You don’t have to read many 19th century novels before you start to realize that something happened about halfway through the century that resulted in subtle but extensive changes that in English literature: George Eliot and Charles Dickens share many traits–a certain ponderousness, a grandeur of vision, and many similarities in terms of plot and archetype–but they seem, to me, to be writing in very different genres. Over the course of the century, stories become shorter and better-structured. Plots become less ludicrously far-fetched. Characters become less comic. And there’s an increased attention to realistic details and to the patterns of everyday life. And by the time you get into the late 19th century, with writers like Conrad, Henry James, Dreiser, Norris, and Crane, it feels like there aren’t really anymore writers who are working in the vein of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, or Charlotte and Emily Brontë.
(On a sidenote, it also feels like the latter part of the 19th century has fewer prominent female writers than the first half. Isn’t that how it always is? As soon as a profession starts to become socially prominent, the men come in and force out all the women…)
This shift (away from the prose romance and towards the modern realist novel) has never been clearer to me than while reading Agnes Grey. Part of this is just juxtaposition. Anne Brontë is the sister of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who wrote masterful novels that were full of larger-than-life characters and incredibly far-fetched situations. Wuthering Heights is absurd from top to bottom, and Jane Eyre is a picaresque adventure in which Jane’s stay with Mr. Rochester is just an interlude between her youth in a severe boarding school (which is eventually stricken with murderous typhoid) and her long stay with two religious strangers who turn out to be her long-lost cousins.
Given that heritage, it’s surprising that this novel takes such a different tone. It’s very short (around 60,000 words) and much of it is given over the daily trials and tribulations of the daughter of a poverty-stricken clergyman who is forced to take a position as a governess. She deals with two sets of children who are spoiled in very different ways, and she endures the petty rudeness and put-downs that come with routinely associating with people who think they’re of a much higher class than you. If this was one of her sisters’ books (or even a Jane Austen novel), she’d eventually fall in love with a wealthy heir who’d whisk her off to a life of leisure. But that never even comes close to happening. From the first chapter, it’s clear that this novel takes place in a world where that kind of thing just doesn’t happen.
The story isn’t as gripping or well-written as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights, but it’s certainly an accomplishment, and it offers many pleasures that were missing from those books. It’s fascinating to see what the life of a governess was actually like (like her sisters, Anne was forced to earn a living as a governess), and I really enjoyed the parts where she makes fun of the ridiculously spoiled children of Agnes’ employers. This book is like the Nanny Diaries of the 1840s.