be as beautiful and as rich as Rosalie, but she's never going to be so she attempts to be content with her own person.
Agnes definitely felt like a full and real character.


message 3: by Pip (last edited Nov 04, 2014 03:39PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments Clari wrote: "That's a lot of things to think about, Pip!
I'll start with Lily's question, number 7. I think it is important to have the breadth of life reflected in our literature, so appreciate Bronte creating..."


Sorry to bombard you with questions, Clari! As I say, they are by no means my own brainchildren, and are just there to kick us off.

I found Agnes very hard to relate to, despite not normally having a problem back-dating my ideas to accommodate Victorian heroines. It's interesting that you mention her insecurity about her appearance and clothes because they had the opposite effect on me: I found her comments verged on the self-indulgent, on the self-victimising. Maybe that says more about me than about her (eeeek!).

One thing I don't think we've talked about so far is the fact that this novel was published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. I wonder how many contemporary readers would have fallen for that? Although many male Vicorian authors were able to draw convincing portraits of their female characters, I think the bizarre mixture of constant self-doubt and little-wavering, belief-based conviction is something that a man at the time would have been hard pressed to appreciate, let alone describe. So I think that my answer to the last part of Lily's question would be that, yes, the author has been successful in her portrait, despite it being a heavy-handed one.

Personally, I had too little patience with Agnes to appreciate the "instruction" she hoped to give. Jane Eyre, as far as I can remember, successfully conveys her hardships and ill-treatment without falling quite so much into the "woe-is-me" camp. Similarly, Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. For me, the contrast between Anne Brontë's two novels is stark; the author herself came of age between her works in ways which I felt Agnes Grey never did.


Peter Pip wrote: "Clari wrote: "That's a lot of things to think about, Pip!
I'll start with Lily's question, number 7. I think it is important to have the breadth of life reflected in our literature, so appreciate B..."


Pip

Like your comments on the marriage verbs in the other thread, I tend to agree with your comments here.

Throughout the discussions on Agnus Grey the threads have touched on the novel's possible feminist tone and possibilities. Partly because I am a male, I thought it best to wait until the General Thoughts section, when the novel was complete, to address the question.

I did not see or pick up many instances of any overt feminism in the novel. To me, the novel centred around the issues of the roles and difficulties that a governess was confronted with and the manner by which she found love and eventually marriage. The novel was written in the mid 1840's and while women were certainly becoming more aware of, and, no doubt, more dissatisfied with the static state of their position, I do not see Bronte's novel Agnes Grey as, in any way, challenging the status quo. Bronte certainly portrays the fate of the Rosalie type of female with accuracy and a slightly jaundiced eye, and Agnus does find love and a man to marry where there will be mutual respect and love. To me, that was the story and the intent of the novel. Anne's sisters wrote much more powerful novels of love, human relationships and social commentary.

It is unfair and unnecessary to compare the Bronte sisters' work in any detail here. I feel that Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey was a novel for its time, and for the enjoyment of its readers of the time. I do not think it was meant to reach any further than that.


message 5: by Lily (last edited Nov 05, 2014 07:57PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Peter wrote: "...I feel that Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey was a novel for its time, and for the enjoyment of its readers of the time. I do not think it was meant to reach any further than that..."

I've not looked at Anne Bronte's biography, so I can't speak to her intent for the novel. However, I do wonder but what it does speak beyond its time. In the history of women, isn't it one of the stories that says "this is the way it was"? And in a very realistic way, at that.


message 6: by Pip (last edited Nov 06, 2014 03:56AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments Lily wrote: "Peter wrote: "...I feel that Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey was a novel for its time, and for the enjoyment of its readers of the time. I do not think it was meant to reach any further than that..."

I haven't read any of the biographies of the Brontës either, though here is a short, interesting link to Charlotte's Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell" with which she prefaced a posthumous combined re-edition of WH and AG: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.a...

Here's how Charlotte described her younger sister:
" She was a very sincere and practical Christian, but the tinge of religious melancholy communicated a sad shade to her brief, blameless life.

And comparing Anne to Emily:
"Anne's character was milder and more subdued; she wanted the power, the fire, the originality of her sister, but was well endowed with quiet virtues of her own. Long-suffering, self-denying, reflective, and intelligent, a constitutional reserve and taciturnity placed and kept her in the shade, and covered her mind, and especially her feelings, with a sort of nun-like veil, which was rarely lifted. "

It seems to me that Agnes Grey was very much her author's child.


Clarissa (clariann) | 535 comments Pip wrote: "One thing I don't think we've talked about so far is the fact that this novel was published under the pseudonym of Acton Bell. I wonder how many contemporary readers would have fallen for that? ."

https://sites.google.com/a/u.northwes...

