The frist 1/4th of the book is concerned exclusively with Agnes’s misfortunes in childhood education and it raises some very interesting questions about it – some deliberately (like the status of governesses and the role of the parent as the figure of authority who needs to back them up, and the effects of spoiling children without giving a thought to discipline or building their character), and some, I think, quite unwittingly – like the thoroughly detrimental effect of a severely hierarchised society, in which a person cannot gain any authority, even over small children, unless she is born within their class or higher. No wonder Agnes couldn’t get the Bloomfield children to mind her – they had no respect for her, because why would they? They grew up believing in the divine order of the class system, and under that order, they were inherently superior to her and she had to obey them, not the other way around. Ironically, Ms. Bronte seems to support that view, when she puts some very telling words in the mouth of Agnes’s mother, who is basically flawless – Ms. Grey blames her daughter’s failure with her first situation on the class of the people who hired her, calling them „purse-proud tradesmen and arrogant upstarts“ – that is, they’re not real gentry. And real gentry, supposedly, would treat inferiors better because of their better breeding. In my opinion, the very detailed descriptions of Agnes’s earnest efforts with her pupils yielding no results are in direct opposition of that conviction and in fact make a strong case for the opposite – as long as one set of people believe themselves to have a natural or god-given right to rule over others, to be superior over others, there is no way to ensure any degree of respect or authority for educational figures from the lower classes – which is inevitable where such figures come from. Thus we witness an educational philosophy which is doomed to fail by its very conception.
And it’s not just education. In her social critique, which is sober and well-placed, Anne Bronte criticises character and upbringing but stops short of criticising social class or any sort of hierarchisation. On the contrary, she asserts the rightfulness of the social system she lives in by, ironically, complaining about being ignored and disrespected by people who are her social equals (or almost equals) – squires and ladies. She feels she’s not given her due and condemns such neglect while simultaneously criticising the lack of respect, sense and propriety found in young people from the upper classes. You’re left with the impression she’s not happy with the class system but only because she doesn’t have enough social power within it.
As for the love story, I tend to agree with the criticisms I’ve read about it – it’s boring and devoid of any drama, desperation, cruelly dashed hopes or even some uncertainty to make it exciting. And when you compare Edward Weston to Mr. Rochester and especially to Heathcliffe, it’s like they were written by people in different eras instead of contemporaries, much less sisters who lived together.
Both Agnes and Weston are boringly perfect and have nary a flaw to share between them, which makes their love story sound like a sermon, and Agnes’s voice in general sounds gratingly sanctimonious at times, when she observes the lesser humans she’s forced to interact with. She also spends a considerable amount of the book feeling sorry about herself because she can’t read her letters at her leisure and she’s ignored by her pupils most of the time.
I found a curious gem halfway through though – Agnes is totally friendzoned in Chapter 16 – she deserves him because she’s the only one who will appreciate him and make him happy! The hot chick will only ruin his happiness! It’s so amusing to find this brotastic way of thinking in a Victorian lady.
This was an audiobook, by Librivox. It was a very good dramatisation.