With the bicentennial of Charlotte Bronte’s birth coming up this year and with both Anne and Emily Bronte’s 200th birthdays fast approaching, (in 2018 and 2020 respectively), I decided to make a New Year’s resolution to read all of the Bronte sister books this year. Of course I have read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights many times before but I never took the time to read Charlotte’s other books (Villette, Shirley, and The Professor) and I had woefully neglected Anne and her work and this seemed like as good a time as any to correct that.
I can’t say that Agnes Grey had the same emotional impact and fire that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have but what struck me the most about the book was how much of its themes and issues are just as applicable to today as they were when the book was written.
Agnes Grey is the story of a young lady who becomes a governess to help her family after they experience some financial troubles. Her first position is with the Bloomfield family, whose children are tyrannical, sadistic, and completely out of control. Agnes receives no help or support from Mr. and Mrs. Bloomfield, who indulge, enable, and excuse their children’s bad behavior and complete undermine Agnes authority. The Bloomfields protect their children from having any consequences to their actions, (even torturing baby birds and small animals), even as they judge and criticize Agnes’ job performance and blame her for their children’s lack of education and bad behavior.
Agnes’ next position, with the Murray family, is more tolerable as her charges are only lazy, self-absorbed, and catty with a tendency for drama and flirting (as opposed to aggressive and cruel like the Bloomfields). But even under these slightly improved conditions, Agnes suffers from a complete lack of respect from both her students, their parents, and most of the community around her. The prevailing attitude is that Agnes, despite having to put in long hours doing tasks beyond her teaching duties has it easy and her students’ inability to learn is obviously more of a reflection on her ability to do her job and not at all related to how little effort they put into their studies.
I have a lot of friends and relatives who are teachers and some of the horror stories that they tell and some of the political discourse I read about would sound eerily familiar to Agnes. In fact, take out some of passages about God and Christian duty and add in some text about standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and the Common Core and Agnes Grey translate very easily into modern times.