This link contains a couple of reviews from the time, the second one like you suggest doubts the gender of Acton Bell because of the detailed knowledge of being a governess.
Interestingly the more recent reviews state its importance to a modern audience and the 1924 declares it 'the most perfect prose narrative in English Literature'. A few of us seem to be doubting its enjoyment to modern readers? I did notice the two star rating of Lily and Pip and was going to ask what you didn't like about it, but I think you cover that Pip :)


message 8: by Clarissa (last edited Nov 06, 2014 04:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Clarissa (clariann) | 535 comments Peter wrote: "I did not see or pick up many instances of any overt feminism in the novel. To me, the novel centred around the issues of the roles and difficulties that a governess was confronted with and the manner by which she found love and eventually marriage."

I think by its very nature the governess novel is feminist, it's saying 'don't ignore me', 'listen to me', 'I have a voice too'. Demanding acknowledgement is at the heart of early feminism.
It is possible to take it further if you wish. In the latter part of the book Agnes, Rosalie and Nancy can be seen as representatives of the three classes of women. Agnes is ignored, invisible and considered unimportant by society. Through her narrative we see that society is wrong as she has many beautiful qualities. Rosalie (unlike her sister) is what a young woman of wealth is supposed to be, pretty, coquettish, pleasing to men, and entirely ignorant and bored by anything remotely intellectual. She obeys society's rules, and she is rewarded with an empty marriage to a man who despises her as much as she despises him. Nancy is entirely dependent on others for everything including her own spiritual happiness. Uneducated she is reliant on her 'betters', Hatfield's lack of interest in her, causes her incredible physical pain as she struggles to get to church, but even worse than that makes her think she is damned. The only thing that saves her from this mental torment is the fortunate arrival of Weston.
Which neatly leads me to my next point that the women are dependent on men for happiness and the men don't do so well in this respect.
Even a loving character like Agnes's father inadvertently ruins his family financially. At the Bloomfields, Mr Bloomfield is cruel to his wife, and this cruelty is inherited by his son who torments Agnes, and is even shown in the minor character of the uncle who visits.

Despite all this Bronte shows that escape and independence is possible through the character of Agnes's mother, who keeps her pride and refuses help from her father and even her son in law, instead setting up a school and making a success of it.


message 9: by Pip (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments Mainly in response to Clari's most recent post...

Funnily enough, I've almost been tempted to up my stars to three since our discussion started - you can all take full credit for that for bringing me so much more from this novel than I got from my original reading.

Also, the more I discover about Anne's background, the meaner I feel about only giving her two.

However, I'm going to stick to my guns and rate the book at face value. My main complaints with the novel are:

- Lack of pace. For a long time I felt that nothing was happening and that it was just going to be a lengthy list of governessly hardships - "let me name the ways in which children and their parents have been horrid to me". The introduction of Grandma and Uncle Robson seemed to promise plot development, but in the end were just additional tormentors. The Mr Weston love interest I found dry and predictable. This was never likely to be a romantic novel, nor a tragic one. Agnes' final comments on her marriage say it all - two nice people with the average problems of any married couple hoping that one doesn't die before the other.

- Unbalanced structure. The Bloomfields felt like a preamble; the longest section at Horton a long scene-setter and post- Horton stuff happened.

- My inability to connect with Agnes and her woes, as I mentioned elsewhere.

In case it is necessary to say it, these are obviously my own thoughts, opinions and feelings. If it hadn't been for this group read, I might not have been glad to have read Agnes Grey. Readers, I am glad!


message 10: by Pip (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments Re feminism - I have a feeling that it is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which is usually considered the feminist Brontë novel, and the more I read of it, the more I'm inclined to agree.

I like your point though, Clari, that "Demanding acknowledgement is at the heart of early feminism", and Anne does after all state that we should take instruction from her novel.


Peter Pip wrote: "Mainly in response to Clari's most recent post...

Funnily enough, I've almost been tempted to up my stars to three since our discussion started - you can all take full credit for that for bringing..."


You sum up my thinking very well. What has improved with this reading is my appreciation of the novel. While it will not get a 5 star from me, I certainly think the discussion of this novel has been one of the best since I have joined Goodreads.


Helen_in_the_uk | 109 comments Clari wrote: I think by its very nature the governess novel is feminist, it's saying 'don't ignore me', 'listen to me', 'I have a voice too'. Demanding acknowledgement is at the heart of early feminism.
It is possible to take it further if you wish. In the latter part of the book Agnes, Rosalie and Nancy can be seen as representatives of the three classes of women...."


Great insights. I hadn't seen Nancy or Agnes' mother as being important characters before, but you've shown me that they were.

