Anne Brontë’s First Girl, Agnes

In December 1847 (possibly the 13th),  a triple-book set of novels was published. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights made up the first two volumes and Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey, the third.

It was appropriate that Anne and Emily, who were so close to each other in affection and understanding, should have their novels make their first public appearance together. Although accepted for publication by Thomas Newby before Jane Eyre was by Smith, Elder & Co, Charlotte’s novel beat her sisters’ to the presses by a couple of months.

First edition Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey

Anne had made many corrections in her proofing of Agnes Grey, but Newby neglected to follow through on them.

After months of being upset by Newby’s negligence, Anne could finally smile a little at all the red marks in her personal copy of Agnes Grey.

The long delay in the release of her and Emily’s novels had been exasperating. Then Newby rushed them into print and, although Anne carefully labored over final corrections, overdue Agnes was born with defects that couldn’t be hidden. The results of Emily’s expectancy weren’t much better.
~ from Without the Veil Between

 

A review in the Atlas, January 22, 1848, must have been disappointing to Anne:

It leaves no painful impression on the mind – some may think it leaves no impression at all. There is a want of distinctness in the character of Agnes, which prevents the reader from taking much interest in her fate.

Much later, long after Anne was gone, the Irish novelist George Moore (1852 – 1933) couldn’t have disagreed more, praising Agnes Grey as the most perfect prose narrative in English letters.

An article by Samantha Ellis, author of Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life, reflects on Agnes Grey from the present, but, surely, touches upon how Anne set out to maintain her life, integrity, and purpose in the world of her time.

Agnes is a quieter heroine than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights’s Cathy Earnshaw, but she burns with her own anger. Agnes Grey is often a furious novel, and a feminist novel. Its main concern is how a woman can do what Agnes wants to do at the start: “to go out into the world; to act for myself; to exercise my unused faculties; to try my own unknown powers”.
~ from Anne Brontë: the sister who got there first

 

 

The beginning of summer ended the pursuit of a publisher for Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, if less than satisfactorily with Thomas Cautley Newby’s request for fifty pounds to produce them.

“We resolved not to pay to see our novels in print. And here we are about to do so.”

“Sometimes resolve must be adjusted, Anne.”

How could Anne not think of her first “girl” and wonder whether she would be clothed more elegantly than Jane or as plain in cloth-backed gray-boards with little trim. As the months since proofing dragged on without a sign from Newby other than him giving his word to break it, would Agnes make a public appearance at all?

Anne continued to have faith, although she was more prepared for betrayal than before she knew its look, how it spoke and maneuvered. She had written Agnes Grey as a reaction to her inaugural governess experience with the Ingrams, but, also, as an instructional reflection. She had meant to bring less naiveté to Thorpe Green and the writing she did in the limited free time allowed her there. She had soon discovered—or rediscovered—it was easier to live with wit and wisdom, to maintain a pensive cheerfulness or, at least, a philosophical viewpoint, through imaginary encounters rather than actual ones.

The passages of Agnes had brought Anne through insecurity, loneliness, worry, wavering, weariness, and grief. Agnes’ story had helped Anne navigate a life that wasn’t hers but needed to be traveled with enough involvement for learning and growing towards the best purpose of the one that was. The challenge was not to lose sight of the destination she hoped was ahead of her: to do the most good she could in the world before she left it.

The journey of someone who never existed was at times more real than Anne’s own, its importance to her not diminished by how few knew of it. Even if the book never made it to the presses and fifty pounds was lost or required legal action to retrieve, nothing would change Anne having conceived it and carried it full term. No matter if Agnes was stillborn, lived for a few years or many, she was the offspring of Anne’s desire to write with more purpose than being clever with words and entertaining. Instead, to produce a calm, undistracted, useful, and benevolent child who, if anyone did encounter her, would whisper a few wholesome truths to make them wiser and kinder, and open their minds and hearts.
~ from Without the Veil Between, Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit

 

Miniature edition of Agnes Grey that my mom found in a secondhand bookstore in Oxford in the 1980s.

The human heart is like india-rubber; a little swells it, but a great deal will not burst it. If “little more than nothing will disturb it, little less than all things will suffice” to break it. As in the outer members of our frame, there is a vital power inherent in itself that strengthens it against external violence. Every blow that shakes it will serve to harden it against a future stroke; as constant labour thickens the skin of the hand, and strengthens its muscles instead of wasting them away: so that a day of arduous toil, that might excoriate a lady’s palm, would make no sensible impression on that of a hardy ploughman.
Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey

 

©Artwork and writing, unless otherwise indicated, are the property of Diane M Denton. Please request permission to reproduce or post elsewhere with a link back to bardessdmdenton. Thank you.

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