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Elizabeth McKinney

Dr. Kanwit
British Novel
Working Hard or Hardly Working?
The Question of Womens Professions in the Victorian Age
Today, many females like to joke about getting their MRS. degree: they attend college in
order to find a husband and their biggest goal is to become a housewife. In the nineteenth
century, women were born into this degree. In Victorian society, a woman had two roles: to be a
wife and to be a mother and they were trained from their early years for this. The women who
accepted these roles gracefully were considered angels of the household while the women who
either refused or were not able to devote themselves to the positions were labeled fallen
women. While reading Anne Brontes novel Agnes Grey, I realized that it is more than a story
about one girls governing experiences: it is the story of an early feminists struggle to overcome
societys standards, and her ultimate defeat. Agnes starts working as a governess in order to
support her family, but her parents refuse her support and eventually, she marries a wealthy man
the average Victorian womans biggest dreamfor love, all the while managing to keep the
morals her family instilled in her.
In the Victorian era, women had very specific feminine roles, and they were expected to
adhere to these expectations, but these expectations began to slowly change as the end of the age
edged nearer. In the earlier years, though, as stated in the article Instructive Sufficiency: ReReading the Governess Through Agnes Grey by Dara Rossman Regaignon, a successful
governess is one that can teach, or train, her charges how to become marriageable (99). Women
werent supposed to do anything other than find the most advantageous marriage and then be a

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fertile mother. Along with these roles, women were considered to fit into two categories; they
were either angels in the household or fallen women, at least at the beginning of the time
period. As the Victorian age continued on, however, women and their professions became more
masculine, according to Kerstin Fests article Angels in the House or Girl Power: Working
Women in Nineteenth-Century Novels and Contemporary Chick Lit (43). It was considered
unfeminine for females to work because it made them visible, buyable, a commodity (Fest
43). Agnes Grey enforces this by describing Mary trying to sell her paintings. Her mother tells
her she needs to find a liberal picture-dealer in order to sell her watercolors (Bronte 10).
Women were supposed to have the capability to draw, or sing, or paint, or sew, but they were not
supposed to make a profit off of these talents.
This of course was a problem for the lower classes. For the wealthy, it was no problem
for the women to participate in only leisure activities, because the men brought in copious
amounts of money. The poorer families needed as much of an income as they could get, which is
why so many women tried to find work. In this regard especially, the upper classes looked down
upon the lower classes with disdain. Since women were not supposed to work, but so many
families needed the women to work in order to survive, these women were forced to take jobs
that were considered shameful or masculine. Although many women found jobs as governesses
or maids, a large number turned to thieving or prostitution, which encouraged society to portray
the wealthy as the kinder class, while the poor people were harsh or cruel and dirty and should be
avoided, at the very least.
Agnes Grey gives a very different impression of the social classes and in many ways
serves as a critique of this societal standard. The people in the upper class are rude and selfish,
the best example of a bad person anyone could find. Charlotte Bronte said none but those

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who had been in the position of a governess could ever realize the dark side of respectable
human nature (qtd. in Davies 84). Agnes tells the story of her experiences with the wealthy
families she works for as a governess, revealing this very different nature of the upper class than
readers get from other novels, fiction or non-fiction. While Agnes describes her own family, the
reader sees a family that is helpful, humble, and supportive. They are kind to everyone they come
into contact with, selfless, and treat animals wella theme that plays a role in many Victorian
novels and serves to reveal the character of people in the novels: the better you treat animals, the
better person you are.
The criticism Agnes Grey gives of the upper class is clear, but the criticism of the
treatment of governesses is simultaneously crystal clear and contradictory. The wealthy parents
had no interest in caring for their own children, so they handed that task over to a governess. The
position of a governess was thought of as the middle ground between women not working and
women having masculine jobs: it would not compromise these womens middle class morals
and status of ladies (Fest 54). Governesses were considered beneficial to a family, but at the
same time, being a governess was considered the lowest job a woman could hold with a family;
this excludes professions outside of the household, such as prostitution. According to Regaignon,
the ideal governesss most significant qualities were her ability to make her presence
unnoticeable and her influence over the children a perfect extension of their parents (85).
Wealthy parents expected their governess to play a pivotal role in the upbringing of their
children, but they required the governess to set aside her own opinions, beliefs, and teachings in
favor of their own, as if a governess should be transparent enough to let the parents teachings
show through her, while still giving the impression that they were the governesss own teachings.
Parents seemed to think children would be more likely to listen and comply to a strangers

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instruction than their own parents. This attitude is a prominent consequence of wealth. The
upper class sees the lower classes as invisible, so they expect their governesses to be the same.
This theory is clear in Agness accounts of her positions with the two families she worked
for. The first family Agnes stays with, the Bloomfields, are a fairly dysfunctional family. They
have trouble communicating, dont discipline their children, are selfish, and allow the boy, Tom,
to torture animalsthey encourage it, actually. Agnes has to constantly remind herself Patience,
Firmness, and Perseverance are her only weapons against the terrors she faces while staying
with this family (26). When Agnes stops Tom from torturing birds, she is reprimanded by Mr.
and Mrs. Bloomfield, as well as uncle Robson. Tom knows this will happen, and he argues with
Agnes before she kills the birds. It is not his verbal argument as much as his physical stance that
is truly revealing about his attitude.
You shant touch one of them! No, not one for your lives! continued he, exultantly,
laying the nest on the ground, and standing over it, with his legs wide apart, his hands
thrust into his breeches-pockets, his body bent forward, and his face twisted into all
manner of contortions in the ecstasy of his delight. (Bronte 44)
This quote, describing his body language, reveals his feeling of dominance and superiority over
Agnes (Davies 86). Tom has been brought up by his parents to be hateful towards Agnes,
because, as a lower class governess, she is beneath him. He continues to learn this when his
parents expect Agnes to have complete control over the children, even though she is told multiple
times that she isnt allowed to discipline or even raise her voice at them. She is given no power
to control the children, so they have no respect for her. This hypocrisy is ultimately why Agnes is
fired from this position.
The second family she stays with, the Murrays, are very similar to the Bloomfields in
some ways. The parents are especially cruel towards Agnes, giving her less respect than they
give their servants. Rosalie, the eldest daughter, is snobby, shallow, and pretentious, focusing all