Thanks for the great discussions everyone, it certainly added to my enjoyment of the novel immensely :)


message 13: by Lily (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lily (joy1) | 1289 comments Clari wrote: "I did notice the two star rating of Lily and Pip and was going to ask what you didn't like about it, but I think you cover that Pip :) ..."

Clari -- do remember that in the Goodreads star system, two stars indicates "it was okay." I try to rank most of the books I read as three stars, which gives me a bit of flexibility in indicating which books fall above or below that midpoint. Pip does a better job of the analysis than I have -- it was not a book that called forward that much effort or interest for me. So the stars here are more a visceral reaction than a result of studied literary analysis. I don't do star ratings for any reason other than my own use on Goodreads. Now, for Amazon reviews, it is about selling books, so it is a different game. I rather figure that in the grander scheme of things, my star rating input on Goodreads is miniscule enough to have little weight, so I don't have qualms about my usage. If I write a review, I try to keep it short, but to capture some essence that might be useful to others or for myself upon a return months or even years later.

I have much enjoyed the discussion here, especially after it became more a literary one rather than a presumed projection and dissection of Anne's life in fictional form. Art is more than memoir, even though memoirs may be art. I think your discussion has demonstrated that Agnes Grey is art, and more than mediocre art, even if we might not assign the appellation "great" to it. It seems to be standing that acid test of time rather well.

(As the moderator of an author interview said to an elderly woman who asked "Can you use material from real life to write fiction?", "Yes, and you can put a cane into your story. You undoubtedly could give a lot of insight to a character that used one.")


Hilary (agapoyesoun) | 188 comments I really enjoyed this novel, but I also have learnt so much from everyone's contributions. I suppose the feminist undercurrent was not obvious to me, though I can see that now. I felt enraged at the treatment of all the 'inferiors' and, of course, Agnes came in for the worst of it, particularly at Bloomfield, though Horton wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs either.

Not only did the gentry treat their servants with less than the respect due to any human being, but more disappointingly the rector lorded over Nancy and her kind with not even noblesse oblige pretence. He was supposed to be a 'pastor of souls' and instead seemed to believe that the poor and infirm were there for his own entertainment. He abused them as the boys would have tortured the hatchlings had Agnes not intervened. Thankfully there were Westons then as now!

Thanks for all the useful links that various people have added. I shall hope to check them all out soon.


message 15: by Pip (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments Just a final comment to thank everyone very much for their participation in the Agnes Grey discussion. As I mentioned elsewhere, you've helped me appreciate this novel much more deeply since my original reading.

If anybody is interested in exploring some of Anne's poetry, here is the thread:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

Finally, I hope you'll all join me for The Chimes in the very near future!


message 16: by Rut (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rut | 55 comments Anne Brönte said at the beginning of the novel that she hoped it would bring comfort and advice to others (well, actually she meant governesses) As for me, reading Agnes Grey was like turning my head back to get a glimpse of myself “once upon a time”.
I think, the transformation Agnes goes through along the story was pretty relatable and touching. She passes from being a young woman, practically a child, with hunger of novelty and a chance for self-testing her own wings (which I totally understand taking into consideration the fact that she was rather secluded and also overprotected by her family) to becoming an adult. So, the story, among other things, tells us about Agnes growing up. Of course, on the way, she met with many unfriendly faces of reality which she had not expected and even made her homesick and melancholic. But that is something that happens to most of people when they get to face real world, is it not?
Later on, she even defines her coming back to live with her mother and working for her in their own school, at their house, as an improvement of her previous situation. It makes me wonder, what happened to the adventurous young Agnes?
Finally, I think it was cute how Anne did not even try to make Weston’s and Agnes’s romance any cheesier by adding spectacular speeches in the intercourse of their relationships. Instead, she keeps them as the two regular people who happened to be extremely alike in the way they felt things, who find each other when they are terribly lonely and fall in love. The intimate, simple moments they share were enough for me to long to seem them ending up together, which they did.
I have to say that this was the first book I read along with this group and perhaps this contributed to my enjoyment of the novel in such a degree as to move it into my “favourite” shelf. After all, I enjoyed your comments and learned things I did not know about the Bröntes and due to this, reading this book became a richer and even more pleasing experience. So thanks and see you soon!


message 17: by Pip (new) - rated it 2 stars

Pip | 814 comments I'm glad you enjoyed your first Victorians group read, Rut - it was great to have you joining in the discussion! If you enjoyed Agnes Grey, I strongly recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It's already been done here as a group read, back in 2010 long before I joined, but the threads are still open so you can see what people discussed. The first one is here: https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...

Looking forward to our next read together!


message 18: by Rut (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rut | 55 comments Thank you Pip, of course I will read it, I had meant to do it for some time, in fact when I joined the group I looked for it to see if you had already read it. I’m so glad the threads are still open! See you there!


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