Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte, is a quintessential ode to upper middle class life. Agnes is one of two daughters born into the odd coupling of a spirited squire-man's daughter and a clergyman within the countryside of Northern England. "Of six children, my sister Mary and myself were the only two that survived the perils of infancy and early childhood."
Agnes continues to describe her childhood as one of protected sensibilities, as "father, mother and sister, all combined to spoil me - not by foolish indulgence to render me factious and ungovernable, but by ceaseless kindness..."
The glass globe of the Grey's family life is shattered, when Agnes's father, bent on securing a more formidable family fortune gives all the household income to a passing ship merchant, who promises to return to the family double the investment. Agnes must then leave her family encompassment of endless compassion, as she knows it, to protect herself and them in her father's financially related absence, because the family's fortunes had sunk into the ocean along with the merchant himself.
Agnes and her sister had spent many a happy hour traversing the moors; dreaming of what the riches could bring them. And when news of the sunken ship enters the family, Agnes's father, "was completely overwhelmed by the calamity." Her sister, Mary, is similar to the father and more of a moody and delicate nature. It is up to Agnes and her skill set to repair the family's station, or at least keep them from imploding toward the poorhouse, which was not uncommon to happen to families during the Victorian period.
So, Agnes begins the type of work befitting for an unusually well educated, as well as highly bright, middle class girl. She hires out as a governess and enters the world of psychological abuse according to the standards of creepy rich people. (No one captures psychological abuse quite like the Bronte sisters).
For the sake of exemplification, shall we begin with her less than lovely charge Tom and his equally deviant sister Mary Ann? " 'I observed, on the grass about his garden, certain apparatus of sticks and cord, and asked what they were.
'Traps for birds.'
'Why do you catch them?'
'Papa says they do harm.'
'And what do you do with them, when you catch them?'
'Different things. Sometimes I give them to the cat; sometimes I cut them in pieces with my penknife; but the next, I mean to roast alive.'
'And why do you mean to do such a horrible thing?'
'For two reasons; first to see how long it will live - and then, to see what it will taste like.' "
The parents of these odious beings insist they simply need a firmer governess, though Agnes is not allowed to discipline them. She is relieved of her post after several months with the family.
But she soon hires out again to the Murray family, with abilities to teach music, singing, drawing, French, Latin and German. She remains with the next family for years and is witness to their cold unfeeling world and all its wasteful sadnesses. Agnes is also given the conundrum of having to tutor children who hate to sit down to learn anything and recite Latin while staring out the window, not caring what anything they are learning about means. Agnes values education greatly and is forced to try to share her world with charges who have no sense of value nor attention span.
The two Murray daughters, Rosalie and Matilda, tell whatever lies they feel like to men interested in Agnes, as god forbid Agnes should have a man love her. But eventually Agnes does marry (after the Murray children are grown) and happily so. Her husband is not rich, but she and her husband are friends. They are also never in want and even have enough to put a little aside for the children every year.
By Sarah Bahl