“All true histories contain instruction; though, in some, the treasure may be hard to find, and when found, so trivial in quantity, that the dry, shriveled kernel scarcely compensates for the trouble of cracking the nut.”
I remember myself remaining deep in thought soon after reading these first lines, then found the whole page of sentences beautifully crafted. Agnes Grey is the first novel I read by Anne Brontë; in fact, there isn’t much I know about the Brontë sisters. This book, to me, is fantastical! It is full of emotional and sensitivity, it is inspirational, teeming with so many elements and issues underlined without and within as in many Victorian novels, and I definitely will read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in future.
Agnes Grey, 19, the youngest daughter and the heroine of the novel, who has long been living from a isolated and bucolic parsonage shelter, ventured unknown to the world in getting herself attached and hired as a governess under the straitened circumstances of the family. However, much as she has so been anticipated to pick up her first job and adventure, much as she is to exposed to the social perceptions and morals which were distorted and as an antithesis to her own. It is a story of overcoming struggles and remaining integrity and belief of one’s own.
There are not many twists and turns in the story, as everything is in its order, but it is an interesting read nonetheless. The most interesting part, to me, of course is the moral issues and the social phenomenon of the time that are perceived by the heroine throughout the novel. First of all, there appears much-criticised social conditions of the position of a governess in the 19th century that Anne Brontë must have experienced and retells in the first narrative account in the name of Agnes Grey. Being a neophyte in the employee’s universe, it is seen that Agnes Grey is being very thrilled at first as taking up the job of governess, and is ready to embrace it in holy and with the mission to provide for her family economically:
“I had but to turn from my little pupils to myself at their age, and I should know, at once, how to win their confidence and affections: how to waken the contrition of the erring; how to embolden the timid and console the afflicted; how to make Virtue practicable, Instruction desirable, and Religion lovely and comprehensible.—Delightful task! To teach the young idea how to shoot!”
But then she soon realises the family, or the world, is not that congenial to her wishes, and being very disgruntled with the job she holds in utmost anxiety. Governess, she eventually finds, is a whirlwind deception of no more than being treated more or less as a mild servant, and a demeaning hireling, and is to pick up the burden and responsibilities that the parents have long evaded to shoulder on since their children were born. The governess, not only has to give herself to academic teaching, but also to educate the youngsters on dispositions and manners that the parents have longed neglected of, and somewhat their indifferent attitudes also carelessly rub it off on the children. More so, it is undoubtedly of no avail when undertook by a stranger like herself; it is a waste of hardship of blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention the disdain and ill-treatment with which the employers provide:
“This was Mr. Bloomfield. I was surprised that he should nominate his children Master and Miss Bloomfield; and still more so, that he should speak so uncivilly to me, their governess, and a perfect stranger to himself.”
“The name of governess, I soon found, was a mere mockery as applied to me: my pupils had no more notion of obedience than a wild, unbroken colt. The habitual fear of their father’s peevish temper, and the dread of the punishments he was wont to inflict when irritated, kept them generally within bounds in his immediate presence. The girls, too, had some fear of their mother’s anger; and the boy might occasionally be bribed to do as she bid him by the hope of reward; but I had no rewards to offer; and as for punishments, I was given to understand, the parents reserved that privilege to themselves; and yet they expected me to keep my pupils in order…”
I could absolutely feel the anxiety, hardship, and responsibilities of the position and status of governess that females often being more educated end up with in her time have to undertake to should on, and it is no doubt an arduous task to perform. It is not merely a job of academic teaching but also a role of a domestic goodness that the employers, or the parents expect them to carry out unexceptionably. As to girls, it is a want of a fashionable governess to guide to the coming out to the fashionable world; to boys, it is a want of a obedient governess to guide them bridge better to higher education. In fact, I feel shocked when seeing these lines that Agnes bears to do in prevention of cruelty acted out by the boy! (I note that it is kind of relevant to the position of the overseas maids in Hong Kong)
“With fiendish glee he commenced a list of torments; and while he was busied in the relation, I dropped the stone upon his intended victims and crushed them flat beneath it…”