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Agnes Grey is the debut novel of English author Anne Brontë, first published in December 1847, and republished in a second edition in 1850. The novel follows Agnes Grey, a governess, as she works within families of the English gentry. Scholarship and comments by Anne's sister Charlotte Brontë suggest the novel is largely based on Anne Brontë's own experiences as a governess for five years. Like her sister Charlotte's novel Jane Eyre, it addresses what the precarious position of governess entailed and how it affected a young woman.
The choice of central character allows Anne to deal with issues of oppression and abuse of women and governesses, isolation and ideas of empathy. An additional theme is the fair treatment of animals. Agnes Grey also mimics some of the stylistic approaches of bildungsromans, employing ideas of personal growth and coming to age, but representing a character who in fact does not gain in virtue.
The Irish novelist George Moore praised Agnes Grey as "the most perfect prose narrative in English letters," and went so far as to compare Anne's prose to that of Jane Austen. Modern critics have made more subdued claims admiring Agnes Grey with a less overt praise of Brontë's work than Moore.
Agnes Grey is the daughter of a minister of modest means. Mr. Grey decides to try to gain more wealth so as to give his wife somewhat of what she lost when she married him. But the merchant that he entrusts his money to, dies in a wreck, and Mr. Grey loses all the money he invested, plunging the Greys in debt.
Agnes, her sister, Mary, and their mother all try to keep expenses low and to bring in extra money, but Agnes is frustrated that everyone treats her like a child. To prove herself and to earn money, she is determined to get a position as a governess, teaching children of rich families. Eventually, she gets a recommendation for a good family, a position, and her parents' permission. With some misgivings, she travels to Wellwood house to work for the Bloomfield family.
The Bloomfield family is rich and is much crueller than Agnes has envisioned. Mrs. Bloomfield spoils her children while Mr. Bloomfield constantly finds fault with Agnes's work. The children are unruly and Agnes is given no authority over them so that she cannot control them. Tom, the oldest Bloomfield child, is actually abusive, but nothing Agnes can do can stop the boy from torturing small animals. In less than a year, Agnes is relieved of her position, since Mrs. Bloomfield thinks that her children are not learning fast enough. Agnes returns home.