Book Review: Agnes Grey

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

After a belated book club this week, followed by a fantastic birthday weekend, I can finally share my thoughts on Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey.

I haven’t read so-called “literature” in a while, so I felt rusty, but the book club babes and I agreed that it was great to be challenged intellectually. One friend even commented that she enjoyed needing to consult a dictionary a few times!

Agnes Grey is the perfect novel if you haven’t kept up with the classics since college. It’s a short read with a simple plot: Agnes is a 19-year-old living in rural England who decides to become a governess to help her family who’s struggling financially.

A pious young woman with a strict sense of morality and integrity, Agnes must learn how to raise the spoiled children of the English elite. Her patience is tested, first with the Bloomfield brats and then with the Murray girls. Time and again, she is insulted for her shabby clothes, plain looks, and other indications of her lower socioeconomic class.

Unlike the gothic romances of her sisters Charlotte and Emily, Anne Brontë’s debut novel is not tragic. Despite her meekness, she attracts the interest of Edward Weston, the town’s parson, who spends his time assisting the poor villagers. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Agnes and Edward find their happy ending, since the stakes of this story are so low. Other than terrible demon-children abusing animals for their own amusement, you never get the sense of real danger.

When it comes to literary merit, Agnes Grey is not even remotely in the realm of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. The plot is too straightforward, the style too expositional, and none of the characters ever develop, for better or worse. In fact, as I was reading, I kept giving Brontë a pass given how difficult it was for a woman to write in the 19th century, all the while knowing that she’d never be published today.

That said, for what this book is—an autobiographical narrative of one woman trying to remain true to herself in a world of vanity—I appreciated the reading experience. At times it even felt like a Victorian version of “Mean Girls,” with Agnes playing a Cady Heron who never flipped to the dark side. Those of us who were victimized by the richer, more attractive and popular Rosalie Murrays and Regina Georges will feel vindicated when the nice girl wins in the end.

Although all the Brontës are creatively successful in their own rights, there’s definitely a reason why Anne lives in the shadow of her sisters and Agnes Grey rarely makes it on required reading lists in school.

Masterpiece Monday: Wuthering Heights

Cover of "Wuthering Heights (Signet Class...

Cover of Wuthering Heights (Signet Classics)

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m going to update the 30-day book challenge tomorrow, but today was supposed to be “Book that turned you on.” Bodice-ripping Harlequins don’t qualify as “masterpieces,” so I just decided to make this week’s meme about my favorite literary romance novel: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.

Emily Bronte came from a brilliant English family. She had five siblings: two sisters who died young of tuberculosis, her brother Patrick, and her equally famous sisters Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Anne (Agnes Grey). All the Bronte children were artistic and excelled in writing and painting. The girls, however, went by pseudonyms for publication–Ellis, Currer, and Acton Bell–of which the initials matched their real names. Wuthering Heights is Emily’s only novel, which was published in 1847. She died from tuberculosis a year later at the age of 30. In fact, their father sadly outlived all his children.

The novel, narrated by Nelly, the housekeeper of Wuthering Heights, follows the tragic relationship between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. It starts off when a new resident meets an older Heathcliff and his son, but Nelly takes the reader back 30 years prior, when Heathcliff (a homeless gypsy) is adopted by the Earnshaws.

Catherine soon grows close to Heathcliff, but her fixation on social status keeps them apart. The two must face the age-old decision between love and money, but if you know anything about Victorian literature, you probably already know what’s chosen.

Other than the difficulty in comprehending this convoluted family tree, full of multiple generations and repeating names, I have no complaints about Wuthering Heights. It’s the epitome of all star-crossed lover stories, surpassing even Romeo and Juliet, in my opinion.

The romance is heart-wrenching, dramatized but not glorified. Many despise Catherine for her selfishness and superficiality and Heathcliff for his cruelty and angst, but they are not supposed to be the perfect couple. Bronte focuses on the dark side of love and makes the reader wonder what is love’s purpose: to create or destroy? burn with passion or engulf in flames? make lovers better or worse human beings?

Wuthering Heights is easily one of my top five books of all time, but if you like traditional romance novels with cheery prince-like male love interests, then you won’t like this book. But if you appreciate raw, often ugly, all-consuming love, then don’t hesitate and pick up this book now.

And if I only write one novel, like Emily, then I just hope it’s a fraction as good as hers, because it truly is a masterpiece.

Favorite Quote: “‘And I pray one prayer–I repeat it till my tongue stiffens–Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living! You said I killed you–haunt me, then! The murdered DO haunt their murderers, I believe. I know that ghosts HAVE wandered on earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only DO not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I CANNOT live without my life! I CANNOT live without my soul!'” (Ch. 16)