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of her efforts into making men fall in love with her, and although she does try to befriend Agnes,
it is only for the sake of her own ego, because she considers herself to be above Agnes. Matilda,
the younger daughter, is the very definition of a tomboy, which was of course looked down upon
in the 1800s just as much as prostitution was looked down upon. Matilda enjoys hunting with her
fathers acquaintances, swearing, and hurting animals. Mrs. Murray wants Agnes to break
Matilda of these masculine habits in order to make her more like Rosalie, so Matilda can find a
suitable husband:
For the girls, she seemed anxious only to render them as superficially attractive, and
showily accomplished . . . and I was to act accordinglyto . . . strive to amuse and
oblige, instruct, refine, and polish, with the least possible exertion on their part and no
exercise of authority on mine. (Bronte 60).
Mrs. Murray instructs Agnes in the above quote and tells her several other times that she should
not do or say anything that would make it seem like Agnes was putting herself above her pupils,
which would be unacceptable at the time. Today, teachers are given almost completely free reign
over their students, because students learn best in a controlled environment with set expectations,
rules, and consequences.
The expectation for governesses to be invisible is especially clear while Agnes is staying
with the Murray family. Agnes walks behind the sisters and their company to and from the
church, far enough away that she cannot hear their conversation or look like she is trying to, but
close enough to show she is not ashamed to be seen with the family. No one in the group pays
any attention to her at all. Another example deals with Mr. Hatfield, the pastor. He walks the
Murraysmostly for Rosalieout to their carriage after the services on Sundays, and will help
the women into the carriage, but he always shuts the door before Agnes can get in. Even after the
family corrects him, he turns away without any acknowledgement of Agnes.

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Agnes struggles with both of these positions because she was raised in a poor, altruistic,
loving family that cares for other people and animals. Agness troubles are threefold: she wants
to bring money home to her family in a society that doesnt accept most women working, she
doesnt want to give up her morals and beliefs to teach what her employers want her to teach,
and the parents in both families wont give her the opportunity to gain enough influence over the
children to have any significant impact. She fights these troubles by remaining morally sound
and superior and by retaining her ability to be caring and sympathetic (Fest 46).
This is where Agness triumphs and failures become blatantly obvious to the reader. She
is largely unsuccessful as a governess. Her first charges, Tom, Mary Ann, and Fanny, arent
affected by Agness instructions at all. Rosalie and Matilda Murray are, for the most part,
uninfluenced by Agnes as well. Rosalie does seem to repent somewhat after she marries Lord
Ashby, because she realizes he is an awful man and she is not happy with him. She remains
shallow and materialistic, however, and cannot care for her own child because of these
shortcomings. Matilda, too, changes slightly, becoming fairly more lady-like, at least in her
manners (Bronte 173). Unfortunately, Agnes did not sway them enough to change their
characters into true ladieskind, caring, selfless, and humble, like Agnes and her sister. Agness
biggest failure is when she breaks her own rule, or even her mantra, of perseverance. After Agnes
goes home when her father dies, Rosalie marries, but Matilda remains unchanged. Agnes refuses
to return to the Murray household to finish Matildas education. In other words, she gives up on
changing the world through her charges.
Agness beliefs parallel the later beliefs of feminists, and Anne Bronte effectively fits a
feminist theme into her novel. Agnes ignores the stereotypes of angels versus fallen women and
becomes both. She takes on the lowest female profession and remains true to her morals and

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traditions as much as she can. She refuses to bend to the will of her employers when her beliefs
are tested. She becomes independent from her family and refuses to marry a man just because he
is wealthy or because his position will advance her social class. Instead, she marries a man
because she loves him, and they spend their life together as a team rather than as dominant
husband and submissive wife. Agnes broke the mold in the Victorian age and the influence of her
example can be seen in many feminist works of literature since Agnes Grey was published,
which could be considered Agness greatest success in the novel.

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Works Cited
Bronte, Anne. Agnes Grey. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.
Davies, Stevie. "'Three Distinct and Unconnected Tales': The Professor, Agnes Grey, and Wuthering
Heights." The Cambridge Companion to the Bronts. Ed. Heather Glen. Cambridge, U.K.:
Cambridge UP, 2002. 72-98. Print.
Fest, Kerstin. "Angels in the Household or Girl Power: Working Women in Nineteenth-Century Novels
and Contemporary Chick Lit." Women's Studies 38.1 (2009): 43-62. Ebscohost. Web.
Rossman Regaignon, Dara. "Instructive Sufficiency: Re-Reading the Governess Through Agnes
Grey." Victorian Literature and Culture 29.1 (2001): 85-108. Cambridge Journals Online. 9 Jan.
2002. Web.