Anne's gentle heroine draws on her own miserable time as a governess

Agnes Grey is the daughter of a clergyman whose financial imprudence leads to the family's ruin. The women take charge, but Agnes fears that, being the baby of the family, she will be prevented from making any real contribution, and insists on seeking work as a governess.


She first goes to the Bloomfield family, and takes charge of what seem like infant fiends. The familiar fate of the governess, being neither servant nor family member, is well analysed, and Agnes finds herself involved with three generations of the family, eventually finding favour with none of them. Her efforts to combat the barbarity of the children and the undue partiality of the parents are doomed, and she is dismissed.

In her second position with the Murrays, where her pupils are older, she is more successful, but this is a family for whom social values are more important than moral ones, and she fears the gradual degeneration of the values instilled into her at home. The saving figures in her life are poor people she visits, and the clergyman Edward Weston, for whom she feels first respect, then love. Gradually she sees her eldest pupil committing herself to a marriage for purely mercenary and social reasons, and she seizes the chance, when her father dies, to set up with her mother a school in a seaside town based on Scarborough. It is on the sands of that town that she is reunited with Mr Weston and her beloved dog Snap.

Anne's first novel resembles in its calm naturalism nothing so much as one of the later Austen novels, with the vital difference that her heroine is a working woman. It deserves, far more than Jane Eyre, the description 'governess novel', because Agnes's experience is far more typical, and the predicament of the occupation is analysed much more closely. Though the novel never raises its voice it has some sharp comic scenes, some devastating analyses of character (for example that of the worldly, pushy clergyman Mr Hatfield) and a deft hand with pathos, particularly the pathos of emotional deprivation.

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