August 17th, 2011
I love to travel by train. Even though Amtrak no longer has a real club car (the kind where you can get a chocolate malted in a real glass), I still seek out the vestigial “cafe car,” squint my eyes, and pretend I can hear the chink of flatware on the railroad’s monogrammed china. The swaying movement of the train is a perfect accompaniment for my frequently racing thoughts, and I rarely feel so comfortable reading, writing, or just daydreaming as I do while on a train.
Last weekend, on my way to Wilmington, Delaware, I whiled away the two hour trip with a crocheted edge for my next petticoat and a copy of Anne Bronte’s debut novel, Agnes Grey. I finished the book on the way home, a few days later. It was a quick, pleasant read. Nothing terribly moving or deep, but sweet and charming for a purely personal reason: namely, my great-great grandmother was called Agnes Grey.
Anne Bronte, sketched by one of her sisters
Agnes Grey was first published in 1847 as the third volume to Wuthering Heights, by sister Charlotte. It was credited to Acton Bell, Anne’s masculine nom de plume. The story follows its titular character from her sheltered youth as the daughter of a clergyman who falls on hard times, through her two difficult posts as governess to bourgeois families, and to a happy, yet obvious conclusion. Like many novels of its time, Agnes Grey promises to reveal the seamy side for the general moral benefit of its readers. However the revelations are hardly shocking, and it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Agnes, who is diffident to the point of simpering.
I can only hope my own Agnes Grey (the daughter of decayed Scottish nobility whose family immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1840s) had a little more spunk.