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Book review: Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte

There’s a Darwinism in play which determines whether novels continue to be read after the author’s death and the passage of a few decades. Authors that were once widely read and popular turn out over time to be of interest to only a very specific audience, and do not translate well into later periods. As the years pass the number of surviving and still read authors dwindles further, until even once great, Nobel-winning titles are only downloaded for £0.00 on the Kindle, to remain on aspirational reading lists but never quite got round to. But some novels buck the trend, going into hibernation for a century or more only to be rediscovered with a fresh relevance by a new generation. Agnes Grey undoubtedly is not one such novel. It is dull beyond comprehension, and only appears here a) because of the previously mentioned Kindle free availability, b) it is an AS text, c) it was written by a Bronte (Anne, her first novel).

A measure of the novel’s popularity is that it has never been adapted for television and screen. For good reasons – very little happens. We expect, from Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, for Bronte leading female characters to have some spirit, if not spunk, but Agnes is limp, passive, and dull. She gets her man in the end, but doesn’t really deserve him, AB simply rewarding patience and virtue with a predictable long foreseen happy ending which is a complete anti-climax. With most Bronte novels it’s not really about the destination, more about the journey, but with Agnes there is little if any self discovery or personal growth. Some novels deserve to be forgotten, not disinterred to torture A level students, when there is so much great literature out there waiting to be read and discovered. Sorry Anne.
Now I should end there, but I feel guilty. This novel must have some redeeming features, surely, and it is my self appointed task to seek them out. There’s a natural instinct to be protective towards Anne, a romantic figure over-shadowed by her sisters, dying tragically at a young age, a compelling part of the Bronte mythology. ( Forgive me, but I can’t resist mentioning here the academic discoveries of that great critic Mr Meyerburg who postulated, indeed demonstrated, that Bramwell was in fact the author of all the “Bronte sisters’ novels”, and that his alcoholism was all a heroic act to disguise the dissolute nature of his siblings.)

Agnes Grey, simply put, is juvenilia. It is an author learning her craft, using autobiography as material. No-one could possibly criticise Anne for writing this, following a path taken by many authors, but that doesn’t make the novel any more readable.