First published in 1847, this novel was Anne Brontë’s first and thought to be her most autobiographical. It is the story a young woman who works as a governess to help support her family. Through the course of the novel she is employed in two different families, however her experiences of dealing with spoiled and ignorant children (and employers) is similar in both households.
At the second household Agnes becomes more friendly with her two pupils, Rosalie and Matilda Murray. They adore Agnes, though at times they treat her worse than a servant. As the novel is written in first person, we assume that we are also hearing Anne Brontë's thoughts on the duty of a governess (to submit and oblige), the role of the student (to consult their own pleasure), and the irony of physical beauty (it is usually given to those who make the least use of it). This last point, physical beauty, especially excites her contemplation when the vain Rosalie discovers Agnes' feelings for the curate Mr Weston. Rosalie then tries to prove that she can win him for herself, even though she has no intention of reciprocating his feelings. Agnes is stoic yet broken-hearted at this turn of events, and she quietly condemns the vice of her pupil through her perfect prose: "Excessive vanity, like drunkenness, hardens the heart, enslaves the faculties, and perverts the feelings."
Agnes Grey is a short novel, flawlessly written, and brazenly simple. There are no monsters, castles, or plot twists lurking in dark corners. It is, however, a novel you can't put down until you know Agnes is safe and happy. One of the final scenes in which a certain gentleman seeks our heroine on a windswept beach in the early morning hours is one of the most poignant I've read. Coincidentally, a recent review of Agnes Grey at Vintage Reads also mentions this beach scene and describes it as romantic as anything written by Anne Brontë's sisters.
Also coincidentally, I am now reading one of Charlotte Brontë's later novels, Shirley. In this novel she introduces a character named Agnes Grey. I am perplexed at this decision, as this character in no way resembles the Agnes Grey of Anne Brontë's novel. In fact, her story more resembles that of Helen Graham from Anne Brontë's second and more dramatic novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.