I have just read,for the first time ever, Agnes Grey (1847) by Anne Bronte, and what a infinitely sad book it is! Poor Agnes, an impoverished clergyman's daughter, goes as a governess and is daily humiliated by monstrously spoiled children and their grotesquely insensitive parents. Her sufferings are poignantly particularized. The novel is structured as if it were a comedy (after extended tribulations, Agnes marries a decent young curate) but it is nevertheless barren, desiccated, and joyless. Even the long-awaited marriage proposal receives the shortest of shrifts:
"And so now I have overruled your objections. Have you any others. "No -- none." "You love me then," he said, fervently pressing my hand. "Yes."
And that's all the romance that this poor downtrodden, passive, beaten-into-the-dust emotionally-stunted "heroine" is granted.
Nevertheless, my own personal sadness while reading this novel arose not from Agnes Grey's suffering, but from Anne Bronte's -- there being not a skin-of-the-teeth space between the bedraggled writer and the bedraggled protagonist. Agnes's experiences as a governess exactly mirror Anne's -- except there was no saving curate to snatch the wedding chestnuts out of the fire. Poor Anne returned home defeated, virginal, and alone, to die at age 28, of tuberculosis. Nor is it simply the doormat heroine or the downtrodden novelist that is so distressing -- it's the general oppression of women in the first part of the nineteenth century that must draw a tear from the stolidest of eyes. Here's a society that offered no decent options for women, and even Anne Bronte, as talented as she was, hadn't the least ability to think her way through attitudes toward women that proved to be paralyzing and ultimately fatal.
I turned to Agnes Grey because I had recently read Anne's older sister Charlotte's Villette, a novel that perplexed me more than any book I've read in years. I couldn't make sense of it. I've read my share of nineteenth-century novels, and I would like to think that I have a general sense of how they're made, and, after I get a few chapters in, how they must conclude. In Villete, all the early markers point to the eventuality that young Lucy Snowe, after the customary and appropriate difficulties and misunderstandings will have been resolved, will marry the handsome young Dr. John. But somewhere in Book II, the game changed and the poor reader (me) became confused. Dr. John is allowed to make some bad choices -- sufficiently wrong that he becomes superfluous and gradually fades into the background. He metamorphosizes from a major character in the first half of the book to a minor character in Book III. His place as Lucy Snowe's suitor is taken by a teacher, M. Paul Emanuel, who is nasty and unatttractive when introduced but who becomes more and more acceptable as the novel proceeds. I couldn't comprehend the seismic shift untill I read the truly excellent biography of CB by Lyndall Gordon (Charlotte Bronte, A Passionate Life (1994). It turns out the plot of the novel parallels CB's experience in Brussels. Initially attracted to a young man who lost interest in her, she fell deeply in love with a teacher at her school. Alas, M. Heger was not available, either matrimonially or emotionally.
But at least Charlotte, unlike Anne, was willing to take a risk -- which is why, in Charlotte's greatest novel, witty, forthright, independent Jane Eyre, for all her weirdness, remains such a striking and refreshing alternative to the ordinary oppressed nineteeth-century heroine.